Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Prelude to Prairie Grove: Cane Hill, November 28, 1862

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Prelude to Prairie Grove: Cane Hill, November 28, 1862

Article excerpt

ON THE DAY AFTER THANKSGIVING, 1862, Union and Confederate forces clashed for eight hours in a spectacular twelve-mile running fight in northwest Arkansas. The battle of Cane Hill has attracted a modest amount of attention from historians in recent years, but the handful of published accounts have failed to place the episode in its proper context or make effective and judicious use of the available primary sources. This state of affairs is lamentable because Cane Hill was an important military engagement that had a significant impact on the course of the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi. It brought the war to within thirty miles of the Arkansas River, damaged a vital center of culture and education, and precipitated the battle of Prairie Grove.1

The story of Cane Hill began in May 1862, when Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman arrived in Arkansas with instructions to restore order, rebuild Confederate military fortunes, and recover Missouri. Hindman worked feverishly to accomplish these goals and soon felt confident enough to launch what proved to be an overly ambitious offensive from his base of operations at Fort Smith. In early September, he crossed the Boston Mountains at the head of an ill-equipped and ill-trained force of about six thousand men known as the Trans-Mississippi Army. Hindman encountered no opposition in northwest Arkansas and pushed into southwest Missouri, but at this critical moment he was called to Little Rock. His army continued on without him. The Union commander in Missouri, Brig. Gen. John M. Schofield, was caught off guard by the unexpected Confederate incursion, but he responded with great energy and quickly cobbled together a makeshift force called the Army of the Frontier. After several sharp engagements, most notably at Newtonia, the Federals gained the upper hand and drove the Confederates back into northwest Arkansas. When Hindman resumed command in mid-October, he recognized that his gamble had failed. He sparred with Schofield for a few weeks, then fell back across the Boston Mountains to Fort Smith.2

Schofield concluded that the immediate threat to Missouri was over and returned to Springfield with two of his three divisions. Another Confederate offensive seemed unlikely with winter approaching, but Schofield was wary of the resourceful and unpredictable Hindman. Just to be on the safe side, he directed the commander of his largest division, Brig. Gen. James G. Blunt, to remain in northwest Arkansas and keep a close watch on the Rebels. Blunt was a stocky amateur soldier from Kansas who often wore a business suit instead of a uniform. He drank too much and had other personal shortcomings, but he was a bold, resolute, and intrepid commander who liked nothing better than leading soldiers into battle. His lack of pretense and love of action made him immensely popular with his men. Blunt jumped at the chance to operate independently in hostile territory but he chafed at the defensive nature of his assignment, for he was one of the most aggressive officers in the Union army. Nonetheless, for the next few weeks he dutifully followed Schofield's instructions to remain alert and avoid taking unnecessary risks. In mid-November, Blunt and his powerful Kansas Division, so called because it was composed largely of volunteers from that state, was camped along Flint Creek in western Benton County, a short distance north of present-day Siloam Springs.3

Sixty-five miles to the south in the Arkansas Valley, Hindman labored with renewed zeal to prepare his frazzled command for another round of offensive operations, but his efforts were hampered by a crippling shortage of food. The summer of 1862 was exceptionally dry and the fall harvest was the poorest in years. The scarcity of food in the region was compounded by low water in the Arkansas River, which made it difficult to bring in supplies from other parts of the Confederacy. Lt. Col. George W. Guess of the Thirty-first Texas Cavalry reported that his men were "without any bread or meal" and had been reduced to "panking corn in the ashes and eating it for breakfast. …

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