Monday, November 28, 2011

November 28, 1862: The Battle of Cane Hill, Arkansas

Historical Marker at Canehill, Arkansas
The first major fighting of the Prairie Grove Campaign took place 149 years ago today when Federal troops attacked three Confederate cavalry brigades at Cane Hill, Arkansas (now spelled Canehill).
Having advanced from his position at Camp Babcock north of Siloam Springs on November 27, 1862 (see An Attack in the Making), Union General James G. Blunt reached Cane Hill between 9 and 10 o'clock on the morning of the 28th. His force consisted of 5,000 men and 30 pieces of field artillery.

The Confederate force at Cane Hill was commanded by General John S. Marmaduke. Although Blunt reported that the Southern force numbered 8,000 men, the actual number was much smaller. The Confederates were severely outnumbered in terms of both men and artillery.

1880 Map of Cane Hill, Arkansas
The battle began near Cane Hill College at the top and
ended near Morrow's at the lower right.
The Battle of Cane Hill began when Blunt's forces attacked the Missouri brigade of Colonel "Fighting" Jo Shelby. These men were camped in the northernmost of the three villages along the Cane Hill ridge and although Shelby had been warned that the Federals were coming, he admitted that he was taken by surprise:

Having had due notice (eighteen hours previous) by the general commanding that the enemy were advancing, we endeavored to be on the alert, but I must confess (though it may reflect somewhat upon myself) that the enemy, by his skillful management, fell upon me sooner than I would have desired, considering that a portion of our division was encamped some distance in my rear and I had but little time to give them the notice required; yet I had sufficient time to place my men in their proper positions and await the coming of the hated foe. - Col. Joseph O. Shelby, Dec. 1, 1862.

Having pushed back Shelby's pickets in brisk skirmishing, Blunt moved up Captain John W. Rabb's Battery (2nd Indiana Light Artillery) along with the two light howitzers of the Second Kansas Cavalry. 

Site of Confederate Stand on Reed's Mountain
Each side later claimed that the other opened first. For the next hour or so, Shelby's two iron 6-pounders battled with the superior firepower of the Union guns. As this cannonade was underway, General Marmaduke came to the front and consulted with Shelby, who reported he had seen infantry supporting the Federal cannon. Viewing the situation in person, Marmaduke ordered Shelby to fall back to a high ridge 3/4's of a mile south where Colonel Emmett MacDonald had taken position with his cavalry brigade.

As the Confederates withdrew to their second position, the Federals followed and again formed for battle. After a sharp fight, the Southern forces again fell back to a previously identified third position.

This type of fight continued for the entire day. The outnumbered Confederates would take a good position, force the Federals to form lines of battle and bring forward their artillery and then, after a sharp encounter, fall back on yet another good position. The overall effect was that the Confederates were able to fight a slow retreat on ground of their own choosing throughout the day, instead of being routed from a single position by the much larger Union army.

The fight went back through the villages on Cane Hill and up and over Reed's Mountain into the Cove Creek valley.With darkness approaching and believing Marmaduke was now in full retreat, the Federals launched a direct cavalry attack down the Cove Creek road - and right into a trap.

Site of Ambush on Cove Creek Road
Taking advantage of a position where a steep bluff forced the road to run along a narrow strip or land or "funnel" between the rocks and the creek, the Confederates set up an ambush and the Union cavalry rode right into it:

The charge continued for about half a mile down the valley, to a point where it converged in a funnel shape, terminating in a narrow defile. At this point a large body of the enemy were in ambush in front and upon the flanks, where cavalry could not approach, with their battery also masked in front. As soon as the party we were pursuing had passed through the defile, they opened upon us a most destructive fire, which, for the moment, caused my men to recoil and give back, in spite of my own efforts and those of other officers to rally them... - Gen. James G. Blunt, Dec. 3, 1862.

A Confederate counterattack was driven back when officers - including General Blunt - were able to rally three companies of the Sixth Kansas Cavalry.

With darkness descending, the Battle of Cane Hill came to an end. The Confederates sent forward a flag of truce asking for a suspension of hostilities to remove their casualties from the field and the Federals agreed. Both sides took care of their wounded and during the night, Marmaduke and his cavalry slipped away into the Boston Mountains.

Casualties were fairly light considering the severity of the fighting and numbers of men involved, but this likely was the result of the nature of the fight with its constant stops and starts. I will look closer at the numbers in my next post.

The Battle of Cane Hill was a Union victory and as the day came to an end, Blunt and his men occupied the former Confederate positions. By winning the battle, however, he unwittingly played right into the hands of overall Confederate commander General Thomas C. Hindman, who was planning a much bigger operation.

To learn more about the Battle of Cane Hill, please visit

To learn more about the Battle of Prairie Grove, please visit

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