Lieutenant General Theophilus H. Holmes, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department from Little Rock, Arkansas, resisted pleas to send troops east to help defend Vicksburg, Mississippi. Holmes contended that Federals from Missouri had invaded northwestern Arkansas, and Helena on the Mississippi River was also under heavy threat. If the Federals pushed the Confederates out of Arkansas, “there is absolutely no other stopping place for an army short of Red River.”
The Federals from Missouri consisted of a division from the Army of the Frontier, commanded by Brigadier General James G. Blunt. They moved from Bentonville to drive off a small Confederate cavalry force that had been reconnoitering around Cane Hill, part of the Ozark Plateau. Major General Thomas C. Hindman, commanding a corps in Holmes’s army, responded by sending a force of 2,000 cavalry under Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke to regain Cane Hill. When Blunt learned that Marmaduke was approaching, he believed the movement was the prelude to another Confederate effort to enter Missouri. He therefore dispatched 5,000 Federals to drive the Confederates back.
Marmaduke learned of Blunt’s move and placed the road leading from the northwest under guard. But the Federals advanced on the 28th using the Fayetteville road from the northeast instead, which Marmaduke had not guarded. The Federals quickly drove the pickets off and attacked Marmaduke’s unsuspecting flank. The fight became a nine-hour running battle, with the Confederates being pushed back over hills and through valleys as Marmaduke scrambled to form a rear guard to protect his supply train. The Confederates retreated down the Van Buren road as their supply train hurried into the Boston Mountains.
The chase scattered not only the Confederates but the Federals as well, forcing Blunt to halt and regroup before resuming the pursuit. As nightfall approached, the Federals ran into the Confederate rear guard, led by Colonel J.O. “Jo” Shelby’s “Iron Brigade,” which lay in ambush. Shelby directed his men to form a column on each side of the road. The front line fired, raced to the rear to reload, and the next line fired to hold off the advancing enemy. This stopped the Federal pursuers and ended the engagement, enabling Marmaduke, his men, and his supply train to escape into the mountains.
The Federals sustained 44 casualties (eight killed and 36 wounded), and the Confederates lost 80 (10 killed and 70 wounded or missing). Blunt proclaimed victory, but his failure to destroy Marmaduke’s force meant that Confederate resistance in Arkansas would remain strong. Nevertheless, this engagement shifted the strategic initiative in Arkansas to the Federals.
During the night, Marmaduke fell back to Dripping Springs, eight miles north of Van Buren. He looked to counterattack the next day, as Blunt set up headquarters at Cane Hill. The Federals were now over 100 miles from the rest of the Army of the Frontier and its support base at Springfield, Missouri. General Hindman hurried a regiment and a wagon train of ammunition to reinforce Marmaduke.
In his official report written that night, Marmaduke urged Hindman to come up with all “celerity and secrecy” to join in an attack. Hindman replied, “The crossing will be completed to-morrow, and the command will move on Monday (December 1) at daylight. I shall march moderately, not above 12 or 15 miles a day, if it can be helped, so as not to break the men down before the fight commences.”
Believing that Blunt would stay at Cane Hill until he came up, Hindman added, “To prevent as far as practicable rumors of the movement getting to the enemy, spread the report that Little Rock is threatened, and I am ordered there. This can be done, I hope, without disheartening your men.” Meanwhile, Blunt’s isolated force remained at Cane Hill as Hindman hoped.
Hindman’s Confederates began crossing the Arkansas River on the 29th. General Holmes wrote him, “You must save the country if you can.” Hindman met with Marmaduke and his other commanders the following day. The Confederates only had enough ammunition for one day of fighting, so the attack needed to be quick and decisive. The leaders worked out a plan to divide the army into four columns, with one each attacking Blunt’s flanks, front, and rear. But then, in a sudden change of heart, Holmes warned Hindman, “You must not think of advancing in your present condition. You would lose your army. The enemy will either advance on you or for want of supplies will be obliged to return to Missouri.”
As the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi assembled near Van Buren, Blunt dispatched scouts to determine the enemy positions.
- 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.
- Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.