Following the Battle of Prairie Grove in northwestern Arkansas, the defeated Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi, commanded by Major General Thomas C. Hindman, fell back to Fort Smith, on the Arkansas River, to regroup. Hindman tried to bolster his demoralized troops by urging them to “vigorously prepare for other battles and still more glorious achievements.”
Meanwhile, the victorious Federal divisions of Brigadier Generals James G. Blunt and Francis Herron joined forces near Prairie Grove. Blunt, the ranking commander, proudly announced to his men that “your victory has virtually ended the war north of the Arkansas River.” But Major General John Schofield, commanding the Federal Army of the Frontier (to which Blunt and Herron belonged), was not happy with the outcome.
Schofield had ordered Blunt to pull his forces back to join with Herron before the Confederates attacked. Schofield was also dissatisfied with Herron for attacking with troops so exhausted that many died of fatigue and exposure instead of combat. But Schofield was sick with bilious fever and unable to take the field, so for the time being Blunt would be in command.
Blunt was preparing to pursue Hindman’s shattered army when Schofield ordered him to withdraw from northwestern Arkansas. To Blunt, this was a “decidedly cool position to come from an officer who had deserted his command in the face of the enemy.” Instead of obeying, Blunt told Schofield on the day after Christmas, “I march tomorrow morning for Van Buren.”
The Federals moved out in the rainy predawn hours of December 27. The force numbered 8,000 men, setting out to face a Confederate army numbering no more than 5,000 after a rash of desertions. The Federals slogged through the Boston Mountains and arrived outside Van Buren around 10 a.m. the next morning. The Confederates had no chance to stop them, and Hindman was forced to abandon not only Van Buren but Fort Smith as he withdrew south of the Arkansas River. The Confederates destroyed all they could not take with them, and the Federals looted the rest. Blunt finally had to threaten his men at gunpoint to stop the pillage.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Theophilus H. Holmes, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department from Little Rock, continued to resist calls from his superiors to send troops east of the Mississippi River to aid in the defense of Vicksburg. Holmes told his superiors on the 29th that if he lost any of his men, “the whole valley of the Arkansas will be stampeded and the political party which has constantly cried out that the country is deserted by the government will pave the way to dangerous disloyalty and disgust.”
In addition, the casualties and desertions sustained after the defeat at Prairie Grove meant that Holmes had even fewer men to give. He warned that losing the Arkansas River Valley would lead to the loss of Arkansas, and then after that the loss of the entire Trans-Mississippi. Holmes concluded that “under these circumstances, and with the greatest reluctance, I hesitate to obey your last order.”
Regardless of whether Holmes transferred any of his troops east, he and Hindman could not prevent the Federals from securing northwestern Arkansas with the fall of Van Buren and Fort Smith. Blunt’s successful expedition resulted in the capture of 100 prisoners, tens of thousands of foodstuffs, and hundreds of mules, horses, and heads of cattle. The Federals also captured “quite a quantity of army shoes, common enough with us, but probably sufficiently scarce in their army, and estimated by the southern gentry at a $15.00 a pair.”
According to Herron, Hindman’s army had “crumbled to pieces, and became entirely inefficient.” Even Confederates agreed that Blunt’s movement “was executed with skill, courage, and success in the face of our busted army.” This gave the Federals such a morale boost that they hardly acknowledged the impending return of Schofield to field command. Schofield would take over in early January.
But the Confederates were not yet ready to admit defeat. Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke, commanding a 2,500-man cavalry division within the Trans-Mississippi army, rode out of Lewisburg on New Year’s Eve. His goal was to ride behind Federal lines and isolate them in Arkansas by destroying their vital Federal supply depot at Springfield in southwestern Missouri.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Never Call Retreat: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 3. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1965.
- 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.
- Johnson, Robert Underwood (ed.) and Buel, Clarence Clough (ed.), Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: Retreat from Gettysburg. New York: Castle Books, 1956.
- Smith, Dean E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.