December 8, 1862 (Monday)
The Confederate withdrawal from the battlefield at Prairie Grove, Arkansas was ordered before midnight. General Thomas Hindman, commanding the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, claimed a Southern victory, retaining every inch of the ground he defended against the Union Army of the Frontier. But such a victory was hollow. He had little ammunition and no forage for the animals, who were already dying from cold and starvation.
The retreat, while orderly, was not a bold one. Confederate artillerists sacrificed their own blankets to wrap around the wheels of cannon and caisson to muffle the sound of the metal tires rumbling over the frozen ground.
As the hours wore on, the battlefield fell silent. The wails and moans of the wounded pleading for help had stopped. Some had been cared for, but many had frozen to death. Hindman realized that his army of 10,000 could not fully retreat before first light and sent his cavalry officer, John Marmaduke, to broker and agreement for a cease fire.
When Marmaduke entered Union lines under a flag of truce, he asked to speak with James Blunt, the Federal commander. When asked the purpose for the visit, he spat back that he was wondering when the Yankees “were going to surrender.” This little quip caused him to be arrested and blindfolded and taken to Blunt’s headquarters.
Blunt finally agreed to a meeting with Marmaduke and Hindman himself, which happened around 9am. Hindman suggested that thirty-six hours would be enough for both sides to collect their wounded and dead. Blunt, seeing through Hindman’s thinly-veiled ruse, thought that six might be a better number. Hindman agreed after doing a bit of math. Six hours from when the meeting broke up was dusk. He had bought his army an entire day to retreat.
Stretcher-bearers, both Northern and Southern, took to the field, plying their grizzly trade, trudged the half-frozen ground turned pasty with blood. Wives and sisters who had fled from the paths of the two armies about to clash were returning with the silence.
They searched for brothers or husbands, sometimes finding both lying dead within yards of each other. Many of the Arkansas Rebels were from the Fayetteville area, and most of the houses near the battlefield had lost at least one dearly beloved.
In another part of the small battlefield, some strawstacks had caught fire, burning the bodies of the nearby dead. The smell of charred flesh brought out the hogs, which rooted through the debris for whatever bits of human remains they could find. As mothers and daughters walked the battlefield searching for their husbands and fathers, the pigs fought over limbs, hearts and intestines.
And while the pigs consumed what they could, some of Marmaduke’s men violated the truce by collecting as many guns and as much ammunition from the battlefield as they could. When General Blunt learned of this, he had the men arrested. When it continued, he sent the offenders north with the rest of the prisoners of war (soon to be exchanged).
The Confederates dug a long trench for their dead and stacked them like cord wood, two or three deep. With a few shovels-full of dirt, they called the task completed, though feet and hands poked through to the air.
Clearly in a rush to leave, the Rebels left many of their dead unburied and their wounded in the hands of the Yankees. In two days, they would be forty-five miles south at Van Buren, across the Boston Mountains, along the Arkansas River. Blunt would remain near the battlefield for two more weeks.1
- Sources: Fields of Blood by William Shea; Borderland Rebellion by Elmo Ingenthron; Civil War on the Western Border by Jay Monaghan. [↩]