Battle of Prairie Grove

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Battle of Prairie Grove
Prairie Grove Civil War Battlefield

Battle of Prairie Grove

Summary: Both the Union and the Confederacy recognized the importance of the Trans-Mississippi West. Each wanted to use the region as the basis for attacks and as a source for supplies, including men, livestock, and agriculture. After Arkansas seceded from the Union, Southern forces won the initial battles in this area. However, the Union Army won important victories at the Battle of Pea Ridge and the Battle of Prairie Grove gaining control of that region for the rest of the war.

On December 7, 1862, Union forces from the Army of the Frontier and Confederates from the newly formed Army of the Trans-Mississippi clashed on the open corn, wheat, and hay fields of Prairie Grove, Arkansas. The opposing forces had previously fought several minor engagements in Missouri and Arkansas. The battle opened with Confederate cavalry routing some Union cavalry a few miles south of the Prairie Grove Church. The southerners lined up along the Prairie Grove ridge, stretching from the Borden House to the Morton House. There they repelled two bloody attacks by Brig. Gen. Francis J. Herron's Federal troops who had just crossed the Illinois River from the north. The Confederates counterattacked after each Union assault, only to be thrown back by the Union cannons on the north side of the Borden cornfield, which devastated the rebel regiments as they came out of the woods into the open farm fields in the valley. About 2:30 p.m., Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt's Federal troops arrived from Cane Hill and attacked the Confederates on the western end of the ridge near the Morton House. This fighting continued until dark with no advantage gained by either side. The South fell back during the night leaving the battlefield to the Union army. As a result, the Confederates lost control of northwest Arkansas and never again attempting, with any sizeable army, to seize northwest Arkansas or invade Missouri. Union casualties for this fight were 1,251 while the Confederates lost 1,317.

The Battle of Prairie Grove was practically forgotten, even though it was one of the few Union victories in 1862. Larger and bloodier Civil War battles dominated conversations in the North and South. However, the families in Prairie Grove would forever remember the images of December 7th and the days that followed. Not only did they witness the horror of the battle as it raged across their property, but they endured the subsequent harassment and raiding by Union troops and Confederate bushwhackers. See also Battle of Prairie Grove.

Battle of Prairie Grove Map
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Civil War Battle of Prairie Grove Map

Background: 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 Maj. Gen. 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, Maj. Gen. 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 Brig. Gen. Francis J. Herron, and the other commanded by Brig. Gen. 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.


Confederate Maj. Gen. 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.


Battle: Hindman's force gathered at Fort Smith, Arkansas, and sent out approximately 2,000 cavalry under Brig. Gen. 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 November 28, 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 December 3rd, 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.


At dawn on December 7th, Hindman began to doubt his initial plan to move on Cane Hill and instead continued north on Cove Creek Road with Marmaduke's men in the front. Why Hindman changed his mind is not known, but it is believed that he began to doubt his initial strategy. Little did Hindman realize, though, that this move would prove useful and allow his cavalry to strike an early deadly blow to the 7th Missouri and the 1st Arkansas. Meanwhile, Herron's divisions had performed a 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.

Battle of Prairie Grove
Battle of Prairie Grove.jpg
Prairie Grove Battlefield Map

Battle of Prairie Grove Map
Battle of Prairie Grove Map.jpg
Civil War Prairie Grove Battlefield

The battle opened on the morning of December 7th 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. See also: Union Order of Battle and Confederate Order of Battle.
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 December 7th and into early morning December 8th, Blunt began to call on 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 December 10th, demoralized, footsore, and ragged. By December 29th Blunt and Herron would threaten Hindman at his Van Buren sanctuary and drive him from northwest Arkansas permanently. See also Arkansas Civil War History.

Analysis: The Battle of Prairie Grove, December 7, 1862, resulted in a tactical stalemate but essentially secured northwest Arkansas for the Union. 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.

(Sources and related reading below.)

Recommended Reading: Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide, with a Section on Wire Road (This Hallowed Ground: Guides to Civil War). Description: Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove were three of the most important battles fought west of the Mississippi River during the Civil War. They influenced the course of the first half of the war in that region by shaping Union military efforts while significantly contributing to Confederate defeat. Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove, the first book to provide a detailed guide to these battlefields, takes the visitor step-by-step through the major sites of each engagement. Continued below.

With numerous maps and illustrations that enhance the authors’ descriptions of what happened at each stop, the book also includes analytical accounts explaining tactical problems associated with each battle as well as vignettes evoking for readers the personal experience of those who fought there. An indispensable companion for the battlefield visitor, this guide offers not only touring information and driving tours of sites associated with the campaigns that led to the battles, but also a brief history of each battle and an overview of the larger strategy and tactics of the military action in which these battles figured.

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Recommended Reading: Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (Civil War America) (Hardcover). Description: On Sunday, December 7, 1862, two armies collided at an obscure Arkansas hamlet named Prairie Grove in a desperate battle that effectively ended Confederate offensive operations west of the Mississippi River. In Fields of Blood, historian William L. Shea offers a gripping narrative of the events surrounding Prairie Grove, one of the great unsung battles of the Civil War. Continued below…

Shea provides a colorful account of a grueling campaign that lasted five months and covered hundreds of miles of rugged Ozark terrain. In a fascinating analysis of the personal, geographical, and strategic elements that led to the fateful clash in northwest Arkansas, he describes a campaign notable for rapid marching, bold movements, hard fighting, and the most remarkable raid of the Civil War. After months of intricate maneuvering punctuated by five battles in three states, armies led by Thomas C. Hindman and James G. Blunt met one last time at Prairie Grove. The costly daylong struggle was a tactical draw but a key strategic victory for the Union, as the Confederates never again seriously attempted to recover Missouri or threaten Kansas. Historians have long ignored the complex campaign that ended in such spectacular fashion at Prairie Grove, but it is at last brought to life in these pages. From the Inside Flap: Shea offers a gripping narrative of the events surrounding Prairie Grove, Arkansas, one of the great unsung battles of the Civil War that effectively ended Confederate offensive operations west of the Mississippi River. Shea provides a colorful account of a grueling campaign that lasted five months and covered hundreds of miles of rugged Ozark terrain. In a fascinating analysis of the personal, geographical, and strategic elements that led to the fateful clash in northwest Arkansas, he describes a campaign notable for rapid marching, bold movements, hard fighting, and the most remarkable raid of the Civil War. About the Author: William L. Shea is professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. He is coauthor of several books, including Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West (UNC Press) and Vicksburg Is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River.


Recommended Reading: Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West. Description from Publishers Weekly: With its exhaustive research and lively prose style, this military study is virtually a model work of its kind. Shea and Hess, who teach history at the University of Arkansas at Monticello and Lincoln Memorial University (Tenn.), respectively, convincingly argue that the 1862 campaign for Pea Ridge (Ark.) decisively changed the balance of power in the West, with the Union gaining effective control of Missouri. Samuel Curtis, commander of the Federal Army of the Southwest, understood the strategic requirements of his theater, according to the authors, and elicited the best performance from his troops, even though they were beset by internal tensions. Continued below...

The Southern commander, Earl van Dorn, the authors maintain, was a swashbuckler out of his depth--particularly in light of the administrative weaknesses of the trans-Mississippi Confederacy. Their detailed analysis of the climactic battle impressively conveys the difficulties of the improvised armies that groped for and grappled with each other in the Civil War West. From Library Journal: The battle of Pea Ridge, fought in northwestern Arkansas in March 1862, was probably the most important trans-Mississippi battle of the Civil War. It was unusual in the use of Indian troops and in the Confederates' numerical superiority, better supplies, and inferior leadership. The battle ended any serious Confederate threat to Missouri and opened the Union's path into Arkansas. The book offers the rich tactical detail, maps, and order of battle that military scholars love but retains a very readable style combined with liberal use of recollections of the troops and leaders involved…  This is an important book for academic libraries and for public libraries in the region.


Recommended Reading: Pea Ridge And Prairie Grove, Or Incidents Of The War In Arkansas. Description: With the goal of sketching "at least some of the bright lights and dark shadows of the war, " William Baxter authored his regional classic, Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove, in 1864, before the actual end of the Civil War. Primarily focusing on the civilians of the region, Baxter vividly describes their precarious and vulnerable positions during the advances and retreats of armies as Confederate and Federal forces marched across their homeland. In his account, Baxter describes skirmishes and cavalry charges outside his front door, the "firing" of his town's buildings during a Confederate retreat, dashes between secessionist and Unionist neighbors, the feeding of hungry soldiers and the forceful appropriation of his remaining food supply, and the sickening sight of the wounded emerging from the Prairie Grove battlefield. Continued below…

Since its original printing, this firsthand account has only been reprinted once, in 1957, and both editions are considered collectors' items today. Of interest to Civil War scholars and general readers alike, Baxter's compelling social history is rendered even more comprehensive by William Shea's introduction. Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove is a valuable personal account of the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi West which enables us to better comprehend the conflict as a whole and its devastating affect on the general populace of the war-torn portions of the country.


Recommended Reading: Hill Folks: A History of Arkansas Ozarkers and Their Image. Review: The Ozark region, located in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri, has long been the domain of the folklorist and the travel writer--a circumstance that has helped shroud its history in stereotype and misunderstanding. With Hill Folks, Brooks Blevins offers the first in-depth historical treatment of the Arkansas Ozarks. He traces the region's history from the early nineteenth century through the end of the twentieth century and, in the process, examines the creation and perpetuation of conflicting images of the area, mostly by non-Ozarkers. Continued below…

Covering a wide range of Ozark social life, Blevins examines the development of agriculture, the rise and fall of extractive industries, the settlement of the countryside and the decline of rural communities, in- and out-migration, and the emergence of the tourist industry in the region. His richly textured account demonstrates that the Arkansas Ozark region has never been as monolithic or homogenous as its chroniclers have suggested. From the earliest days of white settlement, Blevins says, distinct subregions within the area have followed their own unique patterns of historical and socioeconomic development. Hill Folks sketches a portrait of a place far more nuanced than the timeless arcadia pictured on travel brochures or the backward and deliberately unprogressive region depicted in stereotype.


Recommended Reading: With Fire and Sword: Arkansas, 1861-1874 (Histories of Arkansas). Description: Thoughtfully written by Thomas A. DeBlack (Associate Professor of History, Arkansas Tech University), With Fire And Sword: Arkansas, 1861-1874 provides a scholarly examination of just how the events of the Civil War and the Reconstruction so heavily devastated the state of Arkansas, its population and its economy, that this southern state was never to fully regained the level of prosperity it had enjoyed prior to the war. A candid and detailed retracing of crucial decisions, their interplay, and their lasting legacy, With Fire And Sword is a welcome contribution to the growing library of Civil War literature and Reconstruction Era reference collections and reading lists.


Recommended Reading: The Flags Of Civil War Arkansas, by Glenn Dedmondt. Description: From the end of 1860 through the spring of 1861, representatives from throughout Arkansas gathered to discuss the option of secession. The question had been put to the legislators multiple times, but Unionist tendencies prevailed in Arkansas, and the state was not among the first to secede. On May 6, 1861, however, the representatives of the "Nary One" state met and decided that Arkansas belonged with her Southern brothers and voted 69 to 1 to dissolve their ties with the federal government. Throughout the course of the Civil War, Arkansas furnished sixty-five thousand men to serve in defense of the South, and each of the companies and regiments proudly bore a banner to represent their cause. In this painstakingly researched study of Arkansas Civil War-era flags, the author presents a stunning history of the Civil War in Arkansas as told through the state's company, battle, and regiment flags. Included are the Bonnie Blue Flag, the First National Flag of the Confederate States, and dozens of Arkansas Infantry and Cavalry regiment and battalion flags, along with a concise text about the history of each unit and flag itself.. Continued below…

From the Back Cover: Praise for Glenn Dedmondt's previous books: "A meticulously detailed resource offering very specific information for history and Civil War buffs, The Flags of Civil War North Carolina, is a welcome contribution to the growing library of Civil War studies and could very well serve as a template for similar volumes." --The Midwest Book Review. "A good effort that serves to explain the flags these men fought for." --Blue & Gray Magazine. "Colorful and well illustrated, and contains much information about each flag." --The Civil War News.

On May 6, 1861, representatives from Arkansas voted to dissolve their ties with the government in Washington, D.C., feeling that Arkansas belonged with her Southern brothers. Arkansas furnished 65,000 men to serve in defense of the South, nearly its entire male population. The flags in this work are the symbols of the sacrifices and strengths of these men from the Land of Opportunity. Despite the large number of companies outfitted in Arkansas, surprisingly few of their flags survive. As a result of detailed research into archived newspapers and other contemporaneous accounts, the author provides here, for the first time, a nearly exhaustive study of the flags and the men who proudly carried them. From the Bonnie Blue Flag, the unofficial state flag of secession in Arkansas, to the First National flag of the Confederate States and the numerous other company and regimental flags the men of Arkansas bore into battle, each banner is presented in full color, accompanied by a history of its unit and creation. Other books in this series include The Flags of the Confederacy: An Illustrated History, The Flags of the Union: An Illustrated History, Flags of Louisiana, Flags of Tennessee, and Flags of Texas, all published by Pelican.

Sources: National Park Service; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Library of Congress; The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism; Baxter, William. Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000. ISBN 978-1-55728-591-1; Castel, Albert E. A Frontier State at War: Kansas, 1861-1865. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1958. ISBN 978-0-313-20863-8. First published in 1958 by Cornell University Press; Hatcher, Richard W., Earl J. Hess, William G. Piston, and William L. Shea. Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide, with a Section on Wire Road. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-8032-7366-5; Shea, William L (2009). Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0-8078-3315-5; Smith, Ronald D., Thomas Ewing Jr., Frontier Lawyer and Civil War General. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8262-1806-3.

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