PRAIRIE GROVE, Ark. —
Maj. Henry Frisbie of the 37th Illinois — a Union veteran of the campaign that culminated near here in December 1862 — wondered after the Civil War why events in the East so often overshadowed events in the West.
Many veterans of Western campaigns and battles shared the same sentiment, including Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. It is a sentiment shared by some historians now. Foremost among them: William Shea, professor of history at the University of Arkansas in Monticello, who has argued that the slighting of the war in the West hampers the ability to understand it.
Shea is one of the leading scholars trying to right the wrong, to bring attention to the Civil War west of the Mississippi River — known today as the Trans-Mississippi. He has written numerous books on the Civil War, including histories of the Pea Ridge and Vicksburg campaigns. Most recently, he wrote “Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign.”
Shea has been making the case for much of his career that the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi deserves more robust treatment and should not be relegated to the status of a second-class citizen, dismissed in some cases without mention, or perhaps only given fleeting reference.
Among those overlooked events is a battle near the tiny Arkansas hamlet of Prairie Grove.
On a crisp December day in 1862, a Confederate army of nearly 12,000 men under the command of Maj. Gen. Thomas Hindman took the field against two smaller Union armies totaling about 9,000 men under Brig. Gen. Francis Herron and Maj. Gen. James Blunt.
The battle — the last major fight on the Ozark Plateau — would prove to be a desperate and bloody affair that resulted in nearly 2,600 casualties. It also would entail, according to Shea, the “most extraordinary forced march of the Civil War” by Union men determined to rescue their comrades.
Today Prairie Grove is a state park, but it gets scant mention in histories of the war, something that Frisbie thought unjust long before Shea joined his campaign.
The Union major wrote after the war: “Why so many monuments at Gettysburg when no stone marks the spot where the 37th like a wall of fire rolled back the waves of treason and rebellion? No stone where Little, Miller and Hickey died; no stone nor song to tell the story of where we stood before the Angel of Death on the field of Prairie Grove.”
Though the Civil War officially started with the bombardment of Fort Sumter, S.C., armed conflict had been raging along the western frontier and in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) for years before that.
Abolitionists and free-state supporters vied with pro-slavery and Southern sympathizers over the fate of Kansas.
In Oklahoma, a bitter conflict raged between those members of the Five Civilized Tribes who had been forced to walk the Trail of Tears, and those who earlier signed treaties agreeing to forfeit their land in Georgia and Tennessee in exchange for new land in Oklahoma. The animosity between these groups festered for years, and the Civil War only added fuel to the pre-existing tensions.
In the contested state of Missouri, the majority of citizens favored the Union, but a vocal minority led by Gov. Claiborne Fox Jackson were hellbent on secession. Although driven out of Jefferson City, following Confederate victories at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington in 1861, Jackson assembled a rump legislature in Neosho that voted to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy.
If the lines of civilian loyalty were blurred in the East, they were at many times unintelligible in Southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas.
Shea says the Civil War west of the Mississippi has been largely overlooked by historians in part because of the brutality and complexity of the conflict.
“The whole border territory is tremendously tangled,” he said. “It’s wars within wars and old antagonisms and animosities getting all tangled up with political issues. The one thing it wasn’t was simple.”
He estimates that as much as 25 percent of the population of Benton and Washington counties in Northwest Arkansas was pro-union to one degree or another, but a significant number of slaves also toiled on large farms near Bentonville and Fayetteville.
“There were a lot of slave owners who were very strongly pro-Confederate in Northwest Arkansas, which simply ratcheted up the tension between them and the Unionist population,” he said. “Those guys had a lot to lose if Arkansas didn’t act to protect slavery.”
On Dec. 7, 1862, many of them lost their lives, some within sight of their homes at Prairie Grove.
Jackson’s rump legislature proved to be the zenith of Confederate aspirations in Missouri.
In early 1862, a Union army under the command of Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis pushed the Confederates out of Missouri and crossed the border into Arkansas. In March, a larger Confederate force under Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn attacked Curtis at Pea Ridge. Despite being outnumbered, Curtis dealt Van Dorn a defeat and secured Missouri for the Union.
The loss was a setback for the South, but what Van Dorn did next proved disastrous for the Confederate cause in Arkansas. Van Dorn took his entire army, and all the ammunition and supplies he could lay his hands on, across the Mississippi River, leaving Arkansas virtually undefended. Curtis continued his advance through the state, passing within 40 miles of Little Rock enroute to capturing Helena, Ark., on the Mississippi.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis reacted by dispatching Hindman to Arkansas in hopes that he could salvage the situation. Although Hindman lacked military training, he was a tireless administrator and motivator. Within 70 days of his arrival he resurrected the Confederate war effort in Arkansas and Missouri, and had organized 20,000 men into infantry, artillery and cavalry units, a feat for which Shea said he deserves much credit.
In fact, Shea said the turnaround Hindman accomplished in Arkansas — “the least populous and least developed part of the Confederacy” — is “an achievement without parallel in the Civil War.”
Hindman arranged for the return of two Missouri regiments taken by Van Dorn to Mississippi. He then sent the pro-Southern Missourians to recruit soldiers and partisans in their home state. The subsequent spike in guerilla activity alarmed Union commanders in Missouri and Kansas and prompted another invasion of Arkansas.
Hindman, meanwhile, gathered his army for training at Fort Smith, Ark., which he hoped to use as a jumping-off point in the spring for an major offensive to reclaim Missouri for the Confederacy.
“The Confederacy West of the Mississippi River had come back from the dead,” Shea wrote of Hindman’s achievement.
The Confederate resurgence alarmed Brig. Gen. John Schofield, Union commander in Missouri, and prompted him to request help from Blunt, one of the most controversial figures in the Trans-Mississippi and commander of Union troops in Kansas. Shea describes Blunt as a man who wrote affectionate letters to his wife, but also indulged in prostitutes; a corrupt military administrator, but also the most aggressive general west of the Mississippi.
“He was bold, reckless, aggressive, and he took tremendous chances,” Shea said. “He led his troops personally into battle. He is the only general officer that I know of who repeatedly fought in his own battles. His soldiers absolutely loved him. They realized he wasn’t a military genius, but they loved him because they might look left or right on a battlefield and there would be Gen. Blunt, standing a few feet away shooting at the Confederates.”
Blunt was also a staunch abolitionist who did not hesitate to free slaves his army encountered. He also raised the first black regiments of the war nearly a year before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Shea says Union commanders in the Trans-Mississippi tried to destroy slavery from the outset; the politicians in Washington would have to catch up.
“They were doing in slavery without reference to what was taking place, or not taking place in Washington,” Shea said. “It had a lot to do with simple distance. The Lincoln administration kept a close eye on events on the East Coast and maybe the near Midwest, but events in the Mississippi Valley, or the Trans-Mississippi went largely unnoticed. So if you were a Union army commander, you had a lot of leeway to deal with issues as you saw fit.”
Shea says the result of Blunt’s unorthodox recruiting measures was a unique fighting force.
“Gen. Blunt’s Army of the Frontier was a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual institution the likes of which, as far as I know, didn’t exist anywhere else in the United States,” he said. “It was an ephemeral, short-lived institution, but it was really extraordinary. Particularly because Blunt treated his black and Indian regiments the same way he treated his white regiments.”
While Hindman was rebuilding his army, Union forces returned to Arkansas in October 1862 and converged on the Pea Ridge battlefield. There, Blunt and Schofield split up and commenced a two month-long game of cat and mouse with Hindman.
The geography of Northern Arkansas played a major role in the Prairie Grove campaign. Throughout the campaign, Hindman would emerge on the north side of the Boston Mountains, and then withdraw to the safety of the Arkansas River Valley before he could be lured into a major battle. Hindman’s unwillingness to engage Union forces convinced Schofield that it was safe to return to Missouri, which he did in late November. Only Blunt’s small army remained in Northwest Arkansas.
Blunt’s isolation was detected by Brig. Gen. John Marmaduke, commander of Hindman’s cavalry, while his troopers were on a foraging excursion to Cane Hill, southwest of Fayetteville. Marmaduke was told the size and location of Blunt’s army by local secessionists who had visited the camp. He sent a message to Hindman urging an attack.
Blunt, however, had scouts of his own and moved against Marmaduke. A small fight, on Nov. 28, 1862, a prelude to what would happen about a week later, left 475 men on both sides casualties of the battle of Cane Hill.
Blunt’s attack forced Marmaduke back across the mountains to Van Buren, but he would soon return with Hindman’s force of nearly 12,000.
Blunt, who now occupied Cane Hill, sent a desperate call to Springfield, Mo., for reinforcements. Schofield had fallen ill and the task of rescuing Blunt fell to Herron.
Herron was a young and confident general, known among the troops for his snappy dress. He had been shot in the chest at Pea Ridge in March of that year, and had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Herron embarked on a series of forced marches that would see his army traverse the difficult landscape between Springfield and Fayetteville in just four days. According to Shea, Herron’s men marched 110 miles, with some units covering 65 miles in 30 hours.
Soldiers collapsed along the march. Near Cassville, one of the Union soldiers wrote: “Our boys are laying along the roadside every mile between this point and Springfield.”
When Hindman arrived at Cane Hill, he could see Blunt’s troops reinforcing their position. Rather than attack a well-entrenched army, Hindman decided to move his army east where he hoped to destroy Herron’s relief force, then turn and finish off Blunt.
The strategy was sound, but when Hindman’s advance guard arrived on the battlefield, rather than attacking Herron’s exhausted troops as they crossed the Illinois River, Col. Francis Shoup, one of Hindman’s division commanders, assumed a defensive position along a crescent-shaped hill overlooking the valley of the Illinois. Hindman set up headquarters nearly a mile away and never visited the battle line throughout the day. His shift to the defensive was one of the turning points of the campaign.
“(Hindman’s) real weakness was that he had no real military training, and on the battlefield he tended to freeze up and let the initiative go to the other side,” Shea said. “Everything he did in the Prairie Grove Campaign was basically right until he got to Prairie Grove and then the burden of battlefield leadership became a little too much for him. He allowed his subordinates to take control of the fight and they let him down.”
Herron, meanwhile, after positioning his artillery, ordered two uncoordinated assaults, believing he was up against a small number of Confederate cavalry. What he did not realize was that he was attacking the entire Confederate Army, taking on an enemy that outnumbered him nearly three to one. Shea says, like Hindman, Herron also remained tactically detached from events on the battlefield.
“Herron did a very poor job of managing the battle. Herron was present at Prairie Grove, but that’s it. He played about as hands-off a role at the battle as it is possible to imagine a commander doing.”
Both attacks failed and the Union regiments were driven back after suffering heavy losses. Each time the Confederates counter-attacked, but were stopped cold by a withering hail of grape shot from Union artillery batteries positioned on the valley floor.
“All you have to do is go to Prairie Grove and stand on that flat valley floor and imagine how the artillery would wipe out anybody coming across that flat landscape,” Shea said.
By 3 p.m., Herron’s exhausted troops were no longer capable of attack. He began to consider how best to disengage, but at that moment heard a barrage of artillery from an unexpected direction.
It had taken Blunt about 12 hours to discover that Hindman had moved toward Fayetteville. Once he made this realization, he ordered his men to rush after Hindman, but his column made a wrong turn and marched to the Union wagon train at Rhea’s Mill, about seven miles northwest of Prairie Grove. Blunt was furious and ordered his men to march cross country to the sound of the battle. When he arrived, Blunt found the Confederates in possession of the heights with Herron’s shattered command taking up positions behind the Union artillery line. The aggressive Blunt did not hesitate to engage.
The final Union assault was made by Kansas, Illinois and Indian regiments under the command of Col. William Weer. A bloody fight ensued around the Borden farmhouse located near the crest of the hill. Again the Confederate line held, forcing the federals to withdraw back to the valley. The Confederates pursued and a final attempt to break the Union line was made by four Missouri regiments under Brig. Gen. Mosby Parsons.
Parsons, who had fought at Carthage, saw victory as the only way to return to Missouri. He wasn’t the only one. Col. Alexander Steen pointed his sword at the federal lines and shouted to his men: “Remember, yonder is the way to your homes.” Although the homesick Missourians made several valiant charges, they were met each time with enfilading artillery fire that cut wide swathes in their ranks.
As darkness fell, the Confederates withdrew to the hilltop.
That night, Hindman took stock of his supplies and determined that he could not sustain another battle. Around midnight, the Confederates slipped out of their lines and began the long, cold march back to Van Buren. Union troops spent the night on the battlefield listening to the morbid chorus of cries from the wounded.
A Kansas soldier camped on the battlefield wrote afterward of the eerie wails that night: “Not one living rational soul who survived that night at Prairie Grove ... will ever forget it to his dying day.”
The next morning a macabre scene unfolded.
Bodies, some blasted in two, lay frozen on the ground near headless torsos.
“Blood on the ground, blood on the fences and blood on the trees. I saw trees bloody higher than you could reach,” wrote Gad Bryan, a Union officer. “There was a leg of one of the enemy hanging up in a tree top 30 feet high.”
The temperature had dropped into the teens overnight, and there is no figure of how many wounded soldiers died from exposure. The next morning, Union troops made another grisly discovery. In the night many of the wounded had been partially consumed by feral hogs, called razorbacks by local farmers, which wandered the countryside of Northwest Arkansas.
“The whole thing was illuminated,” Shea said. “It was nearly a full moon. It was a clear night, and by the time the smoke cleared, this incredible scene was illuminated with moonlight. It’s really very difficult for us to bring it back to life. We can’t quite reach with our imaginations how grim it must have been.”
Another tragic facet of the battle was how many of the Confederates were local residents.
“I think it’s almost a unique feature of the Battle of Prairie Grove is that two of the Confederate regiments who played a very prominent role in the battle were fighting in their own neighborhood. Many of the men could see their houses from the top of the hill where the Confederate troops were deployed. Having a regiment raised in western Washington County and then fighting its first big battle there is tragedy. To die within sight of your own house is very grim.”
The next morning, wives, mothers and family members of the Arkansas regiments combed the battlefield in search of their loved ones. All too often, they found them.
The plight of the wounded, on both sides, following the battle was horrible. The remote location of the battle meant that medical supplies were painfully slow to arrive. Scores died in the squalid conditions of makeshift hospitals in and around Fayetteville. Confederate survivors of the battle fared little better. After the demoralizing march back to Van Buren, low water levels on the Arkansas River delayed supplies and disease and starvation set in. Hindman decided to move his army closer to Little Rock.
After Christmas, Blunt and Herron were on the move again. They executed a daring raid across the Boston Mountains and captured Van Buren along with two riverboats full of supplies that had lingered in the town after Hindman’s withdrawal. The raid helped slam the door on any Confederate recovery of Southwest Missouri. Shea says the region had become a logistical desert where armies could not operate without difficulty.
“The three campaigns of Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove so devastated the people and the landscape of Northwest Arkansas and Southwest Missouri that it no longer was able to support military operations,” he said.
In the decades after the war, civic organizations returned to Prairie Grove to give the dead a proper burial. A National Cemetery was established in a valley south of Fayetteville for the Union dead.
A Confederate cemetery, meanwhile, was established on a hill overlooking downtown Fayetteville. Due to the haste of the Confederate retreat, many of the Southern dead went unidentified. They remain buried today under unmarked stones.
This narrative was reconstructed chiefly from the work of historian William Shea, including his books, “Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign,” “Pea Ridge, Civil War Campaign in the West,” and his contribution to the “Civil War Battlefield Guide,” as well as interviews with the author and the staff at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park.