Wednesday, December 7, 2011

December 7, 1862: The Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas

Borden House at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park
December 7th is remembered today as Pearl Harbor Day and today marks the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Before 1941, however, most Arkansans easily remembered December 7th as the anniversary of the Battle of Prairie Grove.
Both battles sent shockwaves through the Natural State and many promising young men gave their lives in the service of their counties.

The Battle of Prairie Grove developed as Confederate Major General Thomas C. Hindman successfully maneuvered his army around the Union force of Union Brigadier General James G. Blunt at Cane Hill (see yesterday's post: The Battle of Reed's Mountain).

Using Colonel J.C. Monroe's cavalry brigade to maintain the impression of a developing battle on the slopes of Reed's Mountain, Hindman marched his main army up the Cove Creek valley and emerged near Prairie Grove. Now on the main Fayetteville to Cane Hill road directly between Blunt and his approaching reinforcements under Brigadier General Francis J. Herron, the Confederate general turned his army toward Fayetteville hoping to destroy Herron before the two wings of the Union army could unite.

It was a good plan and might well have worked had Hindman's army been seasoned and even reasonably equipped and supplied. There was nothing he could do about that.

View of Prairie where Herron formed his men.
With his infantry pouring from the Cane Hill Road at Prairie Grove, Hindman send John S. Marmaduke's cavalry division across the nearby Illinois River and up the Fayetteville Road to find Herron. The Union general, in turn, was driving his men hard hoping to link up with Blunt before the Confederates could attack him at Cane Hill.

The two forces collided on the old Fayetteville Road. Colonel Jo Shelby's Missouri Brigade attacked, driving the Union cavalry back on the main body of Herron's command. Herron, in turn, came forward aggressively, pushing Shelby back to and over the river.

View of the Borden House from the Prairie.
(House is in trees atop the ridge at the center).
Realizing that the critical battle was underway, Hindman formed his infantry and artillery in a line that stretched for about three miles along the crest of the ridge at Prairie Grove. The men did not entrench, but used fences, trees, buildings and rocks as defenses. Herron moved his force across the Illinois River and formed his ranks in the wide open prairie below, his lines of soldiers, cannon and flags in clear and panoramic view of the Confederates on the ridge.

The primary battle opened with a massive artillery exchange. The ground shook for miles and the boom of nearly 50 pieces of artillery could be heard far in every direction. At Cane Hill, Blunt heard the cannon fire and knew he was in trouble. He quickly began to pull his force back from its isolated position there and marched along a roughly semi-circular route for Prairie Grove.

Borden House Orchard, where hundreds fell.
At 1 p.m., Herron made an open field assault on the Confederate right flank. Moving forward across open ground in clear view, with flags flying, the Federal troops hit the bottom of the ridge and surged up. The Confederates there waited until they were within 60 yards and then opened on them with a deadly sheet of fire. The attack was broken and the Union soldiers started withdrawing back onto the prairie.

The Confederates surged after them, storming down the ridge and right into the muzzles of Herron's massed cannon.  Driven back themselves, the Southern soldiers returned back up the ridge to their original position. Another Union attack followed, leading to heavy and bloody fighting around the Borden house and orchard on the ridge. A Union officer later estimated that 250 men were killed or wounded in the yard of the Borden house alone. The attack failed and the Federals withdrew back onto the prairie.

Western Overlook, where Blunt attacked.
As the afternoon continued, General Blunt reached the field with his force and took up a position on Herron's right, extending the Union line to match that of the Confederates. The battle continued with a fury unlike anything seen west of the Mississippi, with the possible exception of the fight earlier that year at Pea Ridge.  Hindman penned a vivid description a few weeks later:

...There was no place of shelter upon any portion of the field. Wounds were given and deaths inflicted by the enemy's artillery in the ranks of the reserves as well as in the front rank. During five hours, shell, solid shot, grape and canister, and storms of bullets swept the entire ground. Many gallant officers, and many soldiers equally brave fell dead or wounded, but their comrades stood as firm as iron. Volunteers maintained their reputation. Conscripts rose at once to the same standard, and splendidly refuted the slanders put upon them... Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman, C.S.A.

Blunt and Herron believed they were outnumbered, estimating the strength of Hindman's army as 28,000. The actual number was closer to 11,000. The two armies were actually very close in size, although the  Union had a vast superiority in artillery, supplies and small arms.

After a day of bloody fighting that saw attack and counter-attack along the entire length of the field, night finally field. Hindman was still in position on the ridge, while Blunt and Herron occupied the prairies and fields below. Neither army had been able to drive the other off and Blunt had escaped from his exposed position at Cane Hill. Hindman slipped away into the mountains that night, beginning his return to Van Buren and Fort Smith. His men were hungry and he did not have enough ammunition for a second day of fighting.

Although the numbers are estimates at best, the Confederates lost 164 killed, 817 wounded and 336 missing or captured. The Federals reported similar losses of 175 killed, 813 wounded and 264 missing or captured. The wounded from both sides were treated in makeshift hospitals both on the field and in nearby Fayetteville. Hundreds of them died from their wounds.

I will continue posting on the Prairie Grove Campaign tomorrow. To learn more, please visit

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