Strategic situation: Union
In late 1862 Confederate forces had withdrawn from southwest Missouri and were wintering in the wheat-rich and milder climate of northwest Arkansas. Many of the regiments had been transferred to Tennessee, after the defeat at the Battle of Pea Ridge in March, to bolster the Army of Tennessee.
Following Pea Ridge, the victorious Union General Samuel Curtis pressed his invasion of northern Arkansas with the aim of occupying the capital city of Little Rock. Curtis's army reached the approaches to the capital, but decided to turn away after a minor yet psychologically important Confederate victory at the Battle of Whitney's Lane near Searcy, Arkansas.
Curtis reestablished his supply lines at Helena, Arkansas, on the Mississippi River and ordered his subordinate, General John M. Schofield at Springfield, Missouri, to drive Confederate forces out of southwestern Missouri and invade northwestern Arkansas.
Schofield divided his Army of the Frontier into two parts, one to remain near Springfield commanded by General Francis J. Herron, and the other commanded by General James G. Blunt to probe into northwest Arkansas. Schofield soon fell ill and overall command passed to General Blunt. As Blunt took command, the two wings of his army were dangerously far apart.
Strategic situation: Confederates
Confederate General Thomas C. Hindman was an aggressive commander who had just been relieved of overall command of the Trans-Mississippi District. Hindman had issued a series of unpopular, but effective, military decrees which gave political opponents ammunition to have him removed from overall command.
Hindman maintained a field command of Arkansas troops and, becoming aware of the Union Army's precarious tactical position, convinced his replacement to allow him to mount an expedition into northwest Arkansas. Hindman hoped to catch the Union army in its divided state, destroy it in detail, and open the way for an invasion of Missouri.
Maneuvering to battle
Hindman's force gathered at Fort Smith, Arkansas, and sent out approximately 2,000 cavalry under General John S. Marmaduke to harass Blunt's forces and screen the main Confederate force.
Unexpectedly Blunt moved forward with his 5,000 men and 30 artillery pieces to meet Marmaduke. The two clashed in a nine-hour running battle known as the Battle of Cane Hill on 28 November 1862. Marmaduke was pushed back but Blunt found himself 35 miles deeper into Arkansas and that much farther from the remainder of his army.
On 3 December Hindman started moving his main body of 11,000 poorly equipped men and 22 cannon across the Boston Mountains toward Blunt's division. Blunt, disturbed by his precarious position, telegraphed Herron and ordered him to march immediately to his support from Springfield. Blunt did not fall back towards Missouri but instead set up defensive positions around Cane Hill to wait for Herron.
Hindman's intention was for Marmaduke's cavalry to strike Blunt from the south as a diversion. Once Blunt was engaged, Hindman intended to hit him on the flank from the east.
On 6 December Hindman learned of Herron's movement out of Springfield and realized that he could not attack Blunt from the east as planned. He decided that he would move north and intercept Herron before he could arrive to reinforce Blunt. During the night of 6 and 7 December Hindman bypassed Blunt's force and moved northward with Marmaduke's cavalry in the fore.
Meanwhile, Herron's divisions had performed an amazing forced march to come to Blunt's rescue and met Marmaduke's probing cavalry south of Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Hindman's characteristically aggressive nature seems to have failed him at this moment. Afraid that Blunt would be able to attack his rear, and facing Herron to the north, Hindman chose instead to set up a defensive position atop a line of low hills near Prairie Grove, Arkansas.
The battle opened on the morning of 7 December with Union General Herron crossing the river and deploying his footsore troops on Hindman's right. Herron opened an intense two hour artillery barrage on the Confederate position singling out individual Confederate cannon and concentrating on taking them out of action one at a time. By noon, the devastating barrage had disabled most of the Confederate artillery and forced many of the Confederate troops to shelter on the reverse slopes.
Seeing the effect of his artillery, Herron ordered an advance on the hill rather than waiting for Blunt to arrive. His troops first encountered Confederate cavalry in the Borden wheatfield at the base of a ridge overlooking the prairie. Herron took these advanced troopers to mean that Hindman was planning to attack and capture the Union artillery. So Herron sent forward two regiments from his own 3rd Division to assault a Confederate battery near the Borden house. When his men arrived on the hill they found themselves under a fierce Confederate counterattack from three sides by Maramaduke and Brigadier General Francis A. Shoup. Half of the attacking Federals were wounded or killed within minutes, most near the Borden House.
As the surviving Federals rolled back down the hill toward the safety of Union lines, Confederate soldiers spontaneously pursued and attempt to break Herron's lines. Herron's artillery loaded with canister caused terrible damage to the unorganized Confederates and repulsed their attack.
Herron feared the Confederates would make another rush at his artillery and preemptively ordered another charge. This time two regiments were selected from Daniel Huston's 2nd Division. Again near the Borden house, hand to hand fighting ensued. The Federal troops repulsed one counter attack before falling back towards Herron's artillery. Again the pursuing Confederates rushed the Union guns but were repulsed by troops from Colonel William W. Orme's brigade.
Meanwhile, Blunt realized that Hindman had gotten past his flank and intercepted Herron. Furious, he ordered his men to march to the sound of the guns. Not knowing the precise location of the fighting, the Federal troops ignored roads and traversed through farm fields and over fences straight toward the sound of battle at the double quick. This movement was probably initiated by Colonel Thomas Ewing and the 11th Kansas Infantry. While Blunt did not order the maneuver he quickly endorsed it even chastising a regimental commander for not showing enough initiative when he failed to follow the unorthodox procedure. Blunt's forces arrived on the field just as Hindman was ordering another attack on Herron's forces. Blunt's division slammed into the surprised Confederates and drove them back onto the hill. The heaviest casualties of the battle were felt during this attack by the 10th Missouri Confederate Infantry, which was caught in the open, at the flank of the Confederate forces. Blunt aligned his two brigades and sent them forward toward the Morton house on the same ridge to the west of the Borden house. Blunt's forces fought somewhat sporadically until being recalled off the ridge. Mosby M. Parsons' Rebel brigade swept across the farm fields of prairie toward Blunt's artillery. Once again the Union soldiers and artillery repulsed the attack and darkness put an end to the fighting.
During the night of 7 December and 8 December Blunt began to call up his reserves. Hindman on the other hand had no reserves remaining, was low on ammunition and food, and had lost much of his artillery firepower. Hindman had no choice but to withdraw under cover of darkness back towards Van Buren, Arkansas. The Confederates reached Van Buren on 10 December, demoralized, footsore, and ragged.
By 29 December Blunt and Herron would threaten Hindman at his Van Buren sanctuary and drive him from northwest Arkansas permanently.
Federal forces suffered 1,251 casualties and Confederate forces suffered 1,317 casualties. In addition, Confederate forces suffered from severe demoralization and lost many conscript soldiers during and after the campaign.
Though the battle was a tactical draw, it was a strategic victory for the Federal army as they remained in possession of the battlefield and Confederate fortunes in northwest Arkansas declined markedly from that point on.
The Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park is nationally known as one of the most intact Civil War battlefields. Active efforts are underway to acquire additional land for the park and preserve its integrity. The park is located just outside of Prairie Grove, Arkansas, about 10 miles west of Fayetteville, Arkansas. The Prairie Grove order of battle has been compiled by the historians at the park.
- Cozzens, Peter. "Hindman's Grand Delusion." Civil War Times Illustrated 39 (October 2000): p. 28-35, 66-69
- Shea p.209
- ”Battle of Prairie Grove: Civilian Recollections of the Civil War”, a National Park Service Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson plan
- Battle of Prairie Grove - Information and battlefield pictures
nl:Slag bij Prairie Grove pl:Bitwa pod Prairie Grove