December 3, 1862 (Wednesday)
The cat was out of the bag. Confederate General Thomas Hindman needed his plans of attacking Federals under James Blunt at Cane Hill, Arkansas to be kept secret until the very eve of the attack. His Army of the West had to trod seventy-five miles north to make the assault. He hoped to catch Blunt and his 5,000 troops unawares and isolated. If the Union commander caught wind of the Rebel approach, enemy reinforcements would be called in.
Hindman had already crossed his army of 12,000 at Fort Smith to Van Buren, on the other side of the Arkansas River. There, they had collected themselves and, on the morning of this date, began their march north. Twelve hours previous to stepping off, seventy-five miles away, General Blunt uncovered the news of Hindman’s plot.
The information didn’t come from one solitary source, but from myriad scouts, spies and Unionist locals. Oddly, Blunt’s information, while ultimately correct, was simply wrong. His scouts informed him that 25,000 Rebels under Hindman were twenty-five miles away. How they came up with this is anybody’s guess, but on the morning of this date, Blunt expected an attack.
Blunt quickly penned three dispatches. Though outnumbered five to one (according to his incorrect sources), he decided to stay and fight. His messenger reached the nearest telegraph office at Pea Ridge, fifty-six miles north of Cane Hill, around 8am and relayed the news.
The first message was to General James Totten, who had been commanding the other wing of the Union Army of the Frontier. He had been at Springfield, but Blunt, having been out of communication with him for two weeks, had no real idea where he was. He also had no idea that Totten was no longer in command. Francis Herron, having returned from a bit of rest after an eye infection, was now commanding the other wing of Blunt’s Army of the Frontier. Anyway, Blunt told whomever it was in charge that Hindman was coming soon, he was planning to stay, and that it would great if he could get some help.
The next message went to General Samuel Curtis, commander of the Department of Missouri. Blunt informed him of Hindman’s advance and that he wanted both wings to come together quickly because he wasn’t leaving Cane Hill without a fight.
The last dispatch went to Col. M. LaRue Harrison, commanding the First Arkansas Cavalry (US) at Elkhorn Tavern. He and his band were tasked with keeping Telegraph Road open so that the other wing of Blunt’s Army could make good time.
Believing that he was to be attacked by 25,000 troops who had been but twenty-five miles away the previous night, Blunt prepared for battle. The camp was disassembled and his men marched out to the defenses protecting every conceivable approach to Cane Hill. While there, they watched for the Rebels, prepared their positions, got rather bored, played some cards, wrote some letters, and, when the enemy never showed up, marched went back to their camps, set up their tents and got ready to do it all over again the next day.
General Curtis, however, wasn’t so thrilled at Blunt’s refusal to leave Cane Hill without a fight. “You are too far in advance for support and supplies,” warned Cooper. “Had better fall back to meet Herron’s reinforcements….” Curtis also ordered General Herron to go forward to meet Blunt as he fell back.
Herron replied to Blunt that he would start his column off at noon, but that the distance was so great “that it may be necessary for you to fall back a short distance, but I will do my best to make that unnecessary.”
It would have to be unnecessary. Blunt was not about to fall back. But it wasn’t that Blunt was too stupid to know when the odds were against him. While defending Cane Hill was Plan A, he had a Plan B ready to go. Should the Rebels hit him where he expected them to, on the road from Van Buren, he felt that his division could hold them at least until Herron arrived. But if the Rebels came at him from a different direction, he had an escape route, and would fall back as far as he had to.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, Part 1, p805-806; Fields of Blood by William L. Shea. [↩]