November 28, 1862 (Friday)
General John Marmaduke and his Confederate cavalry were out on a limb. Fifty miles north of the Rebel base at Fort Smith, Arkansas, he had a plan to isolate and destroy the Federal command under James Blunt located twenty miles farther north. This, he figured, could best be done by urging the rest of the Confederate troops at Fort Smith to hurry along to his aide. Meanwhile, he had learned that a regiment of Unionist Arkansas troops were stationed near the old Pea Ridge battlefield. Instead of waiting for the Rebel infantry and artillery to show up, he decided to take action.
By the 27th, he was ready to ride out. His men, however, were not, and so he postponed the excursion until the morning of this day. But that never happened either.
Union General James Blunt, contrary to Marmaduke’s thinking, was neither isolated nor ready to be destroyed. When Blunt learned that Marmaduke and 2,000 Rebel cavaliers were at Cane Hill, twenty miles south of this camp, he decided to gear up, meet them and toss them back into the Boston Mountains. Believing that there were upwards of 8,000 enemy troops, he boldly marched out on the 27th with 5,000 men.
Over the night, Marmaduke caught wind that a strong contingent of Union infantry, artillery and cavalry were on the march towards Cane Hill. Immediately, he sent the supply wagons across the mountains and prepared his defenses.
There were two roads that led to the Confederate position on Cane Hill. The first was Fayetteville Road, the main thoroughfare coming in from the northeast. Right away this was dismissed. The Federals hadn’t been spotted anywhere near it. The other road was the smaller Cincinnati Road. Since reports placed Blunt at the small village of Cincinnati, Marmaduke figured the attack would come from the northwest using this road.
Blunt had been in Cincinnati, but anticipated that Marmaduke had anticipated the Union attack would come from Cincinnati. Instead, Blunt led his command to a small wagon road that just happened to connect to the Fayetteville Road a few miles north of the Rebel position. Marmaduke had no idea.
Though the Rebels left the Fayetteville Road undefended, there were several picket posts in the area. With the crackle of musketry, the arrival of Blunt’s attack drove the pickets back towards the ill-positioned Rebel line. Marmaduke’s line faced mostly north and was caught on the flank by Blunt’s troops advancing from the northeast. There was nothing the Confederates could do but run.
Union artillery played upon them, and a few Rebels even tried to make a stand in the streets of the small village of Boonsboro. Marmaduke sent much of his force to the rear in an attempt to protect the supply wagons. Left to stand against the Yankees were two small cannons and about 400 men. The Union artillery made quick work of the Rebels guns and the rest of the Southern cavalry followed Marmaduke, hardly having a chance to put up a fight.
Rather than retreating farther south along the Fayetteville Road, the Confederates veered off on Van Buren Road, a few miles south of Boonsboro. There, while the wagons made their way into the mountains, Marmaduke secured a formidable defensive position. It was practically a fort in and of itself. When Blunt with his lead elements got a look at it, he decided to wait for the rest of his command to catch up.
This was going to take awhile. After scattering the Rebels, Blunt’s command was itself scattered. Having mostly artillery on hand, he unlimbered ten guns and began to pound away at the Rebel precipice. Marmaduke returned some hopeful, but ineffective fire. Several rounds later, the Rebels began their withdrawal.
Enough time had elapsed that a good portion of Blunt’s command had joined him. When he saw that Marmaduke was retreating, he ordered a pursuit. From here on out, the battle was one of constant skirmishing as the Rebels backed slowly away.
After three miles of this, Marmaduke decided to make another stand. He had found Reed’s Mountain, a rocky and wooded escarpment that he believed would hold off Blunt for a while. He was mistaken.
Seeing that Reed’s Mountain could only be taken by a frontal assault, he selected the 3rd Regiment Indian Home Guard to make the charge. Made up mostly of Unionist Cherokees, they picked their way up the slope, hiding behind trees to fire. Two Kansas regiments covered their flanks as the foliage hid the enemy.
The attack was not a charge. The slope was too steep and the advance too slow. Several times it stalled and the 3rd Indian was forced to drag their small mountain howitzers to the front and spray the barely-seen enemy with canister fire.
The relentless assault finally wore down Marmaduke and his Rebels. With their ammunition low, he decided that he was whipped. He ordered another withdrawal and the chase was on. Union cavalry nipped at the heels of the retreating Confederates, but the sun was dipping towards the horizon.
Just at dusk, Blunt and 250 of his men dashed into the Rebel rear guard, but the Southerners had been waiting in ambush. This stopped the Federals in their tracks and the pursuit was at an end. Soon, Marmaduke sent a message to Blunt under a flag of truce. He called for a ceasefire so both sides could see to the wounded. Reluctantly, suspecting it was merely a ploy that would allow the Rebels to make good their escape, Blunt agreed.
He was correct. Soon after the ceasefire went into effect, the Rebels scurried into the Boston Mountains. Losses were surprisingly light, with the Federals claiming 8 killed and 36 wounded. The Confederates recorded 10 killed and 70 wounded or missing.
Neither side admitted defeat and by the next morning Marmaduke was ready to go after Blunt, who made Cane Hill his headquarters. General Thomas Hindman, commander of the Confederate troops in Arkansas, hurried a regiment and ammunition to the front.
Blunt’s Cane Hill position finally gave Marmaduke what he wanted. The Federals were now very isolated, being over 100 miles from the nearest support in Springfield, Missouri. Figuring that so much was true, Marmaduke urged Hindman to do more than simply send a regiment. He wanted the entire Army of the Trans-Mississippi to hit Blunt at Cane Hill.
((Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, Part 1, p43-58; Fields of Blood by William L. Shea.))