Skip to main content

Total War in Arkansas and the Battle for Prairie Grove

Mark Caruthers holds a Bachelor's degree in Geography and History from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

Union and Confederate positions at Prairie Grove

Union and Confederate positions at Prairie Grove

Arkansas After the Defeat at Pea Ridge

In the late summer and early fall of 1862, there would be dramatic changes in both the political and military leadership of Confederate Arkansas. That early fall the leaders of the Confederate government held a secession convention that reduced the current governor's term from four years to two in the hopes of bringing new life to the Confederate cause in the state, bringing about an election in October 1862.

It was a surprisingly large turnout, considering the state was still recovering from the invasion of a large Union Army. The capture of Helena in eastern Arkansas on the Mississippi River brought an end to a long Federal campaign that had begun with their victory at Pea Ridge in February 1862.

Helena would become an important Union stronghold from which future attacks would be launched. Following his victory at Pea Ridge, Curtis pressed his invasion of northern Arkansas with the goal of occupying the capital city of Little Rock. Curtis and his army reached the approaches to the capital but decided not to storm the city after the Confederate victory at the Battle of Whitney's Lane near Searcy, Arkansas.

Little Rock was safe for the time being, but regardless of that fact, the Federal campaign in Arkansas was a considerable success, one of the most remarkable of the war. In the first six months of 1862, Curtis and his men marched over seven hundred miles across Missouri and Arkansas, much of it across difficult terrain.

Curtis and his Union army won a major battle at Pea Ridge against difficult odds, pioneered a new form of mobile warfare, and wreaked havoc wherever they marched as they crossed the frontier of Arkansas. Curtis achieved all of his strategic objectives except the capture of Little Rock; for him, the campaign was a tremendous success.

In order to bring about a change, Confederate citizens in Arkansas would elect Harris Flanagin the seventh governor of Arkansas, an attorney and former Whig from Clark County, who also fought in the Battle of Wilson's Creek and Pea Ridge with the 2cnd Arkansas Mounted Rifles. His candidacy for governor was backed by an unlikely coalition of prewar enemies which included Thomas Hindman and the Family's Elias Conway.

After the loss of Van Dorn, Confederate leaders in Richmond would send Major General Theophilus Holmes to Arkansas on the 12th of August 1862, to take command of the newly formed Trans-Mississippi, which included the states of Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, Louisiana, and the Indian Territory of what is today Oklahoma. Holmes was 58 years old and from North Carolina, a West Point graduate who had established a distinguished record during the Mexican War.

But Holmes' Civil War service was so poor that he was relieved of his command in the Eastern Theater, he even requested himself to be dismissed from his command. Despite his past, Jefferson Davis put him in charge of one of the most difficult theaters in all of the war, because if the South lost control of the Mississippi River, the war would essentially be over.

Plagued by poor health and completely overwhelmed by the responsibilities of his command, he was held in low esteem by the men under his command, who would give him the unflattering nickname "Old Granny." On the 20th of August 1862, Holmes would reorganize the Department of the Trans-Mississippi into districts and gave Major General Thomas C. Hindman command of the District of Arkansas, which included Missouri, and the Indian Territory.

Perhaps nowhere in the entire war did two such different personalities attempt to create a working relationship. Hindman was young, aggressive, impulsive, and decisive he believed that the best way to defend Arkansas was to take the war to the enemy. Holmes was old, timid, indecisive, and preferred to adopt a defensive stance against Union troops.

Regardless of their differences, the two men developed an effective working relationship, and the Confederate army soon had another effective fighting force in the field. Holmes placed roughly half of his troops at several strategic locations along the Arkansas and White Rivers to counter any threat coming from the Union stronghold in Helena or elsewhere along the Mississippi River. and the remainder of his forces he placed under Hindman at Fort Smith and Fayetteville to deter any Federal invasion coming out of southwestern Missouri.

Hindman was the one who selected Fort Smith, mainly because it was located on the Arkansas River and the border of Indian Territory, for his base of operations. He hoped to recover northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri from Union control as soon as possible. Only by taking a bold step to seize the initiative, he believed, could the Confederates hope to reverse the disastrous outcome of the Pea Ridge campaign.

By early fall Hindman and elements of his army were operating in Missouri. Soon reports of new Confederate activity in southwest Missouri reached the Union commander of the Department of Missouri, the victor of Pea Ridge, Samuel Curtis, who had previously driven the Confederates out of the state. He was determined to keep the Confederates out of Missouri so he created a new army, the Army of the Frontier, to push the Confederates back to the Arkansas River.

Brigadier General John M. Schofield, the commander of this new force, did just that, after beating off an initial Rebel attack at Newtonia Missouri on September 30, 1862, he quickly had the Rebels on the run. In late 1862 Confederate forces had withdrawn from southwest Missouri and were setting up winter quarters in the milder climate of northwest Arkansas where there was plenty to eat as they waited for the next turn of events.

General Curtis and the Union Army of the Frontier

Curtis was fifty-seven years old and still feeling the after-effects of the Pea Ridge campaign. He had considered going after Hindman and his Rebels himself but decided to remain in St. Louis and allow his subordinates to handle matters in the field. He had received reports that two powerful Confederate columns were advancing into Missouri.

To counter this threat, Curtis created the Army of the Frontier which consisted of three divisions. One was commanded by James G. Blunt, a physician and abolitionist who was friends with John Brown.

Blunt's command was known as the "Kansas Division," and it was one of the most colorful divisions in the entire Union Army. It was made up of largely Kansas regiments and batteries, but also included units from Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, and the Indian Territory.

The Kansas Division was the only Union military organization to include substantial numbers of black and Indian soldiers in 1862. The First and Second Kansas Colored had been raised despite Lincoln's initial reluctance to allow blacks to serve in the military. The fugitive slaves from Arkansas and Missouri who filled the ranks were among the first black troops to see action in the Civil War.

The Kansas Division also included the First, Second, and Third Indian Home Guard regiments. All three regiments were composed of men from various tribes who had been driven out of the Indian Territory by other Indians loyal to the Confederacy.

Like their Confederate counterparts, Union Indian regiments usually received whatever cast-off equipment that was available at the time. Because of their outdated weapons and lack of uniforms Indian troops gave off a tattered appearance that hid their true value to Union officers.

Blunt assured a questionable Curtis that the Indians were capable soldiers and took three regiments with him on the campaign at Prairie Grove. The other Union force commanded by John Francis J. Herron, which was larger but less colorful, consisted of two divisions from Springfield, the "Missouri Divisions," as Herron's force came to be known, were composed almost entirely of troops from Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

The Kansas Division would begin its march into northwest Arkansas from Fort Scott Kansas, and the Missouri Divisions would march out of Springfield in the fall of 1862. Blunt was the more aggressive of the two Union commanders and would lead his force deep into northwest Arkansas and take up positions near Cane Hill. Herron would advance south but stop at the Missouri border and take up a defensive position.

Scene of the Battle

The battlefield of Prairie Grove was a flood plain that had evolved over millions of years from the meandering banks of the Illinois River. Through this flood plain flowed the Illinois River which cut into the limestone surface creating the Ozark Plateau as it flowed westward into the Indian Territory of Oklahoma.

At the time of the Civil War, the narrow plain was covered with a forest of oak, hickory, cedar, poplar, and elm. Southwest of the river near Prairie Grove was Crawford's Prairie, it was where the Union troops who left from Springfield to meet up with Blunt's Kansas Division near Cane Hill ran into Hindman's Confederates.

It was a broad valley one and a half miles long from east to west and three-quarters of a mile wide from north to south. In 1862 roughly half of the valley floor was still covered with native grasses on which cattle and hogs roamed, the other half was planted in corn and wheat.

Split-rail fences bordered large rectangular fields, which were used as cover by troops on both sides during the battle, that gave the valley the appearance of an irregular checkerboard.

The gently rising ground to the north of Crawford's Prairie is Crawford's Hill, it is where Hindman placed his Confederate troops in a defensive position resembling a horseshoe while he waited for the advancing Union army, made up mostly of fields and forests.

Local residents would name the top of Crawford's Hill, Prairie Grove, or just simply the Grove. The crest of the hill is 1,260 feet above sea level. The east, south, and west sides of the hill are gradual inclines, but the north side is steeper and cut by a half-dozen ravines of varying sizes.

Early settlers referred to the eroded north slope as the Ridge; later generations would know it as Battle Ridge. For most of the nineteenth century, Prairie Grove was covered with an extension of the hardwood forest that filled the flood plain below near the Illinois River.

A longtime resident described the thicket atop the hill as so dense a "man on horseback could only be seen at intervals." One of the peculiarities of the Ozark Forest is that several species of its trees, known as evergreens retained their leaves throughout the winter months. Consequently, the woods on and around Prairie Grove offered soldiers on both sides with a certain amount of cover even in December.

Battle for Cane Hill Arkansas and Prairie Grove

In an effort to draw Blunt's division out of its positions at Cane Hill, Hindman sent 2,000 cavalry troops to northwest Arkansas under the command of Colonel John Marmaduke across the Boston Mountains toward Cane Hill in an attempt to draw Blunt's division further away from it base in Springfield.

In a running battle that raged over twelve miles and lasted for nine hours Blunt would drive Confederate cavalrymen from one position after another on their way back to Hindman's base camp north of Van Buren.

The battle of Cane Hill should have given Hindman concern, but the Rebel commander wanted to draw Blunt even further away from the rest of his army and destroy his division.

Hindman would send Marmaduke on another raid north to divert Blunt's attention as he moved the main part of his army north toward Cane Hill, on December 3, 1862. Numbering over 12,000 men and supported by thirty-one cannons the Confederate force was capable of achieving his goal of retaking northwest Arkansas from Union control.

Early on the morning of December 7, 1862, Hindman with Jo Shelby in the lead, met and easily defeated advanced elements of Herron's command as it moved up to support Blunt's troops around Cane Hill, at the Illinois River about halfway between Cane Hill and Fayetteville.

But as the Rebels pursued the retreating Union troops, suddenly to their surprise the main body of Herron's army emerged from Fayetteville and advanced to meet them. Incredibly, over half of Herron's troops covered the 110 miles from Springfield to Fayetteville in just three days, a feat that William Shea called "the most extraordinary event of its kind in the Civil War and an epic of human endurance."

Shelby's cavalry fell back before the marching Union army until they arrived at a low, tree-covered hill known as Prairie Grove about ten miles southwest of Fayetteville, just past the point where the Illinois River crossed the Fayetteville and Cane Hill Road.

As the main body of Hindman's Confederate army showed up, the Rebels took up a strong defensive position just beyond the crest of the ridge. Their line formed a horseshoe, with the open end pointing toward the Illinois Bayou, where Herron's troops were massing below their positions at Prairie Grove.

As Hindman carefully watched Herron's movements in front of his positions, he instructed some of his command to keep an eye out for Blunt's possible arrival from Cane Hill, over eight miles to the rear of his army.

Blunt immediately sent his entire division, of about 4,500 men up the ridge toward the Confederate left flank. Those citizens who had moved to the William Morton house for safety suddenly found themselves in the middle of a storm of flying short and rifle bullets.

The fighting swayed back and forth around the Morton house. Finally, in the late afternoon, the Rebels threw all of their reserves into a fierce counter-attack. The attack drove Blunt's men back down the hill and halfway across Crawford's Prairie before the Union's artillery again saved the day by driving Confederate troops back to their positions.

At nightfall, there was a temporary truce to bury the dead and tend to the wounded. Hindman would withdraw his exhausted army under the cover of darkness to begin the long slow retreat to their enclave in Van Buren.

A Federal officer later recalled, "For forces engaged, there wasn't a more stubborn fight and no greater casualties in any battle of the war than at Prairie Grove, Arkansas."

Both sides would suffer over 1,350 casualties, and Confederate losses were compounded by widespread desertions.

"If Pea Ridge was a boxing match in which the combatants weaved and jabbed." William Shea notes, "Prairie Grove was a brutal slugging match in which two armies traded direct frontal assaults until they were exhausted."

At the end of the month, Blunt led eight thousand men across the Boston Mountains and raided Van Buren before returning to his camp in northwest Arkansas. The last remnants of Hindman's beaten force struggled down the south side of the Arkansas river toward Little Rock.

By the end of the year, it was no longer possible to sustain an army in the war-ravaged region between Fort Smith and Springfield, Missouri. Total war had now arrived to the state of Arkansas.

The fight for the Borden House

The fight for the Borden House

The Bloody Stand-Off at Prairie Grove

Some Confederate soldiers went to nearby houses to warn its residents of the impending battle. One local resident latter recalled, "My mother was told in the morning to gather all the women and children into some place of safety, for there would be a battle that day."

Young Ann Borden recalled, whose family house lay atop the ridge of the eastern end of the Confederate line. Union General Herron had about five thousand men on the field, less than half as many as Hindman and his army, and his troops were exhausted from their long march from Springfield.

Still, Herron didn't hesitate. From his position in the field below the Confederate defensive line along the ridge at Prairie Grove, Herron could see only one Confederate battery on the forward slope of the hill.

Around 10:00 A.M. on December 7, 1862, Herron opened an artillery barrage on the Confederate battery with twenty-two rifled cannons, he then ordered his infantry to advance up the hill to capture the guns and probe the Rebel position. The Union troops dressed in blue charged up the slope near the Borden house and crested the hill.

As they advanced forward, they unknowingly charged directly through the open end of the horseshoe which led them into the center of the Confederate position. They were immediately surrounded by a hail of rifle fire that seemed to come from all directions simultaneously.

The Rebel rifle fire decimated the Union ranks and sent the survivors running back down the slope. The Confederates pursued the retreating Union troops, but when they reached the open prairie at the base of the hill, they were exposed to very accurate Union rifled artillery, firing grapeshot into the advancing Rebel battle line, cutting them to pieces and sending them running up the hill back to their positions.

As it had at Pea Ridge, and as it would time after time throughout the course of the war, superior Union artillery played a decisive role in the outcome of the battle.

The Union troops possessed rifled cannons which were much more accurate than the smooth bore cannons the Confederate troops used in the Civil War, they were not much more different than what the American troops used in the Revolutionary War on hundred years earlier.

With the Rebels on the run, Herron again ordered his troops forward into the Confederate lines near the Borden house. This was an ill-advised charge that met the same fate as the first attack, the Union soldiers fell back down the slope amid bullets flying "as thick as hail."

Two Union assaults had been repulsed with heavy losses and without gaining a foot of ground. The stalemate continued until the early afternoon when Hindman decided to take advantage of his numerical superiority and longer lines to bring his left wing of his army down onto Crawford's Prairie to envelop the Federal right flank.

A decisive Confederate victory loomed when Blunt arrived with his division, alerted by the rumble of artillery to the east. By an unlikely twist of fate, his lead regiment had taken a wrong turn on the way to the battlefield to luckily arrive in the front of Hindman's army along the ridge at Prairie Grove.

Blunt's blind aggressiveness had almost led to disaster, but his arrival extended the Union line and equalized the odds.


Baxter, William. Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove. University of Arkansas Press. 105 N. MclLroy Ave. Fayetteville Arkansas, 72701. U.S.A. 2000

Hess, Earl J.. Wilson's Creek Pea Ridge & Prairie Grove : A Battlefield Guide . University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln and London. 1111 Lincoln Mall, Lincoln, NE. 68508. U.S.A. 2006

Shea , William L. Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign. The University of North Carolina Press. 116 S Boundry Street Chapel Hill, NC 27514. U.S.A. 2009


Mark Caruthers (author) from Fayetteville Arkansas on January 11, 2017:

What I meant was that the citizens of Arkansas lost almost everything as both the Union and Confederate armies laid claim to whatever they could get their hands on taking their crops and burning their cities. The burning of Fayetteville by the Confederate army as it retreated out of northwest Arkansas is a prime example of the barbarity of the Civil War in Arkansas. During the opening months of 1863, the town of Fayetteville had seen enough of the Civil War. Since the battle of Wilson's Creek in 1861 right up to the hotly contested Pea Ridge campaign in 1862, the Confederate army had stored supplies in Fayetteville's abandoned schools, where the University of Arkansas is located today, and housed sick soldiers in private homes and businesses. A brief push south by Union troops after the Battle of Fayetteville on February the 18th 1862, brought the cruel realities of war home to the citizens of Fayetteville. Because the retreating Rebel troops burned most of the town's business district before retreating south. Shortly before the firestorm was set the Confederate troops went on a looting rampage as well, sacking homes and stores with the assistance of a few local citizens who were caught up by the passion of the moment.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on January 04, 2017:

Hi Mark

Learned a lot reading your hub. I think we forget that so much of the Civil War was fought away from Virginia and the eastern seaboard.

The title is a little unusual. Not sure what you were going for there. Trying to make a comparison with WWII's total war concept?