November 1, 1862 (Saturday)
In the week and a half since the small battle of Old Fort Wayne, Confederate hopes for a move into Kansas from Arkansas and Indian Territory had been dashed. Douglas Cooper, who had led the Rebels that day against James Blunt’s Federals, had retreated over fifty miles south to the Arkansas River. Many of his Native troops had deserted, and the rest of his men were near starvation.
But Cooper’s wasn’t the only Confederate force in the area. As Thomas Hindman, who commanded all Rebel troops in Arkansas, had sent Cooper to move into Kansas, he retreated farther south into the Boston Mountains south of Huntsville.
For Hindman, this was a fairly safe move. Union commander John Schofield and his troops entered Huntsville, but refused to follow the Confederates into the mountains. Believing that he was too far away from his supplies at Pea Ridge, Schofield moved north, away from the Rebels, through a late October snowstorm, to Osage Spring and Cross Hollows, just south of Bentonville. While his army sat in their camps, he made his headquarters thirty some miles away at Pea Ridge.
There, he was able to communicate via telegraph with Samuel Curtis, his department commander, in St. Louis. Collecting the reports submitted by James Blunt following the battle of Old Fort Wayne, he gave Curtis his opinion on what they should do next.
Schofield believed that the Confederates that were before his column had retreated to the Arkansas River, just like the Rebels from Old Fort Wayne had done. In his estimation, both Kansas and Missouri was now completely safe from any organized Rebel force. Due to this, Schofield suggested that Blunt march to Fort Smith, where Cooper’s men were holed up, roughly eighty miles south of Old Fort Wayne. If Fort Smith was held, believed Schofield, it would demoralize the Rebels even more. For his own troops, he wanted to remain in northern Arkansas.
Curtis wasn’t excited about either idea. Blunt, he said, was to remain near Old Fort Wayne, while Schofield was to fall back even farther to Springfield, Missouri. The reason being that General-in-Chief Henry Halleck had been calling upon Curtis to supply troops for a push towards Vicksburg, Mississippi. Schofield was more or less agreeable to that idea and, on October 27, returned to his troops at Osage Spring to begin the withdrawal.
But it was not to be. Thomas Hindman, commanding the Confederates in the Boston Mountains, realized that though they had a fine defensive position, it was so out of the way that the Federals would never attack it. And so, on October 26 and 27, he began to move towards Fayetteville. If he held that town, he could move his troops wherever they were needed.
When Schofield returned to his camp, he learned that the Confederates were not far south along the Arkansas River, but less than twenty miles south near Fayetteville. Immediately Schofield decided to meet the threat. He ordered James Blunt at Old Fort Wayne to move within supporting distance and started his own column south. Blunt ignored the order, however, and Schofield was on his own.
The next morning (the 28th), Union and Confederate cavalry engaged in a small skirmish just west of the town. After a bit of preliminary firing, the Federals charged across the Middle Fork River and drove out the Rebels. They gave chase, but soon found two Confederate brigades.
Both sides called in reinforcements, but the Rebels were outnumbered. When Hindman peered across the Middle Fork, he saw that he could do nothing more. As the hours slipped by, neither side made a move. Later in the day, Hindman received word that the Federals were trying to work around his flank. Though it wasn’t true, he ordered his men to fall back into the Boston Mountains, and soon even farther, to the Arkansas River Valley.
Schofield’s stay in Fayetteville was a bit stressful. Many of the residents were Unionist, which was nice, but they were also pretty unsettled by recent events. There were plenty of rumors flying through the air, and Schofield caught a whole mess of them. The Rebels, said the townfolk, were on their way. They were closing in and ready to fight. It was all false, but how was Schofield to know?
He could have dispatched cavalry to find out, but instead, he ordered his command to fall back to their camp at Osage Springs. In a message sent to the immovable James Blunt, he warned that the Rebels were hot on his heels. Any help that could be given, must be given.
This actually moved Blunt, who quickly marched twenty miles east to link up with Schofield, bringing the entire Army of the Frontier together again.
On this date, the day after both columns joined at Osage Springs, it was discovered that the Rebels were not exactly chasing after Schofield and Blunt. Quite the opposite – Union scouts reported that Hindman and his Confederates were beyond the Boston Mountains and well on their way to the Arkansas River. In a panic, Schofield had given up Fayetteville and called Blunt to Ozarks Springs for no real reason.
“I have hoped that the rebels would come back and give us battle where we could fight them together,” wrote Schofield to Blunt on this date. “But if they will not do this we must separate and follow our respective paths of duty.”
Soon, their “respective paths of duty” would draw Blunt back to Old Fort Wayne, while Schofield would be sent scurrying to Springfield, chasing rumors of Rebels from Arkansas invading Missouri. Meanwhile, Confederates under Hindman refitted themselves for another go at things. The two wings of the Union Army of the Frontier would not be called together again until Hindman made his move.1
- Sources: Fields of Blood by William Shea; The Civil War on the Border by Wiley Britton; Borderland Rebellion by Elmo Ingenthron. [↩]