Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Other December 7th - The Confederacy's Last Hurrah to Retake Missouri

To every American December 7th will always live in infamy as the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  But until 1941, the history books told another story for that day.  Despite the strategic importance of the fight, and the intense combat that occured there, Battle of Prairie Grove is little remembered now, except for those folks who study the American Civil War west of the Mississippi River.  The battle ensured that Missouri and North West Arkansas were remained firmly in Union Control for the remainder of the War.

This is the Story of the Battle of Prairie Grove, fought 150 years ago today.

Winter in the Ozarks is harsh. The soldiers and citizens in the northwestern Arkansas Ozarks suffered mightily through the early winter of 1862, and their plight was exacerbated in the Battle of Prairie Grove, December 7, 1862.

The Union Army had secured the bulk of the state of Missouri against the Rebels by mid 1862. In St. Louis, General Samuel Curtis had relocated from Helena, Arkansas, to take overall command of the Federal Department of the Missouri. He oversaw General James Blunt’s Department of Kansas and Brigadier General John M. Schofield, who had given up command of the District of Missouri to take charge of Union field operations in the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas. The primary charge to Blunt and Schofield was to eliminate rebel activity from the Ozarks.

BG James Blunt
This was a complicated order. Rebel activity came by way of night raids on Union encampments, bushwhacked homesteads, supply depot plundering and telegraph line cutting. Bushwhacking was a veritable hydra of hostility. It was not for lack of vision that the triumvirate of Union military leaders in the Ozarks set out to achieve peace through rebel suppression. The secessionist tactics were simply too clandestine and too persistent for long term, measureable success.

Blunt was the man for the job. His regard for guerrillas and anti-Union activities would become notorious. Believing any campaigns unnecessary through the winter, Schofield returned to St. Louis to recover from illness. Two divisions were ordered to winter camp in Springfield, Missouri, leaving Blunt and his one division in northwestern Arkansas.

The Confederates, for their part, were scrambling to send troops across the Mississippi to secure Vicksburg in that ongoing siege. Major General Thomas C. Hindman, commanding the Army of the West, was convinced that his men could take out Blunt before moving troops east. His plan centered on attacking Blunt, encamped near Cane Hill, before Federal reinforcements could arrive from Springfield.

MG Thomas C. Hindman
Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke commanded a federal force of nearly 2,500 men, and his initial orders from Hindman were to gather subsistence for the larger army, by way of procured flour and meal from regional mills, and fruits and vegetables from area farms. The presence of his adept cavalry, too, was believed to divert Blunt until Hindman could bring his full force in.

Blunt and his 5000 men attacked Marmaduke on November 28. Retreat and counterattack followed, with a truce finally being called by Marmaduke to collect their dead and wounded. The Confederates returned to Hindman’s camp at Dripping Springs, near Van Buren. Blunt remained at Cane Hill, and only briefly savored his victory.

MG Francis Herron

On December 3, he received word that Hindman, with over 11,000 men and 22 cannons, was en route to attack him again. Now outnumbered by more than two to one, Blunt sent word to Curtis for reinforcements. Curtis then telegraphed Major General Francis J. Herron in Springfield to hurry his two divisions toward Blunt. Herron’s 6000 men covered over 100 miles in three days, arriving in Fayetteville, on December 6. Hindman was now nearly matched, if not outnumbered, and he was forced to form a new plan.

Instead of a frontal attack on Blunt, Hindman decided to take out the Union reinforcements. He would defeat Herron’s men before they could reach Blunt, and then turn his massive force on Blunt’s rear. He told his men to keep their campfires burning, and left an Arkansas cavalry regiment in the hills opposite Blunt’s front line, to keep the Yankees in place with diversionary skirmishing. Herron learned of the Confederate assault in the early hours of December 7. His men moved to repel the Rebel surge on a horseshoe shaped wooded hill on the Illinois River, known as Prairie Grove.

After crossing the Illinois River under artillery fire, Herron positioned his artillery and exchanged fire with the Confederate cannon. The superior range and number of Union cannon soon silenced the Southern guns, allowing the Union infantry to prepare to attack the ridge. Before the infantry advanced, the Union artillery pounded the Southern position on the ridge for about two hours.

The Twentieth Wisconsin and Nineteenth Iowa Infantry regiments crossed the open corn and wheat fields in the valley before surging forward up the slope, capturing the Confederate cannon of Captain William Blocher’s Arkansas Battery near the home of Archibald Borden. The Union soldiers continued their advance until suddenly the woods erupted with cannon and small-arms fire. The Confederates surrounded the Federal troops on three sides and quickly forced them to retreat to the Union cannon in the valley. A Southern counterattack went down the slope into the open valley, where it was met with case shot composed of small lead balls inside exploding projectiles. Herron’s artillery also used canister shot, consisting of tin cylinders filled with iron balls packed in sawdust which, when fired, turned a cannon into a giant shotgun blast, leaving gaping holes in the Confederate ranks and forcing a retreat to the cover of the woods on the ridge.

“…The Bayonet or Retreat” by Andy Thomas.  Union Troops Fighting at the Bordan House

Seeing Confederate movement on his flank, Herron decided to attack again. The Thirty-seventh Illinois and Twenty-sixth Indiana Infantry regiments went up the hill into the Borden apple orchard. Lieutenant Colonel John Charles Black of the Thirty-seventh Illinois led the way with his right arm in a sling because of a wound he had sustained at Pea Ridge nine months earlier. Outnumbered, the Federal soldiers fell back to a fence line in the valley, where they stopped another Confederate counterattack using Colt revolving rifles carried by the men of Companies A and K of the Thirty-seventh Illinois. Black sustained a serious wound to his left arm but remained with his command until it was out of danger. Black received the only Medal of Honor awarded for this battle.

With only two fresh infantry regiments left, Herron’s command was in peril even as Confederate troops began massing to attack the Twentieth Iowa Infantry, which served as the Federal right flank. Before the attack, two cannon shots rang out from the northwest at about 2:30 p.m., signaling the arrival of Blunt’s command; he quickly deployed and attacked the Confederate left flank. Blunt’s division was at Cane Hill the morning of December 7 expecting to be attacked by the Confederates. Hindman left Colonel James Monroe’s Arkansas cavalry on Reed’s Mountain to skirmish with Blunt’s Federal troops while the rest of the Confederate army marched past the Union position. The ruse worked, as Blunt’s command remained in a defensive position at Cane Hill until it heard the roar of battle at Prairie Grove. Marching to the battlefield, the Union soldiers under Blunt arrived in time to save Herron’s divisions.

The Bordan House as it appears today.

The Confederates responded to the Union advance on their left flank by skirmishing in the woods with the Federal troops until Blunt gave the command to fall back to his cannon line in the valley. Believing this was an opportunity to win the day, Brigadier General Mosby M. Parsons, in command of the Confederate Missouri Infantry brigade, launched an attack across the William Morton hayfield at about 4:00 p.m. As the Southern soldiers advanced, a devastating fire from all forty-four cannon in the Union army tore into the Confederate ranks, which fell back to the cover of the wooded ridge as darkness fell.

Captain H.C. Palmer of the 11th Kansas Infantry wrote “The rebels…came sweeping out of the timber in solid column … lifting their guns with fixed bayonets above their heads. They came on with a yell, like 7,000 demons as they were, and were within 300 yards of us when the command "Fire!" was given and twelve guns, double shotted with grape and canister swept great holes through their column”.

"They Came Like Demons" by Andy Thomas
By mid morning, the full brunt of fighting had commenced. Blunt finally received word of the battle and arrived to support Herron at nearly 2 p.m. Hindman’s extended line, weary and stretched thin, barely held out against the converging Union fronts. Back and forth, each side surged and fell back, and the fighting continued without any measureable gain for either side, unless casualties were considered.5 After twelve hours of unproductive fighting, Hindman finally retired.

Yet again, he deceived Blunt. Leaving campfires lit and Marmaduke’s cavalry in position, as if to resume fighting at daybreak, Hindman sent his army south during the night, wrapping the wheels of the artillery pieces in blankets to muffle the sound.6 Though Blunt was decidedly irritated, he met with Hindman the next morning to arrange for the care of the Confederate wounded that the Rebel Army could not transport.

BG John S. Marmaduke
Blunt’s men remained to bury the Confederate dead, and the Union Army provided rations for the Confederate wounded that were transported by Union ambulance to their field hospitals. Hindman’s army nearly disintegrated on their march south, arriving at their camps near Van Buren and Fort Smith with fewer than 5000 men. Casualties, sickness and desertion claimed the bulk of the Rebel Army after Prairie Grove; the men that remained to face Blunt later that month at Dripping Springs were ill, half-starved, shoeless and without warm clothing or blankets for the Ozark winter.

The losses at Prairie Grove were about even for both armies, with roughly 1300 casualties each. The nature of war is such that orders and plans, on paper or in theory, don’t develop in predictable ways. Leaving the wounded on the battlefield, even in hotly contested ground, is a sacrosanct practice. At Prairie Grove, with both sides gaining and losing ground, the dead and wounded were a present, tangible reminder of the perils of war.

This website offeres several animated videos of various stages of the Battle of Prairie Grove.

The text for this article were taken directly from two sources:

The Encyclopediea of Arkansas - The Battle of Praire Grove by Don Montgomery

Comunity in Conflict - The Impact of the Civil War in the Ozarks

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