December 7, 1862 (Sunday)
Before the cold Sabbath dawned, Confederate General Hindman began to falter. He knew that the Yankee force was divided and he, with superior numbers, was about to defeat both in turn near a little intersection in Prairie Grove, Arkansas. But still, something wasn’t right.
To the south was James Blunt’s wing of the Union Army of the Frontier. He had planned on attacking them, but when he caught wind of the other Federal wing, under Francis Herron, coming from the north, he decided to hit that one first. He left behind cavalry and a field full of empty campfires to disguise his ruse before marching north on Cove Creek Road, around Blunt’s wing, through the night.
Hindman’s fear was that Blunt, on the parallel Fayetteville Road, somehow learned of his plan. The fears were all for naught, but were no less real.
Now, at 4am, Rebel cavalry commanded by John Marmaduke was near Prairie Grove, a small outcropping of houses a few miles south of Fayetteville. His only job was to keep the two Federal wings from uniting. He also had to do something about the 7th Missouri (US) encamped at the junction of Cove Creek and Fayetteville Roads. He faced some of his troopers to the south to block Blunt should he take notice, and attacked with the rest.
Marmaduke quickly routed the unsuspecting Yankees, many of whom were sleeping. Nearly 450 of his Rebels were dressed in Union blue. When this first bunch of Federals was sent running, another Union regiment – this one from Arkansas – came to see what the fuss was about. Seeing what they thought to be friends, they quickly met the same fate as the first Union regiment, but not before an incredibly confusing fight.
More Union cavalry units joined the fray and they were equally mauled. Their commander, Joseph Shelby, was captured along with two pieces of artillery. Three hundred Yankees were taken prisoner, while nearly 250 more were killed or wounded. And the battle of Prairie Grove had only begun.
General Francis Herron, commanding the Union troops streaming south to aid Blunt, first caught sight of the retreating cavalry just north of Fayetteville. At first, he had little luck in stopping the stampede, but after shooting one of his fellow troopers off his horse, the rest calmed down a little. This was it. Herron’s men threw off their knapsacks and prepared for battle.
The previous night, Hindman and his commanders agreed to throw their entire Rebel Army of the Trans-Mississippi at Herron, crushing the Yankees coming to reinforce Blunt. Once accomplished, they would turn and give Blunt the same.
But now, Hindman relieved the council of his staff and instead took council of his fears. Rather than keep with the original plan, he echoed his cavalry, placing a brigade facing south to stop Blunt, should he catch on. The problem was the he had placed his largest brigade – 6,300 troops – around half his entire force, to meet the Federal threat that seemed not to be materializing.
With the rest of his army, he simply waited. Herron was clearly going to attack him at some point in time, and he saw no pressing need to hurry it along. There was, however, a very pressing need. Though Blunt had not yet discovered the Confederate ruse, when he did, he would come. And if Herron’s wing wasn’t routed before Blunt arrived, there would be quite a bit of hell to pay. The hours ticked by until it was well after 10am.
Meanwhile, James Blunt, holding his defenses near Cane Hill, was beginning to suspect that the thin line of Rebels in his front were a diversion. In the distance, he heard the booming of cannons. This was not good. “My God,” exclaimed Blunt, “they’re in our rear!”
The booming repeated from the mouths of Herron’s Union artillery. It had taken awhile to happen, but slowly, his gunners unlimbered their pieces and sited their Rebel counterparts. Herron had believed that only cavalry was in his front, but now discovered that it was the entire Rebel army. Faced with such numbers in opposition, he could not attack until his entire, weary and strung out force arrived from their grueling march. It wasn’t until 1pm that everything was ready. Hindman could have attacked, probably should have attacked. But never did.
Back at Cane Hill, Blunt reacted quickly to the sounds of artillery. He was elated. This whole thing couldn’t have worked out any better had he planned it. The Rebels, he discovered, had placed themselves between two converging enemy forces. All he had to do was show up, though he must do it at once.
The orders were simple, “go where they are fighting, and go quickly,” as one of Blunt’s officers put it. Some regiments rushed through the fields, while others stayed to the roads. When Blunt saw how much quicker the fields were, he yelled to a colonel on the road: “Tell the God damn fool to turn to the right and come on!” The cursing enlivened the men as they raced towards the cloud of smoke to their north.
The cloud was, of course, the battle. Herron had misjudged the Rebel position and numbers. He believed the Confederates anchored their right to the Borden House, a two-story farmhouse to his front. The truth was that the house was the center of the Rebel line. Herron sent six regiments in and they were fantastically mauled.
The fighting, which pitted perhaps 2,000 Federals against 5,000 Rebels, parried back and forth around the Borden House. “The fighting was desperate beyond description,” related Herron after the battle. So desperate was the fighting that Hindman sapped some troops from the brigade facing south, waiting for Blunt. He was confused as to why Blunt hadn’t showed, but finally decided to deal with the battle at hand.
Each time Hindman’s Rebels charged Herron’s men, though they outnumbered the Yankees, they were beaten back by the impressively accurate Union artillery composed of seventeen guns.
By 4pm, the last Confederate attack ebbed with only marginal success. Herron’s boys held most of their ground as the Rebels fell back to regroup.
This is when Blunt arrived with his 5,000 men and enough guns to bring the Union artillery total to forty-two pieces. To win the day, he first decided to attack with everything he had. As they advanced, Hindman unleashed four Confederate Arkansas regiments to counter Blunt’s left. The Rebel line broke at quite a cost to the Federals, but soon Confederate reinforcements were hurried to the front to face the other half of the Union attack.
The Rebels did not wait for Blunt’s men to fall upon them. They charged into the Union attack, clashing together in fits of violent rage as artillery shook the ground. For what seemed like years, though it was, perhaps, only twenty minutes, each side killed and bled and died. But here was a stalemate.
To break it, the Rebels tried one last bayonet charge, surging down a slope into the foe. Thousands of Confederates came screaming. Knowing that his infantry could not stand such an assault, he ordered his artillery to pour deadly canister fired into the Rebel ranks. Many fell in a tangled and bloody mess.
Still, Blunt’s men were not safe. They had attacked and they had failed. The Confederate counterattack was throw backwards, but the battle was clearly not yet at an end.
The day, however, was. The winter sun set around 5pm, casting a dimness over the writhing battlefield. It was through this dusk that the last Confederate attack came. The Union artillery had slackened, which seemed to draw the Rebels forward. But when they came within 100 yards, every Union gun that could be brought to bear exploded upon the enemy.
Half of the attacking Rebels begged off, while the other did their best to hold. But it was all too much and they slowly retreated.
Now, the only light on the field was from bursting artillery shells and muzzle blasts, but soon even those were put out. The battle was over and the losses were frightening.
Out of the 9,000 or so Federals engaged in the fighting, over 1,200 were wounded or killed. The Confederates brought 11,000 men to the fight and would leave with 1,300 less.
The Confederates under Hindman had not actually lost the battle, but their campaign was over. Hindman had only been able to bring with him enough ammunition for one battle, and this was it. He had no means of reopening it the following day. He was faced with no other option but to retreat.1
- Sources: Civil War on the Western Border by Jay Monaghan; Borderland Rebellion by Elmo Ingenthron; Fields of Blood by William L. Shea. [↩]