1918 KANSAS AND KANSANS Chapter 41 Part 1

CHAPTER XLI

PRAIRIE GROVE

The defeat of Marmaduke at Cane Hill and his expulsion from the region north of the Boston Mountains did not change the purpose of General Hindman. He was well informed as to the strength and position of General Blunt's army, and he knew that the nearest troops which Blunt could call to his aid were more than a hundred miles away. Hindman's army consisted of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, and numbered about twenty-five thousand men, though in his official. reports he insisted that he had only twelve to fifteen thousand. He had six thousand cavalry, and thirty pieces of artillery.1 He believed he could march from Van Buren to Cane Hill, fifty miles, and defeat Blunt before he could be reinforced. It is probably true that lack of supplies prevented him from taking all his troops on his campaign against Blunt, but he had at least fifteen thousand effective troops in the field, probably more, although he reported eleven thousand in addition to his artillery. He believed it was necessary for him to achievesome success at once, if his army was to be held intact. Both ammunition and food were short. There was a spirit of insubordination in his ranks. Many of his men were conscripts, Union men, who had been forced into the Confederate army, and they had no sympathy with the Southern cause. Numbers of them were deserting every day. Hindman, while an able officer, was unpopular, and even then the Confederacy was failing west of the Mississippi. But if a decisive victory could be won in Northwest Arkansas, and Kansas and Missouri thrown open to invasion, a better face would be put on the cause in the Southwest. These were the considerations which actuated the Confederate commander.

General Hindman moved north from Van Buren on the 3d of December. So certain was he of success that he ordered a regiment of Confederate Indians to occupy Evansville, a village immediately west of Cane Hill, to prevent the escape of Blunt in that direction. On the night of the 4th the rebel force bivouacked at Oliver's store, on Lee's Creek, at the mouth of Cove Creek. Up Cove Creek the march was slow, but by the evening of the 6th the entire army had reached the junction of the Cane Hill and Fayetteville roads, at General Price's old headquarters, on the farm of John Morrow, about eight miles southeast of Cane Hill. It did not, however, reach this point, without opposition from Blunt. On the 3d of December Captain Samuel J. Crawford, Second Kansas, was sent down Cove Creek with a part of his regiment, and at Oliver's he met and skirmished with Marmaduke's advance. The next day Captain A.P. Russell, Second Kansas, was sent to scout down Cove Creek, where he met the enemy in increasing force. Crawford was again sent out on the 5th with two or three companies of his regiment and resisted the advance of Marmaduke up Cove Creek most of the day. Near night he posted Captain John Gardner, with two companies, at the junction of the Cane Hill and Fayetteville roads, and as it was certain that he would be attacked by an overwhelming force and pushed back at daylight, Crawford was to send out substantial reinforcements during the night. From that point to Cane Hill the advance of Hindman was to be stubbornly fought. For some cause the reinforcements were not sent to Captain Gardner, although General Blunt assured Crawford that they should be sent and gave the proper orders. Of this Crawford learned at daylight of the 6th while discussing conditions with a group of officers at the headquarters of Colonel Cloud. These officers did not believe with Crawford that a general battle might be fought that day - certainly within a day or two - in the vicinity of Cane Hill and possibly between the town and the position of Captain Gardner. "In thirty minutes," said Crawford, "you will see a courier from Captain Gardner on a foam-covered horse coming around that hill. His command is, I fear, cut to pieces." Within fifteen minutes the courier appeared, and Crawford, who had taken the precaution to have his men ready, secured orders and at once started with five companies of the Second Kansas to the assistance of Captain Gardner, whom he found had been driven a mile and a half, but formed across the road, and falling back slowly before a greatly superior force, fighting at every step. Crawford formed just behind him and ordered him to file by and form in the rear.

In a short time General Blunt sent other troops down the Cane Hill road, among them Major Plumb with two companies of the Eleventh Kansas. Plumb was the ranking officer at the front; and, although hotly engaged, Captain Crawford offered him the command. "Plumb was a patriot and never stood on fine points of military usage," said Crawford.2 "He was an infantry officer, and most of the troops at the front were calvary and then in line fighting back the advance of the enemy, and he insisted that a cavalry officer retain the command, requesting me to continue in that capacity. I agreed to do so and pointed out the position where I desired him to post his men." Other reinforcements were sent out, and the position was held, but at times it was a difficult matter. Crawford, afterwards a Colonel, and, later, Governor of Kansas, bears witness that Plumb handled his men admirably and fought well all day, though it was the second time he had ever been under fire. Toward night the main weight of the battle fell on him, and he held his ground, and the day ended with the whole force of Hindman checked on Reed's Mountain six miles southeast of Cane Hill. At night the officers who had been at the front throughout the day were relieved, and Plumb and Captain A. P. Russell rode back to Cane Hill with Crawford. Russell had a presentment that he would be killed the next day, and gave some directions as to the disposition of his effects. He could not be shaken in his belief-and the next day fell while fighting manfully.3

Preston B. Plumb

SENATOR PRESTON B. PLUMB

[Plumb was a pioneer in Kansas. He was one of the founders of Emporia. Ile was in the Union army, and both major and colonel of the Eleventh Kansas. Ile was long United States senator from Kansas. In the Senate he was one of the men who accomplished things. He was the father of the idea of the conservation of the natural resources of America. It was his law that created the National Forest Reserves and extended aid to irrigation and the reclamation of and lands. Many of the laws on the national statute books were put there by Preston B. Plumb. He was a great man and a great Kansan. He died at Washington, D. C., in 1891, while still in the Senate.]

During the night of the 6th Major Plumb was sent back to the front with reinforcements, where he remained on Sunday, the 7th, until after General Blunt's army had moved out of Cane Hill to meet Hindman. An officer of the general staff found him there and in surprise inquired if he did not know that Cane Hill had been evacuated and that Hindman had passed on north. Plumb said he knew it. "Then what are you staying here for?" asked the officer. "I haven't had any orders to fall back," replied Plumb. The officer, on his own responsibility, ordered Plumb back, and he joined his regiment north of Cane Hill just as the artillery firing was heard and the march to Prairie Grove began.

When General Blunt was convinced that he was to be attacked by Hindman with greatly superior numbers he determined to hold his ground and call to his aid the Second and Third Divisions, camped then on the old Wilson Creek battlefield ten miles southwest of Springfield, Mo. General F.J. Herron was in command, and on the morning of the third, he received the telegraphic order of General Blunt to join him at Cane Hill as quickly as possible. Within three hours he moved with the Third Division and was immediately followed by the Second. That night he camped at Crane Creek, in Stone County, Missouri, where it is crossed by the famous Wire or Telegraph road, which led from Springfield, through Fayetteville, to Van Buren. He kept to this road, passing rapidly over it, reaching Elkhorn Tavern (Pea Ridge) on the evening of the 5th. There he received an order from General Blunt to forward his cavalry force at once, which he did, sending it on sixteen hundred strong under Colonel Dudley Wickersham; it arrived at Cane Hill near midnight of the 6th.

General Herron arrived at Fayetteville at four o'clock Sunday morning (the 7th), having marched all night, and pushed on expecting to join General Blunt at Cane Hill about ten o'clock. He intended to follow the Van Buren road to Prairie Grove Church and there take the road leading southwest to Cane Hill. From the vicinity of Fayetteville information reached General Hindman of Herron's near approach, and early on the night of Saturday the Confederate commander determined to move his army up the Fayetteville road to meet and defeat Herron before he could join Blunt - after which he would fight it out with Blunt. Colonel J.C. Monroe, with his brigade of Arkansas cavalry, was ordered to engage the Union forces on the mountain southeast of Cane Hill at daylight and deceive them as long as possible, and at four o'clock Hindman moved toward Fayetteville with the remainder of his army. Marmaduke's cavalry led the march, and shortly after daylight it came upon Herron's advance - the First Arkansas Cavalry - about halfway between Fayetteville and Cane Hill. The cavalry of Herron's Second Division had come up with the First Arkansas and stopped to rest and feed their horses, intending to start on to join General Blunt at dawn. There seem to have been no precautions taken to guard against surprise. The attack was sudden and fierce, and the Union cavalry fled in panic and disorder, pursued by at least three thousand Missouri cavalry, including Quantrill's guerrillas, under Shelby. At seven o'clock this rabble, with blood-thirsty guerrillas on its heels, ran into the Union infantry advance, led by General Herron, six miles south of Fayetteville, and it was with difficulty that the mad rout was checked. General Herron had himself to shoot dead one of the panic-stricken cavalrymen as an example of the fate of all who would not halt, face about and fight. Taking four companies of infantry, some cavalry, and a section of artillery, General Herron drove Marmaduke's outriders back four miles to Illinois Creek, beyond which he found Hindman's whole army in a strong position. The command of Shelby, with the prisoners and train taken shortly before, was just ascending to this position from the Creek valley when it was opened on with two pieces of artillery, which served only to increase its speed.

General Herron now made a survey of the Confederate position. It was in an extensive grove of timber on a singular elevation, which extends from east to west across the Fayetteville and Van Buren road which cuts through it in a southwesterly direction. The elevation rises from a prairie. or plain. It slopes gently to the south, but on the north it presents a sharp escarpment. The grove on the ridge joined larger bodies of timber at either end. At the south side of the grove the Cane Hill road turned sharply southwest toward that village. In the fork of the road a mile south of the Confederate position, stood the Prairie Grove Church. North of the elevation there is a wide valley through which a small stream flows into Illinois Creek, and much of which had been cultivated, the dead stalks of the corn still standing in the fields. Beyond this valley, to the north, is a prairie, and some timbered hills which rise to the same level as the hill on which is Prairie Grove. In front of the Confederate position, along the north fringe of the grove, on the slope, stood some dwellings surrounded by enclosures; and about the fields were rail fences. The survey revealed a Confederate line more than two miles in length, and while there were no means of ascertaining the number of the enemy, enough could be seen to indicate certainly that the Union forces were far outnumbered.

By cutting a road through a thicket half a mile below the ford on Illinois Creek, Herron got Murphy's battery into fine position facing the enemy's center. This battery he divided into two sections, which he placed six hundred yards apart, both concealed by the thicket from the enemy. Two regiments of infantry were thrown to the right of the battery and one to the left. Colonel Orme was sent across Illinois Creek at the ford with the Second Brigade of the Third Division, and ordered to divide his battery as Murphy's had been, station his infantry in the rear, and open at once. Colonel Bertram was ordered to take the First Brigade across the creek and form on the right of Orme, dividing his battery as had the others.

Most of these preliminaries were completed before eleven o'clock, and some of them perhaps as late as twelve, on Sunday morning. General Herron gives the hour as ten o'clock. Murphy's battery opened the battle, and under his fire all the remaining batteries crossed the creek and were soon in positions in line of those with Orme and Bertram. In ten minutes General Herron had eighteen pieces doing most effective work, and they were replied to with twentytwo of the pieces of Hindman, the firing of which never approached even fair gunnery. The fire of Herron's artillery was terrible and deadly from the first. Some of the Confederate guns were dismounted, and their artillery horses lay dead in heaps of four to six in every position taken. In an effort to abate this awful storm of lead and iron against which nothing could long stand, Hindman threw heavy infantry columns against the Union right. But this was without avail. They were always stopped by the Union artillery and pursued in their return to their own lines. Herron ordered the Nineteenth Iowa and Twentieth Wisconsin to turn them back again after the battle had been in progress for some, time, which was done with such fierce enthusiasm that the rebel lines were rolled back a thousand yards, and a battery of four pieces was captured. To meet and stay this onslaught, Hindman sent forward every available man, and such numbers fell on the Union charging line that it could not bring off the captured battery, and retired without it.

This was late in the afternoon, and at that moment there appeared on the rebel left masses of men in blue. They emerged from the woods which fringed the prairies as a long-confined flood bursts its banks. The rush and roar of their coming were as the sound of storm-driven seas. They poured forth, seemingly in inextricable confusion - cavalry, infantry, artillery, officers and subalterns, brigades, regiments, companies and squadrons - a throng wrought to the extreme of excitement, frenzy, madness. Every artillery horse was best-ridden by a man plying a merciless lash, and was running as if coming down the home-stretch - neck straightened, ears flattened, eyes wild, nostrils dilated. Clinging to the guns and caissons were the artillerymen, flung and tossed like sailors on tempest-beaten wrecks. The cavalry, lying over saddle-horns, burst from the bordering thickets under whip and spur. The infantry, keeping even pace in this mad race, came into the open, hatless, coatless, accouterments streaming out behind, but with guns tightly clutched and ammunition safe. Over and above all floated the Stars and Stripes; and the showing of regimental banners halted men, straightened tangled ranks, formed columns, fashioned the confused mass into an orderly battle-line straight and rigid as a steel bar.

James G. Blunt

MAJOR-GENERAL JAMES G. BLUNT

[Copy by Willard of Portrait in Library of Kansas State Historical Society]

Because of the failure of a scouting column to report the movement north of Hindman's army General Blunt was in ignorance of the exact conditions confronting him on the morning of the 7th. He was still expecting an attack at Cane Hill and disposed his lines to receive it. At ten o'clock, when it was certain that the enemy in his front was only covering some maneuver, he moved in the direction of his base of supplies at Rhea's Mills, a few miles north. He was anxiously awaiting some intelligence from General Herron, whom he had expected to arrive at Cane Hill in the forenoon by the road turning toward the west at Prairie Grove Church. That a battle must be fought that day General Blunt knew, and when no enemy of consequence appeared he had set out to find one. He moved cautiously, and was ready for an attack from any quarter. The booming of General Herron's artillery was the first definite information which reached him. He knew at once what had happened and where the battle would be. And so did the army, which moved as one man toward Herron's position. General Blunt announced the arrival of his army on the field by two cannon shots, and as he did not know the positions occupied by the contending forces, the balls fell among the Union skirmishers. General Herron furnished him exact information by the time his line was formed, and General Blunt quickly fronted the left wing of the Confederate battle line, taking position near the skirt of woods extending from the grove down to the foot of the slope, but with his men in the clear and both wings of his army extending into open fields.

And not a moment too soon did he form there, for the battle was reaching a critical juncture. The last of Hindman's infantry had arrived, which, together with Marmaduke's cavalry, Hindman was throwing forward to crush General Herron's right. It was to move by the rebel left over the field just occupied by the Union line, and General Blunt's men received this onset and turned it back after hard fighting. The right wing of the Eleventh Kansas formed in the edge of the woods and was led by Colonel Ewing, and the left under Moonlight formed in support of the batteries of Rabb and Hopkins. The left wing advanced halfway up the slope, fixed bayonets for a charge at the crest, and lay down to await the order to advance, which was given as the rebel infantry appeared four ranks deep driven by the cavalry regiments acting as file-closers. The fire of the Eleventh checked them for only a moment, and a fierce struggle ensued. The Eleventh was forced back, sometimes with line broken, but always closing quickly, to a fence below the top of the hill, where a stand was made. The position could not be held, but the main line was maintained until the enemy fell back at dark. The artillery had been protected and had played at short range on the enemy with double charges of grape and canister with terrible effect. As night was falling the batteries were just in the act of firing on a body of infantry coming out of the woods. Plumb believed it was the right wing of his regiment and prevented the fire. He rode forward and found it to be Colonel Ewing, as he had supposed. and whom he had saved by his watchful care.4

Hindman had done his best. His assault on Blunt's line had been desperate, but unsuccessful. Having doubt of the loyalty of much of his infantry, he drove it into action with his cavalry, as we have seen. One of his regiments deserted on the field. At nightfall he was defeated, and saw that he must retreat, and he feared that even retreat was impossible. By the abuse of the usage of the flag of truce he secured time ostensibly to bury his dead and attend his wounded, but which he utilized in getting his men on the road back to Van Buren, practically abandoning both his dead and wounded. With him disappeared the hope of the Confederacy in Missouri and Northwest Arkansas. His defeat was decisive.5


1 See official reports, Series 1, Vol. XXII, Part 1, Rebellion Records, pp. 67-158, for number of troops on each side.

2 Statement made to the author April 27, 1911.

3 The fighting here this day, December 6, was a most important engagemerit. It seems to have been overlooked by historians. See Rebellion Records, Series 1, Vol. XXII, Part 1, pp. 60-66, for the official reports of it. There it is called the battle of Reed's Mountain. The best account of this battle is to be found in Kansas in the Sixties, by Samuel J. Crawford, who was in command. See pp. 72-76, inclusive, where the subject is treated as the battle of the Boston Mountains.

4 Those survivors interviewed mostly say that Plumb command left wing of the Eleventh Kansas in the battle. The official reports give this honor to Colonel Moonlight, but he was an artillery officer, and no doubt gave some of his attention to the operations of the guns. In his report Colonel Moonlight specially mentions the services of Major Plumb on the field and pays a high tribute to his courage and ability.

5 The reports of the officers of both sides are published in Rebellion Records, Series 1, pp. 67-158.

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A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans, written and compiled by William E. Connelley, transcribed by Carolyn Ward, 2000.

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