The Armies of the Frontier – Stirring on the Arkansas/Missouri Border

October 17, 1862 (Friday)

General Thomas Hindman knew what to do.

Since the battle of Pea Ridge, on March 6th and 7th, the state of Arkansas had been overrun by Yankee troops commanded by Samuel Curtis, following his victory after the battle.

It was during this Federal campaign that Confederate General Thomas Hindman took over the Confederate Trans-Mississippi District (Arkansas, Missouri and Indian Territory/Oklahoma). By the end of the Federal raids, the Northern troops held only the Mississippi River town of Helena, which they would have conquered by gunboats even if Curtis had not been in the state.

While the large raid netted little territory, it threw Arkansas and Indian Territory into a frenzy. Unionist sentiment blossomed and defections from the Southern cause by whites and Natives alike was a serious problem for Hindman.

Theophilus Holmes didn’t, but deferred to Hindman.

General Hindman was a pragmatic true believer in this war for Southern independence. He understood that war meant sacrifices. He also understood that since the wealthy had more to sacrifice than the common citizenry, the wealthy necessarily had to sacrifice more. When he commandeered their slaves and burned their cotton so it would not fall into Federal hands, they were outraged, and waged a war of their own with letters to Richmond.

President Davis, himself one of the wealthiest of Southern men, agreed. Hindman was clearly overstepping his authority. And so, Davis decided to place General Theophilus Holmes in command over the wayward Hindman. Holmes was hardly a distinguished soldier and practically begged Davis not to send him as he didn’t feel he was up to the task.

Thankfully for Holmes, the task had already been completed. When he arrived in Little Rock and had his talks with Hindman, he discovered that all the privations actually netted real results. In his ranks were more than 20,000 men who had simply not been there three months before. The army was healthy and, though dispersed by necessity, poorly equipped and trained, was ready to fight.

Holmes wrote back to President Davis, explaining how the complaints of the wealthy were baseless and that Hindman had done much more good than bad. Begrudgingly, Davis agreed, but demanded that martial law be dropped. Still, Hindman and Holmes seemed to get along well. By September, Hindman was at Fort Smith assembling his army for a push into Missouri, in hopes of liberating the state.

John Schofield – the West’s McClellan?

Soon, 6,000 men were marching north for the state line, hoping to add their organized weight to the guerrilla fighters. They crossed into Missouri and set up camp with the Southern militia near Pineville in the southwest corner of the state.

Without Hindman with him in Little Rock, however, Holmes was completely lost. He tried to find someone to replace him, but it didn’t work out. And so, just as Hindman was about to launch his small campaign towards Springfield, Missouri, Holmes ordered him to leave his command in Pineville and return to Little Rock. Hindman was dumbfounded, but obeyed, leaving his command hanging onto that tiny corner of Missouri without him. He left his men under the command of James Rains, with the order not to attack into Missouri.

Union General John Schofield had ascended to command of the Union troops in Missouri. When he learned of Hindman’s move into the state, rather than believing only 6,000 were in the Rebel ranks, he exploded the number to an unbelievable 30,000. Not only that, he believed there was a mysterious second column of equal strength about to strike from northeast Arkansas. Many other Federal officers weren’t at all convinced with Schofield’s nervous appraisal of the situation.

General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington didn’t really buy it, either. But he saw the discord in command a bad thing and so appointed Samuel Curtis to take charge of the Department of Missouri, which encompassed everything from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains.

Samuel Curtis is back!

Under Curtis were two other commanders aside from Schofield. Frederick Steele held Helena, Arkanasa, and the appropriately-named James Blunt commanded the troops in Kansas. Schofield, in Springfield, Missouri, continued to insist that 30,000 Rebels were gunning for him and that he could do nothing to assist either Steele or Blunt. By the end of September, Curtis was fed up with Schofield and requested Washington send him more experienced officers.

Though Steele in Arkansas was too far away to help with the problem in southwester Missouri, Blunt, in Kansas, was ordered to transfer his command to Fort Scott on the border, 100 miles north of the Rebel foothold.

Blunt’s command was an interesting and colorful one. It contained two regiments of freed slaves – the 1st and 2nd Kansas Colored Regiments (which were left behind at Fort Scott). Blunt had also collected three regiments of displaced Natives, who had been driven out of Indian Territory by the tribes that supported the Confederacy. With most other regiments being from Kansas, Ohio and Wisconsin, Blunt’s force numbered around 8,000. When combined with Schofield’s force, Federal numbers would hover around 14,000.

James Blunt was indeed.

Though General Rains had been ordered not to make any aggressive moves, he sent his cavalry north to Newtonia just as one of Blunt’s Federal brigades was moving through it. Surprised, they were repulsed by the Rebels. A handful of days later, both Blunt and Schofield moved more men near the town and commenced to bombard the Rebels with artillery. This threw them into a panicked rout, which, in turn, caused Rains to pull back into Arkansas.

Schofield and Blunt were determined to follow. By the end of the first week of October, they had moved their commands to Telegraph Road, a route that ran from St. Louis to Springfield, through Pea Ridge and onto Fort Smith, Arkansas. Though the autumn rains were heavy, this road allowed for faster movement. In less than a week, they were within seven miles of the Arkansas border.

Combined, the force of 14,000 or so, was reorganized into the Army of the Frontier, General Schofield commanding. Blunt would command his division, while James Totten, a crotchety veteran who probably drank too much, commanded another. The third was led by the much younger Fancis Herron, a twenty-five year old Pennsylvanian, who had been wounded and captured at Pea Ridge.

Schofield determined that his command had driven all organized Rebel forces from Missouri. He admitted that he was wrong about there being 30,000 Confederates, refiguring the total to be nearer to 15,000. He asked and received Curtis’ permission to enter Arkansas and chase them down.

Francis J. Herron – a distinguished veteran at twenty-five.

By this date, October 17, the Union Army of the Frontier was ready to cross over the border. While most soldiers were ecstatic about this, a few were then than enthused. Members of the 7th Missouri Cavalry were under the impression that their terms of enlistment provided that they only be used by the Federal government in their home state. At the border, they simply refused to go any farther.

Their colonel, Daniel Huston did his best to appeal to their sense of duty and patriotism. Some were swayed, but many stood their ground. Hoping the sword might be mightier than the tongue, four companies of Wisconsin cavalry were ordered to do what they had to do to get the mutineers to follow. This did the trick. All but one man, steadfast to the last, agreed to continue on with the army. This lone hardened fellow was allowed to stay in his beloved home state. He would show his devotion to her sacred soil by working on the fortifications of Springfield for a year without pay.

On the night of this date, the Army of the Frontier encamped on the old battlefield at Pea Ridge, four miles into Arkansas. Schofield made his headquarters at the Elkhorn Tavern, still riddled with musket balls and holes from cannon shot.

Over the next three days, the army would rest, gather supplies and tour the battlefield. General Herron led a party to the spot where he was shot and captured. The bones of his dead horse still lay where they fell. Their stay at Pea Ridge emboldened and actually enlivened the Federals. Most saw this place as hallowed, holy soil.

In a letter home, an Iowa soldier, nearly prophesying what Abraham Lincoln would say a year later, wrote: “Their silent graves strewn over the field speak volumes to the living, and admonish us that we see to it that they died not in vain on the fatal day.”1

Here’s the map showing a few things here and there. It’s approximate, as usual.

  1. Sources: Fields of Blood, The Prairie Grove Campaign by William L. Shea; The Union Indian Brigade in the Civil War by Wiley Britton; The Civil War on the Border by Wiley Britton; Borderland Rebellion by Elmo Ingenthron. []
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The Armies of the Frontier – Stirring on the Arkansas/Missouri Border by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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2 thoughts on “The Armies of the Frontier – Stirring on the Arkansas/Missouri Border

  1. Hi, sorry to quibble, but did you mean “Since the battle of Pea Ridge, on March 6th – 8th”? Also, you write “Holmes was dumbfounded, but obeyed, leaving his command hanging onto that tiny corner of Missouri without him.” Since it was Hindman who received the order, shouldn’t that be Hindman?

    Minor points in an overall fine post covering a lesser-known corner of the war.

    1. Hi there! Correct on all counts. Sorry about that. It’s proof that you shouldn’t be your own copy editor.

      I wrote this in June. It was a post about October that referred back to March. Something was bound to give!

      Thanks for reading so closely. It’s really very appreciated.

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