Confederate military prospects west of the Mississippi River were extremely bleak. Near the end of 1862, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi seemed poised to drive the Federals out of Arkansas and possibly reenter Missouri. But the Battle of Prairie Grove had demoralized the Confederates, and what was left of the army was now back at Little Rock.
Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon was disgusted by the “disorder, confusion, and demoralization everywhere prevalent both with the armies and people” in Arkansas. He therefore ordered a reorganization of the Trans-Mississippi Department. The new commander would be Lieutenant-General Edmund Kirby Smith, former commander in the East Tennessee District. Smith would be replacing Lieutenant-General Theophilus H. Holmes, who had “lost the confidence and attachment of all.” Smith’s department would consist of three districts:
- The District of Arkansas under Holmes
- The District of West Louisiana under Major-General Richard Taylor
- The District of Texas under Major-General John B. Magruder
Seddon hoped that Smith could redeem the department’s “lamentable record of bad management and of failures.” The Arkansas delegation to the Confederate Congress had requested Smith’s services based on his supposedly effective performance during the Kentucky campaign last year.
President Jefferson Davis had initially appointed Smith to take charge “of the department to be composed of Louisiana and Texas,” but that was then extended to also include Holmes’s district in a subsequent order: “The command of Lieut. Gen. Kirby Smith is extended so as to embrace the Trans-Mississippi Department.”
Smith inherited about 46,000 total troops to defend against threats from almost every side:
- Part of Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee was operating in Arkansas along the Mississippi
- Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf was pushing up the Mississippi in Louisiana
- Major-General John Schofield’s Army of the Frontier (under Major-General Samuel R. Curtis) was threatening Arkansas from Missouri
- Federal bushwhackers were threatening from Kansas
- Federal naval forces were threatening the Texas coast
Major-General Thomas C. Hindman, who had commanded the Trans-Mississippi army under Holmes, had become “perfectly odious” due to his “alleged acts of violence and tyranny” against both civilians and his own troops. Seddon estimated that under Hindman’s leadership, an army that had once had as many as 50,000 officers and men now had no more than 18,000 due to desertion, disease, and death.
The Confederate troops lacked adequate food, clothing, or shelter. In addition, secession had never been as popular in this part of the Confederacy as it had in the east, which made recruitment more difficult. Many men resented the draft, as well as the harsh penalties imposed for dodging it. And the economy was much worse west of the Mississippi, making the war even more unpopular among those suffering hardships.
When Hindman retreated after the Battle of Prairie Grove, thousands of men deserted and joined other marauders in pillaging the countryside in Arkansas and the Indian Territory, robbing citizens of their property and slaves. This added to the general demoralization throughout the region. Brigadier-General William Steele, commanding Confederates in the Indian Territory, warned the commander at Fort Smith, Arkansas, “Be specially careful in permitting no persons with negroes or otherwise to pass your lines. Many negroes have, no doubt, been stolen, and it will doubtless be attempted to send them to Texas under false pretenses.”
Due to Federal naval activity on the Mississippi, it would take Smith over a month to reach his new headquarters at Alexandria, Louisiana. During that time, Hindman was transferred to Vicksburg, replaced by Brigadier-General William Cabell, who led the remnants of Hindman’s army into the Indian Territory to join with Steele. Holmes raised a new Army of the Trans-Mississippi that included a division to be led by Major-General Sterling Price, who had long asked to be transferred from Louisiana back west to try regaining his home state of Missouri. However, Price was forced to leave behind his Missouri troops, as they were needed to defend Vicksburg.
Confederate weakness in the Trans-Mississippi allowed the Federals to transfer many troops to the Vicksburg campaign. By the end of February, the Federal garrison at Helena had been severely depleted to the point that Brigadier-General Willis A. Gorman, commanding the District of East Arkansas, warned that it “invites attack.” But it would be several months before the Confederates would be able to regain enough strength to launch any kind of offensive in the Trans-Mississippi.
- Castel, Albert, General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West.
- Cozzens, Peter, The Darkest Days of the War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth. The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 1997.
- 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.
- Kerby, Robert L., Kirby Smith’s Confederacy.
- United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 22, Part 2. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.
- Prushankin, Jeffrey S., A Crisis in Confederate Command.
- Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.