Major General Thomas C. Hindman was preparing to move his part of the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi north to join forces with Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke near Cane Hill, in the Ozark Plateau. The combined force would then attack a division of Brigadier General James G. Blunt’s Federal Army of the Fronter before the rest of the army could hurry from Springfield, Missouri, to reinforce them.
Blunt’s division was stationed about 20 miles southwest of Fayetteville. His immediate superior, Major General John Schofield, was on the sick list, so command passed up to Major General Samuel R. Curtis, commanding the Department of the Missouri from St. Louis. The Federal commander at Springfield was Brigadier General Francis J. Herron, who recently resumed command from Brigadier General James Totten.
Lieutenant General Theophilus H. Holmes, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department from Little Rock, initially supported Hindman’s plan to join with Marmaduke and attack Blunt. But then he suddenly reconsidered. Hindman tried to reassure Holmes by writing him on December 1, “With the infantry and artillery alone I can defeat the Union force at Cane Hill,” but by sending cavalry around both enemy flanks as well, Hindman “hoped to destroy them. I urge upon you to leave me to my discretion in the matter. I will not trifle with the great interests entrusted to me.”
Holmes answered, “If your army is destroyed or demoralized, ruin to us will follow.” He urged Hindman to either stay put until he could better organize his army or advance into the Indian Territory. Hindman insisted that he must “push right up at once and try to regain what has been lost.”
When Holmes suggested that the army might be better off reinforcing Vicksburg, Hindman replied, “If this is done, Arkansas is lost. Holding Vicksburg won’t save a foot of it. Whenever the enemy gets south of the Boston Mountains, and establishes himself, he can press you down to Louisiana or into Texas without difficulty.” Hindman also argued that sending his men east would cause mass desertions. Holmes finally relented, writing, “Use your discretion and good luck to you.”
Hindman’s force numbered 11,300 men with 22 guns to reinforce Marmaduke’s 2,000 cavalry. Hindman planned to march his men 75 miles north from the Arkansas River to attack Blunt’s 5,000 Federals. Hindman was confident that he could easily defeat the enemy, but for his assault to succeed, he needed total secrecy. He also needed support on his left flank, which he hoped would be provided by Colonel Douglas H. Cooper and his band of Natives and whites in the Indian Territory.
Unfortunately for Hindman, Cooper’s force had largely disbanded after its defeat at Old Fort Wayne in November. Cooper notified Hindman, “The Indians are not inclined to venture much alone, they need white support.” Cooper could only send 400 men under Brigadier General Stand Watie to support the offensive.
Hindman also could not rely on the element of surprise, as Blunt received word on the 3rd that Confederates were coming to attack him. Although scouts had erroneously guessed that as many as 30,000 men were just 25 miles away (only 11,300 were almost 75 miles away), the alarm had sounded that an attack of some sort was imminent.
Blunt insisted on maintaining his foothold into northwestern Arkansas, so instead of withdrawing before a superior force, he called for reinforcements from Springfield. Blunt hurriedly wired Totten for help, unaware that Herron had taken back his command. He next wired Curtis for help, and then he telegraphed Colonel M. LaRue Harrison, commanding the 1st Arkansas (U.S.) Cavalry, directing him to guard the Telegraph road to facilitate Herron’s line of march. Blunt then ordered his men to build defenses and guard all approaches to Cane Hill.
Blunt’s position served no military advantage, but having driven the Confederates out of the region in late November, Blunt wanted to ensure that they would not regain what they had lost. He called for help even though, as he later admitted, he “had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the other two divisions, except from rumor, and had not been apprised of their movements or locality for a period of over two weeks.”
Curtis received Blunt’s dispatch and wrote, “You are too far in advance for support and supplies. Had better fall back to meet Herron’s reinforcements…” Curtis also ordered Herron to support Blunt in northwestern Arkansas, over 100 miles away. A race began to determine whether Hindman or Herron would reach Blunt first.
Herron told Blunt that he would have his men in motion by noon on the 3rd, but Blunt was so far away “that it may be necessary for you to fall back a short distance, but I will do my best to make that unnecessary.” Blunt refused to fall back, confident he could at least hold off the Confederates until Herron came up with his reinforcements.
As Hindman led his force through the Boston Mountains, the highest in the Ozark chain, he issued a proclamation to his men. Well aware that most of the men in the army were draftees seeing combat for the first time, he instructed them not to fire “because your comrades do; nor because the enemy does; nor because you happen to see the enemy; nor for the sake of firing rapidly.” They were instead to be deliberate in their range, target, and aim before firing.
Hindman told his men that they were to obey orders and ignore rumors, and they were not to help the wounded or stop for loot. Hindman wrote, “If we whip the enemy, all he has will be ours; if not, the spoil will be of on no benefit to us.” Anyone stopping to loot would be “put to death upon the spot.” Hindman went on:
“Remember that the enemy you engage has no feeling of mercy or kindness toward you. His ranks are made up of Pin Indians, free negroes, Southern tories, Kansas jayhawkers, and hired Dutch cut-throats. These bloody ruffians have invaded your country; stolen and destroyed your property; murdered your neighbors; outraged your women; driven your children from their homes, and defiled the graves of your kindred. If each man of you will do what I have here urged upon you, we will utterly destroy them. We can do this; we must do it; our country will be ruined if we fail. A just God will strengthen our arms and give us a glorious victory.”
Herron led two divisions totaling 6,000 Federals and 30 guns into Arkansas the next day, marching along Pea Ridge’s granite slopes. The vanguard reached Elkhorn Tavern on the 6th. Herron wrote Blunt, “It is impossible to make day and night marches on a trip of this length,” but once the Army of the Frontier was finally united, “I do not fear the result.” Herron’s Federals had marched an incredible 110 miles through extreme cold in just three days.
Blunt closely watched the road from Van Buren, which he expected Hindman to use. He did not guard the Cove Creek road to the east, which Blunt believed the Confederates would be foolish to use because it would expose their supply lines to Federal destruction.
Hindman’s Confederates continued advancing on the 6th, clearing Federal pickets in their front and pushing Federal cavalry off Reed’s Mountain. Hindman planned to advance up the Van Buren road just as Blunt guessed and attack the next morning. However, scouts notified him that Herron’s reinforcements were approaching, and a frontal assault would only push Blunt back into Herron.
Hindman refused to go back to Van Buren because it would demoralize his army. So he instead planned to attack Herron first, hoping his Federals would be exhausted and not ready to fight. He would then turn and destroy Blunt’s isolated division on Cane Hill. Hindman was acting on the assumption that Blunt was unaware of his presence and would not join forces with Herron before the Confederates could destroy him.
After midnight, Hindman directed his army to conduct a night march around Blunt on the Cove Creek road to an area south of Fayetteville, around Prairie Grove.
- 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.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Smith, Dean E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.