Major General John Schofield’s Federal Army of the Frontier was now reunited at Osage Springs, Arkansas. Schofield thought that Major General Thomas C. Hindman’s Confederates were pursuing him, but he soon learned that Hindman was actually moving in the opposite direction, toward the Arkansas River. Schofield wrote one of his division commanders, Brigadier General James G. Blunt, “I have hoped that the rebels would come back and give us battle where we could fight them together. But if they will not do this we must separate and follow our respective paths of duty.”
Schofield therefore divided his army again, sending Blunt’s Federals back to Old Fort Wayne and leading the rest to Springfield in southwestern Missouri. Soon after, Major General Samuel R. Curtis, commanding the Department of the Missouri over Schofield’s army, received orders from General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to assemble as many troops as possible at Helena, Arkansas, on the Mississippi River to either move against Little Rock or reinforce Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal army driving toward Vicksburg.
Curtis resisted Halleck’s order because he worried that sending troops to Helena would open a path for the Confederates in Arkansas to move north and invade Missouri. He directed Major General Frederick Steele to lead 10,000 Federals from Pilot Knob, Missouri, to Batesville, Arkansas. Steele protested Curtis’s order to Halleck and instead went to Helena, where he crossed the Mississippi and joined Grant’s offensive.
Curtis also denied a request from Brigadier General Alvin P. Hovey to move his Federals from Helena and make “a dash upon the Post of Arkansas,” a key Confederate fort on the Arkansas River. Hovey resolved to proceed without Curtis’s permission, but the mission had to be aborted when it was determined that the nearby White River was too low for the gunboats to support the infantry assault.
Meanwhile, Hindman and Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke sought to reunite their forces with those under Colonels Douglas H. Cooper and Stand Watie at Little Rock. Hindman wanted to attack Schofield’s Federals returning to Springfield, but he lacked the strength to do it. So he instead moved to Fort Smith on the Arkansas River and worked to strengthen his army. The troops lacked adequate food and shelter, and illness ran rampant. And Lieutenant General Theophilus H. Holmes, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, struggled to fill Hindman’s requests for supplies.
Hindman’s army was bolstered somewhat by the addition of William C. Quantrill’s partisans. They joined Marmaduke while Quantrill went to Richmond to try securing a rank and official recognition of his force. Quantrill had gained a notorious reputation operating against Federal supply trains in Missouri and Kansas, with Federal search parties moving through many Missouri counties in search of his partisans.
By late November, about 5,000 new British Enfield muskets and 7,000 new uniforms arrived for Hindman’s troops. The force was renamed the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, which Holmes planned to rechristen the Army of Missouri once the men reentered that state.
As Holmes balked at President Jefferson Davis’s request to send troops east to defend Vicksburg, Marmaduke’s Confederates advanced 50 miles north of Fort Smith to forage near Cane Hill. When Curtis learned of this, he ordered Schofield to reunite his Army of the Frontier once again. Hindman, thinking that Curtis was shipping Schofield east, only expected to face Blunt’s division in his front.
Hindman thought that Blunt had fallen back into Missouri, but Marmaduke soon learned that Blunt was about 20 miles north of Cane Hill in northwestern Arkansas. He wrote Hindman proposing that the entire Army of the Trans-Mississippi attack Blunt while he sat supposedly isolated. Hindman agreed. Neither Hindman nor Marmaduke knew that Blunt was preparing to move south against them instead.
Marmaduke had about 2,000 cavalry, and he believed that Blunt was too weak to give battle. Marmaduke told Hindman, “General, I feel assured that you can bag this party in a short quick fight. Blunt and no one else dreams of such a move. I will surprise friend and foe, hence the better chance for secrecy and success.”
Blunt’s force consisted of about 5,000 troops, mostly from Kansas, camped west of Bentonville. Blunt had been ordered to pull out of the area, but he refused “until compelled to do so by a superior fighting enemy.” By this time, Blunt had taken command of the entire Army of the Frontier due to Schofield falling ill with “bilious fever.” But most of the army was back at Springfield while Blunt stayed with his division in northwestern Arkansas.
Curtis sent another warning to Blunt on the 24th that he was “too far in advance of support and supplies.” Blunt ignored it and dispatched a scouting party to determine enemy strength around Cane Hill. After a skirmish, Blunt learned that Confederate cavalry were in his front, soon to be joined by Hindman’s army. If Hindman and Marmaduke joined forces, they would have about 11,000 men and a good chance of driving through Blunt’s small force and reentering Missouri.
Blunt rushed to gather a supply train and advance on Marmaduke before Hindman arrived. He was unaware that Hindman was still several days away.
- Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
- Faust, Patricia L. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.