The Battle of Cane Hill, Arkansas - In Depth
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Battle of Cane Hill, Arkansas
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Battle of Cane Hill, Arkansas
The Battle of Cane Hill was a significant preliminary event to the Battle of Prairie Grove. Fought on November 28, 1862,
the engagement lasted nine hours and extended through villages and farms and across mountainsides and valleys.
Casualties were light considering the intensity of the fight, but both sides agreed the battle was hard-fought and that both
Federals and Confederates exhibited remarkable courage and determination.
Today’s Canehill community is the surviving remnant of an extensive antebellum settlement. According to Confederate
Major General Thomas C. Hindman, the area in 1862 was one of the more prosperous points in Northwest Arkansas:
Cane Hill is a ridge of perhaps 8 miles length and 5 miles width, in the southwest part of Washington County, Arkansas,
just beyond the north base of the Boston Mountains. Three villages are built upon it (Russellville, Boonsborough, and
Newburg), which almost blend with each other, covering a distance, as the road to Fayetteville runs, of 3 or 5 miles….
In addition to its agricultural and commercial interests, Cane Hill was noteworthy as the site of Cane Hill College. The
first institution of higher learning in Arkansas, the college had been in operation for thirty years by the time of the Civil War.
The strategic location of the community, where several roads united after crossing over the Boston Mountains, gave it
significant military importance early in the war. This was evidenced in late November of 1862, when General Hindman
sent a large cavalry force under Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke to occupy Cane Hill. Following on the heels of a
Union scouting party that had penetrated south of the mountains, Marmaduke positioned his brigades at successive
points along Cane Hill ridge. Among the men attached to his command, interestingly, were William Clark Quantrill’s
notorious guerillas, who are believed at this time to have included future outlaws Frank James and Cole Younger.
Quantrill himself was not present and his company was headed by a lieutenant. Jesse James, then 14 years old, was
not at Cane Hill.
Marmaduke’s occupation of Cane Hill was in anticipation of a planned movement by Hindman to bring his entire army
over the mountains in hopes of destroying Union forces in the region in detail.
The Federals were quickly alerted to this movement and Marmaduke’s pickets skirmished with Union scouts near Cane
Hill on November 25, 1862, while calls for reinforcements were rushed up to Union commanders in Missouri. Deciding
that the “best defense is a good offense,” Union Brigadier General James G. Blunt organized his men and moved to
attack Marmaduke before Hindman’s main army could come across the mountains.
Leaving his camps on November 27, 1862, Blunt marched south. The rough country across which he marched caused
his 5,000 men to become strung out, and most of his infantry was still miles to the rear when his cavalry reached Cane
Hill at between 9 and 10 o’clock on the morning of November 28th:
In passing down a gorge between two abrupt hills, their grand guard was encountered in considerable force. Dashing on,
and driving them before us, a few hundred yards brought us to where the bluff on the right terminated, and in full view of
the enemy, who were posted on the right of the road, on elevated ground, with timber in their rear, their guns in battery,
bearing upon the road on which I was approaching, and from which they immediately opened a brisk fire. I at once
ordered Rabb’s battery into position, and also the two howitzers under Lieutenant [E.S.] Stover, when a fierce
cannonading ensued, which lasted for the space of nearly an hour.
Although forewarned that the Federals were coming, Confederate Colonel “Fighting” Jo Shelby still allowed himself to be
taken by surprise. Blunt achieved this by advancing via an unexpected road and the battle was opened before Shelby had
much of a chance to respond:
Having had due notice (eighteen hours previous) by the general commanding that the enemy were advancing, we
endeavored to be on the alert, but I must confess (thought it may reflect somewhat upon myself) that the enemy, by his
skillful management, fell upon me sooner than I would have desired, considering that a portion of our division was
encamped some distance in my rear and I had but little time to give them the notice required; yet I had sufficient time to
place my men in their proper positions and await the coming of the hated foe.
The fighting at the northern end of Cane Hill quickly developed into an intense artillery exchange. The Confederates held
their position for as long as they could in the face of the developing Union line, then fell back through the village to a ridge
about three-fourths of a mile south of their original position. This withdrawal, which both sides recorded was handled
efficiently, took both the retreating Confederates and the pursuing Federals past the grounds of the Cane Hill College.
The rest of Marmaduke’s division was already in place at the new position and the Confederates watched with interest as
the Federals deployed ahead of them:
Here the naked eye could see General Blunt’s columns of cavalry and infantry pouring over the hills in our front, and
advancing slowly and cautiously to the attack. It was a splendid sight – flaunting banners, serried ranks, as the long lines
came gleaming on….
The sight was more than “splendid” to the Confederates, for it convinced them they could not hope to hold their new
position against the oncoming Northern army. Despite Federal reports claiming 8,000 or more Confederates were on the
field at Cane Hill, the actual number was less than half that. In short, the Union army had more men (even without the
delayed infantry), more artillery and the element of surprise.
Deciding to withdraw to the Boston Mountains, the Confederates again left their position and retreated, fighting as they
went. Along the way, they stopped and formed in a few positions long enough to force the Federals to deploy and move
up their artillery, but generally continued to fall back until they reached the first significant ridge of the mountains.
This ridge, which separates Cane Hill from the Cove Creek valley, offered a commanding view of the surrounding country
and had the Confederates not run out of ammunition for their cannon they likely would have inflicted much heavier
damage on the approaching Federal column. The fighting once again grew intense:
Immediately on top of the mountain I had a part of Colonel Thompson’s command, under Major [M.W.] Smith, formed to
receive the enemy, and a little to the rear of Smith, on the right, I had one company of Elliott’s scouts, commanded by
Captain martin. Smith and Martin calmly awaited the coming of the enemy, and as they came charging up the hill in solid
columns, they poured a deadly fire on them, which sent them staggering down the mountain. By this time I had other
detachments formed but a short distance in the rear (Smith and Martin falling back and loading), who fired on them with
much effect, being in easy gun-shot. Martin, having his men ready and formed, delivered once more a terrible fire, but in
doing so this brigade suffered a terrible loss in the death of the gallant and heroic Martin. He fell, as he lived, fighting for
his home and fireside, “with his back to the field and his feet to the foe.”
General Blunt also reported that the fight on the mountainside was determined and severe:
The resistance of the rebels was stubborn and determined. The storm of lead and iron hail that came down the side of the
mountain, both from their small-arms and artillery, was terrific; yet most of it went over our heads without doing us much
damage. The regiments just named, with a wild shout rushed up the steep acclivity, contesting every inch of ground, and
steadily pushed the enemy before them, until the crest was reached when the rebels again fled in disorder.
From the mountaintop, the Confederates withdrew down into the Cove Creek valley. This valley, created by the tumbling
course of Cove Creek as it flows south through the Boston Mountains, was a narrow but natural gateway connecting
Washington County with the Arkansas River Valley below. Cove Creek Road, accordingly, was used repeatedly by both
armies throughout the war.
Finding the ground in the valley more suitable for the use of cavalry, the Federals launched a saber attack against their
Confederate opponents. The movement almost induced panic in the Southern ranks, as many of the men became
convinced their comrades were being hacked to death by Union soldiers, but Marmaduke had a final bit of strategy up his
The charge continued for about half a mile down the valley, to a point where it converged in a funnel shape, terminating in
a narrow defile. At this point a large body of the enemy were in ambush in front and upon the flanks, where cavalry could
not approach, with their battery also masked in front. As soon as the party we were pursuing had passed through the
defile, they opened upon us a most destructive fire, which, for the moment, caused my men to recoil and give back, in
spite of my own efforts and those of other officers to rally them; whereas, if they had, after receiving the enemy’s fire,
passed on 200 or 300 yards, we would have secured, in a moment more, what we so much coveted – the enemy’s
artillery. Emboldened by their success in defending the defile and checking our advance, they raised a wild yell and
advanced toward us.
Thrown back for the first time of the day, the Federals now were forced to rally behind three companies of the Sixth
Kansas Cavalry and beat back the Confederate counterattack. According to Blunt, he was preparing for another assault
when a Confederate officer approached his lines under a flag of truce and asked permission to remove the Southern
dead and wounded from the battlefield. Because darkness was falling and expressing concern that the Confederates
might “murder” Lieutenant Colonel L.R. Jewell who had fallen during the ambush, the Union general agreed to the
request and the Battle of Cane Hill came to an end.
Marmaduke withdrew during the night into the mountains and Blunt and his men returned to Cane Hill. The two forces
would fight again just 9 days later at the Battle of Prairie Grove.
|Copyright 2011 by Dale Cox
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