Brigadier General Francis J. Herron led two divisions of 6,000 Federals and 30 guns to reinforce Brigadier General James G. Blunt’s 5,000-man division isolated at Cane Hill in northwestern Arkansas. Major General Thomas C. Hindman, commanding the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi, had hoped to attack and destroy Blunt before Herron arrived, but when he learned that Herron was coming up fast, he decided to bypass Blunt, attack Herron first, and then turn back on Blunt. Hindman’s army consisted of 11,300 poorly equipped men and 22 guns.
Herron’s Federals reached Fayetteville, about 20 miles from Blunt, before dawn on December 7. Hindman dispatched a small cavalry force under Colonel J.C. Monroe to keep Blunt occupied while the rest of the Confederates moved around Blunt’s flank to confront Herron. As Herron’s men continued marching toward Blunt, they were met by Confederate artillery near Illinois Creek, 12 miles down the road. Hindman’s army stood in line of battle at the village of Prairie Grove, between Herron and Blunt.
Hindman ordered an attack, led by Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke’s cavalry and William C. Quantrill’s partisans. Herron, fearing that Hindman had destroyed Blunt’s force, directed his men to stand firm. But the Federals were exhausted from marching nearly 100 miles in three days, and they began falling back. Hindman did not capitalize on this early advantage; he instead ordered his men to take defensive positions and wait for Herron to attack.
As both sides settled into defenses and traded artillery fire, Blunt heard the guns and realized that Hindman had outflanked him. “My God, they’re in our rear!” he exclaimed as he wheeled his troops around and hurried to Herron’s aid.
On the battlefield, Herron guessed that since the Confederates had stopped their advance, their numbers must be small. He therefore ordered an attack, during which the Federals charged twice but could not make headway. Hindman responded with a charge of his own, but Federal artillery beat the Confederates back.
Blunt’s Federals began arriving on the scene around 4 p.m., pouring enfilade fire into Hindman’s flank. Brigadier General J.O. “Jo” Shelby’s Confederate cavalry counterattacked, preventing Blunt from breaking the line. Nightfall ended the fighting.
The Confederates held their ground, but the weather turned bitterly cold, the troops lacked ammunition for a second day of fighting, and the animals lacked forage to survive. Hindman therefore ordered a withdrawal back toward Van Buren during the night. Men wrapped blankets around wagon wheels so the Federals could not hear the retreat. Thousands of soldiers (many of whom were disgruntled conscripts) deserted along the way.
About 10,000 men on each side participated in the battle. The Federals sustained 1,251 casualties (175 killed, 813 wounded, and 263 missing), of which 918 were Herron’s. The Confederates lost 1,317 (164 killed, 817 wounded, and 336 missing). The fight was a tactical draw, but the Confederate withdrawal made it a strategic victory for the Federals. Herron reported, “The fighting was desperate beyond description… I think this section is rid of Hindman.”
Major General John Schofield, commanding the Federal Army of the Frontier over Herron and Blunt, reported that the battle had been fought “without any decided advantage to either side.” But Blunt argued that had the Confederates won, then Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and the Indian Territory “would have been the prey of the rebel army.” Perhaps more importantly, it would have opened the path back into Missouri with “nothing in our rear to have checked their progress.” But instead, as Herron predicted, Hindman would never threaten this region again.
The next morning, Hindman sent a message to Blunt under a flag of truce requesting that his Confederates be allowed to collect the wounded and bury the dead. Hindman asked for a 36-hour armistice, but Blunt believed this was a ruse to cover a Confederate escape and offered him just six hours. Hindman agreed; his army was already withdrawing, so six hours still gave him a day’s march ahead of his pursuers.
Both Confederates and Federals came out to the battlefield, along with nearby relatives of those in both armies. Some of the wounded had frozen to death, and hogs feasted on corpses. Federal burial parties noticed that many Confederates had frozen to death without suffering any wounds. They also noticed that some Confederates had removed the bullets from the cartridges to fire blanks; this indicated that they had served against their will.
During the truce period, Blunt and Hindman exchanged angry messages accusing each other of taking arms from the dead on the field, thereby violating “a thing too sacred to be violated.” Hindman asserted that his men had the right to take back any arms belonging to their dead comrades, while Blunt countered that such a claim was “not only simply preposterous, but very ridiculous.” Blunt ended the truce and ordered anyone caught taking arms to be captured as prisoners of war. But by that time, most of Hindman’s troops were well on their way to Van Buren, 45 miles south.
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