Thomas C. Hindman
A competent officer that had
built an army from scratch
and led it into action at the
Battle of Prairie Grove on
December 7, 1862, Major
General Hindman was able to
do little to resist the Union
attack on Van Buren three
The Battle of Van Buren - In Depth
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - The Battle of Van Buren, Arkansas
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - The Battle of Van Buren, Arkansas
The sudden rout of the Confederate cavalry at Dripping Springs on the morning of
December 28, 1862, did not bode well for Confederate efforts to defend Van Buren.
As the Confederates fell back to the Arkansas River, there followed one of the
more unique events of the Civil War in Arkansas. In fact, it is reenacted by the
school children of Van Buren to this day:
On we traveled, chasing them through the streets of Van Buren, to the great
surprise and astonishment of the citizens, who had heard nothing of our coming.
They made three attempts to check us between Dripping Springs and Van Buren,
but were driven every time. The last 10 miles was traveled in one hour, the whole
cavalry force going in at a gallop.
Although they put up a valiant fight, Crump’s men were severely mauled by the
Federals and eventually tried to flee by steamboat along with an infantry regiment
and section of artillery posted in Van Buren itself. In this they were largely
successful, although the Union army captured 100 prisoners of war and a large
number of wagons, teams and other material.
According to General Herron’s report, the fight – which had involved mostly cavalry
to this point – turned amphibious when his men reached the crest of Logtown Hill
overlooking the town:
Arriving on the hill overlooking the town, we found three steamboats leaving the
wharf and the ferry, making good time over the river. We chased them with the
cavalry, overtaking the first one a mile below town, and, by a well-directed fire of
musketry, brought her two. Colonel Cloud followed the other two 10 miles,
capturing both, and bringing them back to the wharf. They were all loaded with
corn and other stores. In the mean time, the cavalry were scouring the country, and
wagons were being brought in from every direction.
The Federal attack came on so quickly that Hindman had little time to react.
Although the Northern and Southern accounts disagree somewhat as to timing,
he reported that the Union troops were in the streets of Van Buren by 11:05 a.m.
only one hour and five minutes after he first learned they were coming. He
identified the steamers captured by the Federal cavalry as the Notre, Key West and
Rose Douglas. Two other boats, the Eva and the Arkansas were burned by the
Confederates themselves to prevent their capture.
Either anticipating that the enemy planned to cross the river or hoping to inflict as
much damage upon them as possible, Hindman ordered Shaver’s brigade to the
river bank opposite Van Buren with a battery (West’s) of artillery. Frost’s division
was ordered up in support from its encampment ten miles away, with a second
detachment of infantry and artillery being sent to Strain’s Landing, about six miles
According to Hindman, West’s artillerymen opened fire on the Federals from
across the river when they were seen approaching the Van Buren landing, driving
them back. The Union officers, however, considered the affair much more sinister:
About 2:30 o’clock (we had arrived at 12 o’clock) a battery opened on the town
from the opposite side of the river, and shelled the town for an hour. One of our
men was killed and 5 wounded. General Blunt and myself made a narrow escape.
We soon hurried up a long range battery, and drove them off. The transaction was
diabolical, to say the least of it, the town being full of women and children. At least
100 shells were fired into the houses, doing great damage, only one citizen being
hurt that I know of.
Hindman does not mention shelling Van Buren in his report, but does describe
skirmishing across the river with the Federals who he said responded with rifled
cannon from the “commanding heights in and above the town.”
The fighting now shifted south to Strain’s Landing, which according to Hindman
came under attack late in the afternoon:
About dark, artillery firing commenced at Strain’s Landing, between Frost’s
detachment, posted there, and a Federal force on the opposite side, having field
pieces of large caliber. It continued during two hours, when the enemy retired.
Writing to Major General Samuel R. Curtis, his commanding officer, that same
night, General Blunt reported that he was then shelling the Confederate
encampments five miles below Van Buren, an apparent reference to the fight at
Strain’s Landing. He also indicated that if the Confederates did not, “retire during
the night, I shall endeavor to cross my troops over the river in the morning and
offer them battle.”
In the meantime, the Federals set about consolidating as much of the captured
supplies as possible. The loaded captured wagons with Confederate sugar which
they shipped back north to their camps in Northwest Arkansas. After supplying
themselves and feeding their horses as much as possible, they destroyed an
estimated 15,000 to 20,000 bushels of corn.
The battle that Blunt hoped for the next morning was not to be. When the sun rose
on the 29th, the Federals found that the Confederates had evacuated Fort Smith
and were in retreat:
They at once evacuated Fort Smith; destroyed all their stores on hand and burned
two steamboats, and traveled, leaving 4,000 sick in a very destitute condition. The
divisions of Frost, Shoup, Roane, and Fagan retreated in great confusion, each
taking the first road they came to, and without any plan for concentrating. They are
demoralized and broken up, and I think this section is rid of Hindman.
General Hindman did not tell a dramatically different story. Early in his report of the
affair he mentioned that his army was demoralized due to lack of pay and heavily
burdened with sickness. When the fighting ended for the night, he withdrew:
…I had now removed all the public stores for which I had transportation. My whole
force did not exceed 4,000. That of the enemy in and near Van Buren was not less
than 7,000. His cavalry, moving on both my flanks, might soon get entirely in my
rear. I therefore determined to retire all my command southward, and cross the
river near Clarksville, unite with Fagan, and there take position. This intention was
carried out without any occurrence that need be reported.
The Federals decided not to remain in Van Buren after learning that Hindman had
retreated. It would be virtually impossible for them to supply themselves there and
there was not sufficient forage for their horses. The trip back over the mountains
was arduous, but was completed with no interference from the Confederates.
Total casualties from the campaign are difficult to assess, but they do not seem to
have been particularly high. In the wake of the brutal all out fight between the two
armies at Prairie Grove only three weeks earlier, the Van Buren raid was a
stunning success for Blunt and Herron. It also demonstrated how much the battle
and retreat from Prairie Grove had taken out of Hindman’s army. It has often been
speculated that Hindman might have prevailed had he not withdrawn during the
night after the Battle of Prairie Grove, but the performance of his men just three
weeks later suggests that his army was much more demoralized and weak after
the fighting of December 7th than has traditionally been realized. Putting together
the army had been a remarkable achievement to begin with, and to his credit
Hindman seems to have known its limits. When pressed by the Federals in late
December, there was little he could do but withdraw.
by Dale Cox
|Copyright 2009 by Dale Cox
All rights reserved.