Battle of Prairie Grove
The Battle of Prairie Grove was a battle of the American Civil War fought on December 7, 1862. While tactically indecisive, the battle secured the Union control of northwestern Arkansas. A division of Union troops in the Army of the Frontier, commanded by James G. Blunt, was posted in northwestern Arkansas after winning the Battle of Cane Hill on November 28. A Confederate army commanded by Thomas Hindman moved towards Blunt’s division in order to attack while it was isolated. However, Blunt was reinforced by two divisions commanded by Francis J. Herron, leading Hindman to take a defensive position on some high ground known as Prairie Grove. Herron attempted to assault Hindman’s lines twice, but both attacks were beaten off with heavy casualties. Hindman responded to the repulse of each of Herron’s attacks with unsuccessful counterattacks of his own. Later in the day, Blunt arrived and attacked Hindman’s flank. Eventually, both sides disengaged and the fighting reached an inconclusive result. However, the unavailability of reinforcements forced Hindman’s army to retreat from the field, giving the Union army a strategic victory and control of northwestern Arkansas. Today, a portion of the battlefield is preserved within Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park.
In March 1862, a Confederate army under the command of Earl Van Dorn engaged a Union army led by Samuel Ryan Curtis at the Battle of Pea Ridge in northwestern Arkansas. Curtis’ army soundly defeated Van Dorn’s. After being defeated at Pea Ridge, Van Dorn and a substantial portion of his army were reassigned across the Mississippi River, effectively ending Confederate control of the region.
Following Pea Ridge, Curtis drove further into Arkansas and planned to attack Memphis, but was ordered by Henry Halleck to send half of his force to Cape Girardeau for transfer to Tennessee. Curtis complied and was forced to abandon his plan, instead heading towards Little Rock, Arkansas. After a defeat in a small action near Searcy, Curtis decided that his supply line was vulnerable, and fell back, eventually reaching Helena.
In September, Curtis was assigned to command the Department of the Missouri, replacing its previous commander, John M. Schofield. Curtis later formed the Army of the Frontier and appointed Schofield to command the new army on October 12. However, on November 20, Schofield was forced to give up command of the army due to medical issues, and command passed to Brig. Gen. James G. Blunt. At the time of Schofield’s relinquishment of command, Blunt’s division was in Arkansas, while the rest of the Army of the Frontier was stationed near Wilson’s Creek in Missouri, where a battle had been fought the year before.
The Confederate commander in the region, Thomas C. Hindman, had previously commanded the Trans-Mississippi Department, but his firm control of the region led to protests from prominent Arkansas civilians, leading Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, to relieve Hindman of command and replace him with Theophilus Holmes. On August 21, Holmes tasked Hindman with producing an organized army from the Confederate units in the Arkansas region and moving to regain control of Missouri for the Confederacy.
At the beginning of the Prairie Grove campaign, the Union Army of the Frontier was commanded by John M. Schofield. Schofield’s army was divided into three divisions, commanded by James G. Blunt, James Totten, and Francis Herron. Blunt’s division was known as the ‘Kansas Division’, as many of the soldiers in the division were from Kansas. The division also contained sizable numbers of African American and Native American soldiers, which made Blunt’s division unique among Union units in 1862. Totten’s and Herron’s divisions were both known as the ‘Missouri Division’, and contained men from Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Indiana. The division also contained a regiment of Arkansas cavalrymen who had remained loyal to the Union despite the secession of Arkansas.
The Confederate army present at Prairie Grove was the , commanded by Thomas Hindman. Hindman’s command was formed of four divisions: one of cavalry, two of infantry, and a mixed reserve division. The cavalry division consisted of men from Arkansas, Texas, and Confederate Missouri, and was commanded by John S. Marmaduke. Marmaduke’s division was poorly armed. The army’s two infantry divisions were commanded by Daniel M. Frost and Francis Shoup. Shoup’s division consisted of Arkansas infantrymen, while Frost’s division was mostly Missourians, although some Arkansas troops were included. The reserve division was commanded by John S. Roane, and was poorly equipped, organized, and led (Theophilus Holmes stated that Roane was “useless as a commander”). Of Hindman and his division commanders, all had previous military experience. In particular, Hindman, Frost, and Roane had all seen action in the Mexican-American War.
Maneuvering to battle
In October, Blunt’s force made an incursion into Arkansas, and Hindman sent 2,000 men under Marmaduke’s command to intercept Blunt and prevent Blunt from joining the main Union force near Springfield, Missouri. Marmaduke gathered at Cane Hill, a ridge near the Boston Mountains. In response, Blunt marched his troops 35 miles (56 km) in two days, meeting Marmaduke’s force near Canehill, Arkansas. In the ensuing Battle of Cane Hill, which took place on November 28, Blunt’s 5,000 men defeated Marmaduke’s 2,000 in a nine-hour battle.
After the Battle of Cane Hill, Hindman decided to send his entire army towards Cane Hill in order to assault Blunt. If all went according to Hindman’s plan, he would be able to assault Blunt’s position from both the front and along both flanks. However, Theophilus Holmes opposed Hindman’s plan as overly aggressive. Hindman had a forceful personality and won the argument with Holmes; the Confederate troops moved out of their camps on December 3. However, Blunt held his position at Cane Hill and called for reinforcements from Herron. On December 6, elements of the Confederate army skirmished with Blunt’s force near Reed’s Mountain. That evening, Hindman and his officers learned that Herron’s two divisions had reached Blunt.
On December 7, the Confederate divisions of Shoup and Marmaduke aligned along the length of Prairie Grove. Later that morning, Herron’s Union division reached the field, and, not suspecting that he faced a substantial portion of the Confederate army, opened up an artillery bombardment. Herron was soon joined by Totten’s division, temporarily under the command of Daniel Huston Jr. in Totten’s absence. After Herron and Huston had fully deployed their troops, Herron reopened the artillery barrage, which had paused earlier. The Confederate artillery attempted to respond, but their cannons were of inferior quality and lacked the range to properly respond. In addition, the Confederates were also short of cannon ammunition. As a result, the Union artillerymen were able to wreak havoc in the Confederate line.
Confident after watching the result of the artillery bombardment, Herron sent his two brigades, commanded by Colonel William W. Orme and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Bertram, towards the Confederate line near a farm owned by Archibald Borden. Herron’s troops made contact with the main Confederate line and one of Bertram’s regiments, the 20th Wisconsin, overran a Confederate artillery battery. However, a counterattack by elements from the brigades of James F. Fagan and Dandridge McRae (both of Shoup’s Confederate division) drove off the Wisconsin unit, and brigade commander Bertram was wounded. After the repulse of Bertram’s attack, some of Orme’s men joined in the fight, only to be driven off. An abortive Confederate counterattack was then driven off by Herron’s artillery. The two Union regiments that were the hardest engaged–Bertram’s 20th Wisconsin and Orme’s 19th Iowa–both suffered losses of approximately fifty percent.
After the defeat of Herron’s division, Huston deployed some of his men into the fray. The 26th Indiana attacked Marmaduke’s Confederate cavalry, and were driven off by a force that included Joseph O. Shelby‘s brigade and Quantrill’s Raiders. Huston ordered the 37th Illinois to charge towards the Borden house, and the Illinois soldiers experienced initial success. However, a Confederate counterattack drove the 37th Illinois back to the main Union line. Fagan and Shelby led their men further on towards Herron’s main line, and the two brigades were joined by a third under Emmett MacDonald. This attack was also defeated, as the combined fire of Herron’s artillery and the survivors of Orme’s brigade broke the Confederate assault.
Meanwhile, Blunt realized that the main portion of the Confederate army had evaded him and was confronting Herron’s two divisions. In response, Blunt marched his division from Cane Hill to Prairie Grove, and opened fire on the Confederate army with 30 cannons. Hindman responded by ordering Frost to use his division to counter Blunt. Frost, in turn, sent a brigade commanded by Mosby M. Parsons to the left of Shoup’s position. A brigade of dismounted Texas cavalry from Roane’s command was also sent to the front, forming to the left of Parsons’ brigade. Blunt’s forces then prepared to attack the new Confederate left, strengthened by the addition of the 20th Iowa, one of Huston’s Union regiments. The 20th Iowa and the First Indian Home Guard assaulted the Confederate line, only to be repulsed. The Confederates responded to the abortive Union assault with another counterattack, using several of McRae’s brigade.
Further down the line, the Union brigade of William Weer began advancing towards Parsons’ line. In response, Parsons moved his brigade forward from his original position, creating a confused fight between the two armies’ main lines. Eventually, Parsons realized that his line was longer than Weer’s, and pushed hard on both flanks of the Union position. Weer was forced to retreat, and Parsons began a counterattack. However, this attack was driven off by Blunt’s massed artillery. As darkness fell, both sides gradually disengaged. While Hindman still held the field, he had no reinforcements and was running out of ammunition. Meanwhile, the Union armies had been reinforced by trailing elements of Herron’s command. The Confederate army was forced to withdraw from the field, suffering many losses to desertion in the process. While the fighting was inconclusive, the Confederate withdrawal gave the Union a strategic victory.
Union forces suffered 1,251 casualties (including 175 dead) and Confederate forces 1,317 (included 164 dead). However, these reported totals may be too low, as only slightly wounded soldiers were not often counted. In addition, Confederate forces suffered from severe demoralization and lost many conscript soldiers during and after the campaign to desertion. The Confederates were forced to leave many of their dead on the field, but had to pile the bodies into heaps and surround them with makeshift barriers to keep feral pigs from desecrating the corpses. The retreat of the Confederate forces from the field gave Union forces control of northwestern Arkansas.
On December 23, Blunt learned that Schofield was on his way to rejoin the army and take overall command. Blunt and Herron decided to attempt one last strike at Hindman’s Confederate army before Schofield, who was concerned about the potential of Holmes reinforcing the Confederates army, arrived. Hindman had made his camp in the vicinity of Van Buren, Arkansas, and Blunt and Herron reached Van Buren on December 29. In the Battle of Van Buren, Blunt’s Union forces drove off Hindman’s Confederates in disarray, and the remains of the Confederate army left the area.
Some of the battlefield area is preserved in Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park, ten miles from Fayetteville, Arkansas. The state park contains over 900 acres (360 ha) of the battlefield. The Civil War Trust, a division of the American Battlefield Trust, and its partners have acquired and preserved 351 acres (142 ha) of the battlefield. The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
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