Major General Thomas C. Hindman’s Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi had retreated to Van Buren, Arkansas, after the Battle of Prairie Grove in December. When Brigadier General James G. Blunt’s Federals advanced to threaten him, Hindman pulled back to Little Rock, with both sides trading artillery fire across the Arkansas River. Major General John Schofield eventually arrived to take command from Blunt and place him under arrest for advancing without orders (Blunt was later exonerated and promoted).
At Little Rock, Hindman’s force dwindled to just about 6,000 effectives, or half its size before the fight at Prairie Grove. This left him unable to launch a new offensive to achieve his ultimate goal, which was to take back northwestern Arkansas and all of Missouri for the Confederacy. Hindman therefore dispatched Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke and a division of about 2,500 men to raid Federal supply depots in southwestern Missouri. Specifically, Marmaduke was to destroy the line between Springfield and Rolla that supplied the Federal Army of the Frontier.
Marmaduke’s Confederates began heading north in three columns on New Year’s Eve. They moved in three columns, commanded by Colonels Emmett MacDonald, Joseph C. Porter, and Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby. Shelby wrote:
“On the last day of December, 1862, when the old year was dying in the lap of the new, and January had sent its moaning winds to wail the requiem of the past… The day was auspicious; a bright red sun had tempered the keen air to pleasantness, and cheered the mounted soldiers with the hopes of a gay and gallant trip. The first two days’ march was long and comfortable; the third the rain commenced, cold and chilling, and continued without intermission for three days, the grand old mountains standing bare against the dull and somber sky, their heads heavy with the storms of centuries. The men suffered much, but, keeping the bright goal of Missouri constantly in sight, spurred on and on quite merrily.”
Shelby’s men scattered a small Federal force and arrived at Yellville, near the Missouri border, on January 2. According to Shelby, “The 4th, 5th, and 6th were spent in long and cold forced marches” as the troops entered Missouri. The Confederates approached the Federal garrisons at Fort Lawrence and Ozark on the morning of the 6th.
As Marmaduke moved through Forsyth, Missouri, his scouts reported that the main Federal supply depot at Springfield was vulnerable. Marmaduke issued orders: “Shelby to move forward in the direction of Springfield, through Ozark, a fortified town, garrisoned by 400 militia; MacDonald by way of Fort Lawrence to Springfield.” Marmaduke also notified Porter, whose column was to meet the other two at Hartville, to instead join the drive on Springfield. Marmaduke wanted all three columns to join forces for an attack on Springfield, but Porter did not get the message until the 10th, four days after Marmaduke sent it.
The march during the night of the 6th “was attended with much suffering from cold. The men were, however, buoyed up and kept in excellent spirits in expectation of a fight on the coming morning.” When the Federal commander at Fort Lawrence received word that thousands of Confederates were approaching, he prepared to retreat to Ozark, 45 miles away. But MacDonald’s 300 troops attacked first, sending the Federals fleeing and then burning the fort. The Confederates inflicted about two dozen casualties, and seized 10 wagons, 200 horses, and 300 stands of arms.
During this time, Marmaduke’s main force approached Ozark. The Federals who had fled from Fort Lawrence got there first and evacuated their supplies as they continued retreating north toward Springfield. As the Confederates approached, Shelby sent a regiment around the town to see if the Federals had evacuated. He wrote, “I soon found that the nest was there and it was warm, but the birds had flown, and nothing remained to do but apply the torch to fort and barracks. Soon the red glare of flames burst out upon the midnight sky, and the cold, calm stars looked down upon the scene.”
The Confederates continued north toward Springfield that night, as Shelby wrote, “It was an intensely cold night, that of the 7th, the frost hung heavy and chill on the garments of my devoted brigade, marching onto the stronghold of the enemy with a determination in their hearts rarely surpassed.” The Federal commander at Springfield, Brigadier General Egbert Brown, finally received word that night that about 6,000 Confederates were heading his way. Brown had just 1,500 men and did not know that the number of enemy troops was wildly exaggerated. Nevertheless, he decided to stay and defend the depot. Brown frantically called on nearby outposts to send reinforcements.
On the morning of the 8th, Brown dispatched scouts to find out how close the Confederates were. He then positioned his men at all high points surrounding the town and prepared for a fight. According to Shelby, “The sun came up on the morning of the 8th like a ball of fire, and the day was gloomy and chill; but Springfield loomed up before us in the distance like a beautiful panorama, and the men, catching the inspiration of the scene, forgot all their trials and hardships, and were eager for the rough, red fray.”
Brown sent out cavalry to delay the Confederate advance. Shelby wrote, “With flaunting banners, and all the pomp and circumstance of war, the Federals had marched gaily out to meet us, and taken their position in our front.” He then reported:
“There lay the quiet town, robed in the dull, gray hue of the winter, its domes and spires stretching their skeleton hands to heaven, as if in prayer against the coming strife, and, drawing near and nearer, long black lines came gleaming on, while the sun shone out like a golden bar, uncurling its yellow hair on earth and sky, stream and mountain, and lent the thrilling picture a sterner and fiercer light. My skirmishers advanced steadily, and now continual shots in front tell that the enemy are found and pressed sorely.”
Major General Samuel R. Curtis, commanding the Federal Department of the Missouri from St. Louis, was notified of the Confederate threat at Springfield and reported to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “Rebels came to outskirts of Springfield at 1 o’clock, and immediately began shelling the town with two cannon. Our troops responded from fort. Nothing decisive.”
The Federals repelled the Confederate charges, with MacDonald’s cavalry coming up from Fort Lawrence in support. Colonel Benjamin Crabb took command of the Federals after Brown fell wounded. Crabb shored up defenses and prepared for another Confederate charge. Early that afternoon, Shelby ordered an all-out attack before Federal reinforcements could arrive:
“Gallantly it was done, and as gallantly sustained. At the command, a thousand warriors sprang to their feet, and, with one wild Missouri yell, burst upon the foe; some storm the fort at the headlong charge, others gain the houses from which the Federals had just been driven, and keep up the fight, while some push on after the flying foe. The storm increases and the combatants get closer and closer.”
The fighting surged back and forth as Federal reinforcements joined the fray. Some of the Federals broke and ran, but others came up to take their place and finally push the Confederates back. Shelby reported, “Night came down with weary, brooding wings, laid her dark brow across the cloudy sky, and threw her sable mantle over fort and wall and house and men, checking the bloody strife, and calming the furious passions that had been at war all day.”
Marmaduke might have captured Springfield had Porter come up to join the fray, but the Federals maintained the hold on Springfield that they had since just after the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in August 1861. The Federals sustained 231 casualties (30 killed, 195 wounded, and six missing), while the Confederates lost 292 (80 killed, 200 wounded, and 12 missing). The Federals Curtis wrote Brown, “You and your troops are heroes. I hope God will spare you strength for to-morrow. The eyes of the country are on you.” Schofield directed his Federals to cut Marmaduke’s line of retreat.
- 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.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 17, Part 1. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.