The Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas - In Depth
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas - In Depth
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas - In Depth
On December 7, 1862, Union and Confederate armies collided along a low ridge on the northern edge of Arkansas'
Boston Mountains. Neither side planned to fight here. Confederate Major General Thomas C. Hindman was trying to
flank a large Union force at nearby Cane Hill and cut them off from reinforcements. Had he succeeded, he would likely
have destroyed the divided wings of the Federal Army of the Frontier in detail. Hindman did succeed in stealing a
march on Brigadier General James G. Blunt's divisions at Cane Hill, but he ran head on into Brigadier General
Francis J. Herron's oncoming reinforcements. Determining to fight it out, Hindman put his men into position atop the
ridge at Prairie Grove and dared the Federals to come knock him off.
Although the Federals believed he had as many as 28,000 men, Hindman actually opened the battle with a force of
9,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry and 22 pieces of artillery. It was a hastily assembled army. Hindman had been directed to
organize Confederate forces in Arkansas in the wake of the disaster earlier that year at Pea Ridge. The fact that he put
as many men in the field as he did in such a short period of time and actually led them across the mountains from the
Arkansas River and into battle was, in itself, quite remarkable. The fight these poorly-trained and under-supplied
Southerners gave at Prairie Grove speaks well of both the men and officers.
The battled opened when Hindman's troops came pouring out of the Cove Creek Valley. Having left a small force to
demonstrate and hold Blunt's men in place at Cane Hill, Hindman pushed ahead and put his army astride the vital
Fayetteville to Cane Hill road, blocking the advance of Herron's rapidly approaching divisions and preventing that
officer from immediately linking up with Blunt as planned.
Learning that the advance elements of Herron's force were approaching, Hindman sent his cavalry up the Fayetteville
road under Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke and Colonel "Fighting Jo" Shelby. Shelby proved his name was
well-earned that day. Setting upon Herron's cavalry east of the Illinois River crossing, the Confederate horsemen
drove them back on the main body and then contested the march of Herron's powerful infantry all the way to Prairie
By the time the Confederate cavalry withdrew back across the Illinois, Hindman had his main force in position atop the
ridge at Prairie Grove. Herron crossed the river under artillery fire from Confederate guns and formed his men on the
wide prairie below the ridge.
A fierce cannonade erupted as superior Federal artillery shelled the Confederate lines atop the east end of the ridge.
Finally, at 1p.m., Herron advanced up the ridge. Hindman reported that he let the Federal troops come in close before
ordering his men to open fire:
...It was permitted to approach within 60 yards, and then, as it charged, making gallantly past one of our batteries, and
having it a moment in possession, Fagan's Arkansas brigade, part of McRae's brigade, and the Missourians, under
Shelby, delivered a terrific fire from their shot-guns, rifles, and muskets and charged the enemy furiously. Hawthorn's
regiment of Arkansians retook the battery. The Federals broke and fled.
The battle, however, was far from over. The Confederate lines swept down the ridge in pursuit, but were soon driven
back up the ridge by Union fire. The Union lines then reformed and attacked again, only to be sent back down the hill
once again by intense Confederate fire.
Some of the most intense fighting on this part of the field took place in and around the orchard just to the rear of the
Borden House. Federal troops pushed over the crest of the ridge and poured into the orchard, but the Confederates
ringed the grove from three sides and poured in a brutal cross-fire. Left with no choice but to withdraw, the Federals
again fell back down the hill. One officer later estimated that 250 men fell in the yards of the Borden House.
By this time, General Blunt at Cane Hill had realized his true situation and withdrawn his force back to Rhea's Mills
northwest of Prairie Grove. Leaving some of his men here to guard the supply wagons, he marched most of his
command to the sound of the guns. Blunt's men arrived on the field from the northwest and quickly linked up with the
right flank of Herron's command. Being the senior officer on the field, Blunt took command.
The two determined armies now faced each other along lines that stretched for miles along the curving ridge. The
Confederates maintained their position at the top, while the Federals lined up at the bottom. As Hindman noted, the
Battle of Prairie Grove evolved into a fierce stand-up fight:
...There was no place of shelter upon any portion of the field. Wounds were given and deaths inflicted by the enemy's
artillery in the ranks of the reserves as well as in the front rank. During five hours, shell, solid shot, grape and canister,
and storms of bullets swept the entire ground. Many gallant officers, and many soldiers equally brave fell dead or
wounded, but their comrades stood as firm as iron. Volunteers maintained their reputation. Conscripts rose at once to
the same standard, and splendidly refuted the slanders put upon them by the class of exempts.
The battle raged back and forth until sunset. Federal troops would attack and be driven back. Confederates would
then counterattack and, in turn, be driven back themselves. General Blunt, of the Union army, described the situation
...The rattling of the musketry, uninterrupted for fully three hours, was terrific. The contending armies swayed to and fro,
each alternately advancing and retiring. Some rebel sharpshooters, firing from the windows of a house situated in the
edge of the wood and a little to my left, were evidently directing their compliments specially to myself and staff. I
directed Captain Rabb to open upon it with shell, and in a few moments the house was in flames.
The final action of the day came on the western end of the field, when Confederates swept across open ground in a
final effort to shatter the Union lines. Driven back by a storm of shot and shell, they resumed their positions on the
ridge and darkness mercifully brought the battle to a close.
Although the fighting itself ended in a draw, Hindman knew that he could not hope to prevail if the battle resumed the
next morning. His men were exhausted and on the verge of starvation. His ammunition was nearly gone and he knew
the Federal force was too strong to overwhelm. Consequently, even though the day ended with the Confederates
holding the ground they had occupied when the battle started, Hindman decided to withdraw during the night. His
army was on its way back over the Boston Mountains before the Federals knew the battle was over.
Although both sides seriously over-estimated the strength and losses of their opponents, the battle was without doubt
a bloody affair. The Confederates lost 164 killed, 817 wounded and 336 missing or captured. The Federals reported
similar losses of 175 killed, 813 wounded and 264 missing or captured. The wounded from both sides were treated
in makeshift hospitals both on the field and in nearby Fayetteville. Hundreds of them died from their wounds.
The Battle of Prairie Grove was one of the bloodiest ever fought west of the Mississippi. With the nearby Battle of Pea
RIdge earlier in the year, it decided the fate of Northwest Arkansas for the rest of the war. Hindman's force withdrew
across the Arkansas River to Fort Smith. Blunt and Herron consolidated their position and followed up on their
strategic victory by capturing Van Buren in December.
by Dale Cox
|Copyright 2011 by Dale Cox
All rights reserved.