Gen. W.L. Cabell, C.S.A.
The Confederate commander
at the Battle of Devil's
Backbone, Cabell was
outraged by the conduct of his
men at the end of the battle.
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Battle of Devil's Backbone, Arkansas
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Battle of Devil's Backbone, Arkansas
The Battle of Devil's Backbone - Greenwood, Arkansas
A History of the Battle of Devil's Backbone, Arkansas
by Dale Cox
The night of August 31, 1863, found the Union Army of the Frontier, commanded by Major
General James G. Blunt, encamped just three miles from the Poteau River and closing in on
the Confederate troops of Brigadier General W.L. Cabell. Blount and his men were a mere nine
miles from the Arkansas border stronghold of Fort Smith, and they expected an intense fight
with Cabell’s men the next morning. The Confederates, however, had other plans.
The confrontation along the Poteau in eastern Oklahoma ended quietly. After skirmishing with
the Federals off and on throughout the day on the 31st, Cabell knew he couldn’t hold them. His
total force, reduced by heavy desertion, numbered only 1,250 men (although the Federals
believed he fielded twice that many). Rather than risk the destruction or capture of his brigade,
Cabell decided that discretion was the better part of valor:
Knowing positively that the enemy had at least 2,300 effective men and eight pieces of artillery,
and knowing that I could rely on but little more than one-half of the small number of men I had
to fight, I determined to fall back, and to reach, if possible, a range of mountains in my rear, and
to get all the trains and public property of every description across these mountains, with the
hope that I might possibly save them.
At 9 p.m. on the night of August 31st, Cabell decided to fall back to Waldron, Arkansas, where
he had already sent the ox train carrying his ordnance supplies. The rest of his supply trains
were ordered to Waldron via the small community of Jenny Lind, in Sebastian County. The
general then retreated past Fort Smith to Jenny Lind and began to move south for Waldron.
The Federals were unaware of the Confederate retreat prior to the morning of September 1st.
General Blunt related his surprise a few days later:
At daylight the following morning, I advanced to attack his position, but found that he had
retreated during the night a short distance toward Fort Smith, and that from that point his force
had divided, proceeding by various routes southward.
Seeing an opportunity, the Union general suddenly became very aggressive. While he moved
with the main body to take position of the works and town of Fort Smith, he ordered forward his
effective cavalry – the Second Kansas and Sixth Missouri – with two sections of Rabb’s Indiana
Battery and instructions to pursue the retreating Confederates.
Commanded by Colonel William F. Cloud of the Second Kansas Cavalry, this force clashed
with the Confederate rear guard at Jenny Lind at around 9 o’clock on the morning of the 1st.
Obviously anticipating the anxious Federal pursuit, the Confederate pickets withdrew ahead of
Cloud’s men, leading them directly into the trap that Cabell was laying on the slopes of Devil’s
The Devil’s Backbone was appropriately named, at least for military purposes. Stretching east
to west for miles along the horizon south of Fort Smith, the rocky ridge provided a natural barrier
dividing the Arkansas River valley from the Ouachitas region to the south. Confederate
commanders in the region quickly recognized the value of the ridge as both a natural defense
and screen for troop moments, and used it repeatedly throughout the war.
Knowing that once the Federals realized he was retreating, they would likely try to pursue him
aggressively with a flying column of cavalry, Cabell decided to lay a trap for them where the
Jenny Lind to Waldron road crossed the Backbone:
I placed Monroe’s regiment in ambush at the foot of the mountain, and placed all the different
regiments en echelon along the sides of the mountain, near the road; the battery being placed
so as to command the whole field of operations.
From his subsequent report, it is clear that Cabell positioned his men in successive lines or
positions leading up to his main battle line, which he spread out along the rocky spine at the
top of the ridge. Devil’s Backbone is unique in that its crest forms an almost natural breastwork
of stone, which the Confederates reinforced by piling stones in weak points.
As expected, the Federals pursued the retreating Confederate rear guard headlong into the trap:
The enemy came dashing up, yelling and shouting, confident of success, their cavalry in
advance. When they came within gunshot, Monroe’s regiment opened fire on them, and
dismounted every man except two in the front companies.
Union officers told a similar story:
At 12 o’clock we came to their rear guard in ambush, whose deadly fire cut down Captain Lines
and 10 or 12 of his command. I found a line of dismounted cavalry and howitzers and steadily
drove their rear from their position, and up the mountain side, to within one-fourth of a mile of
their line of battle, skillfully formed upon the summit of Backbone Mountain of the Poteau
range. I here brought my whole force into action, and for three hours the battle raged with
The Captain Lines mentioned in Colonel Cloud’s report was Captain Edward C.D. Lines who
commanded Company C of the Second Kansas Cavalry. The assistant surgeon of the
regiment was close by when Lines went down and left a more detailed account of the ambush
in a letter to the captain’s father:
The enemy formed in a dense growth of small timber and brush, and when our scouts came up,
they let them pass through without firing a gun, but when Company C came up, they opened
upon them a very heavy volley of infantry in two columns. You son was killed at that time. He
was in the extreme advance, (as was his custom,) and was shot by a Minnie ball, through the
bowels and liver.
Lines lived for about three hours, but died at about the same time that the battle came to a
close. Ironically, he had survived the much larger battles of Wilson’s Creek and Perryville.
For three or more hours after the ambush, the battle raged on, characterized especially by an
intense exchange of artillery between the Confederate gunners and the men of Rabb’s battery.
Curiously, neither side did much damage with their cannonading. Likely this was due to the fact
that, based on the discovery of artillery shells some distance from the battlefield, both Federals
and Confederates were overshooting their opponents.
While the Federal guns did not inflict much physical damage on the Confederate line, they may
have had a significant psychological impact. Both sides relate how, after hours of fighting, a
temporary lull in the cannonade brought about a collapse of the Confederate line. Federal
officers were at a loss to explain the sudden disappearance of their opponents, as was
General Cabell himself:
There was nothing to make these regiments run, except the sound of the cannon. Had they
fought as troops fighting for liberty should, I would have captured the whole of the enemy’s
command, and gone back to Fort Smith, and driven the remainder of the enemy’s force off and
retaken the place.
Cabell listed his casualties at only 5 killed and 12 wounded, but could not estimate the number
of missing because hundreds of his men simply disappeared. Hill’s and Thomson’s
regiments and Woosley’s cavalry battalion, he related, “ran in the most shameful manner.” Hill’
s men even overran the brigade’s provost guard and carried away with them 80 prisoners who
were being held on charges of treason and desertion. The eight companies of Morgan’s
regiment, who had started the battle, “acted but little better” according to the general.
Colonel Cloud reported a total Federal loss of fourteen, noting that, “the enemy suddenly
withdrew, leaving his dead and wounded, together with arms, baggage, &c., in our possession.
I immediately occupied the field, and extended my pickets beyond, taking prisoners and
receiving deserters, who came flocking in.
More than 100 of the deserters, including three officers, took part in another battle at
Dardanelle, Arkansas, just eight days later – this time on the Union side:
In the attack upon Dardanelle I was assisted by three officers and about 100 men, who had
fought me at Backbone, under Cabell, and it was a novel sight to see men with the regular gray
uniform and Confederate State belt-plate fighting side by side with the blue of the army, and
this novelty was intensified by knowing that they were righting their old command.
The scene of the Battle of Devil’s Backbone remains largely on private property today. A small
portion of the field has been destroyed by the construction of a natural gas well, but for the most
part the ridge top is still intact. A monument commemorating the battle is located on the
northern slope of Devil’s Backbone adjacent to Highway 71 just south of the town of
Road over the Mountain
The trace of the old Fort Smith
to Waldron Road is a focal
point of the battlefield.
The Devil's Backbone
The long east-west ridge
stretches across the horizon
south of Fort Smith, Arkansas.
It was a major natural barrier
at the time of the Civil War.
|Copyright 2011 by Dale Cox
All rights reserved.