Battle of Prairie Grove, 7 December 1862

A minor Federal victory in north western Arkansas that effectively ended a period of campaigning in that part of the state. After the battle of Pea Ridge (7-8 March 1862) both sides left that part of the state. The Confederate forces were needed elsewhere and crossed the Mississippi, joining the concentration of troops at Corinth. The Federal forces under General Curtis had made a move towards Little Rock, Arkansas, before eventually making a very impressive march across the state to Helena, on the Mississippi River.

Over the summer of 1862 a new Confederate army had been raised in Arkansas by Major-General T.C. Hindman. In mid-August he was ordered to take that army to the western border of the state, and prepare to move north into Missouri, where Confederate guerrillas were causing the Union occupiers of the state great difficulties. By the start of September, Hindman had moved his advance forces as far north as Newtonia, Missouri.

This advance greatly worried the Union commander in Missouri, General Schofield. He commanded a force of 50,000 local militia, supported by detachments of regular troops, far superior to Hindman’s 10,000 strong force. However, Schofield believed that he was facing a Confederate army at least 40,000 strong, and called for aid. The Federal response was to combine the Department of the Missouri with Kansas, and put General Curtis in charge of the newly enlarged department. He ordered Schofield to take personal command in south west Missouri, and ordered General J. G. Blunt, the Federal commander in Kansas, to join Schofield with all available men.

By the start of October Schofield had an army 11,000 strong. Hindman’s 10,000 men included 3,000 Native Americans from the Indian Territory. They were superb irregular soldiers, but less effective on the battlefield.

The two forces first clashed at Newtonia, Missouri, on 30 September 1862, when a force of Federal reinforcements was driven off by the Confederate advance guard. However, on 4 October the Confederates were forced to retreat by the appearance of a much larger Federal army. The retreating army split in two, with the Confederate regulars heading south to Huntsville, while the Native Americans turned west, back towards the Indian Territory. On 22 October they were caught by Blunt at Old Fort Wayne, and heavily defeated.

All this happened while Hindman was absent at Little Rock. On 15 October he returned and took personal command at the front. In the face of another Federal advance he was forced to retreat to the Arkansas River, where he once again began to prepare for an invasion of Missouri. Meanwhile, believing that the approaching winter would stop all campaigning for the moment, Schofield returned to Springfield, Missouri, leaving Blunt in command at Fayetteville, with one division, of about 8,000 men.

Once again the situation further east intervened. U.S. Grant was about to make his first attempt to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi. Hindman’s superior officer at Little Rock was ordered to send 10,000 men to help defend Vicksburg. He ordered Hindman to return to Little Rock, in preparation for a move further east.

Hindman protested vigorously, but he could not convince the Confederate government to change his orders. Frustrated, he decided to launch one final attack in north west Arkansas. Towards the end of November his cavalry force had been engaged in constant skirmishing with Blunt. Hindman now decided to move his entire force up to attack Blunt. This would give him 9000 infantry and 2000 cavalry to attack Blunt’s 8,000 men.

Blunt got word of this attack, and called for reinforcements. Those reinforcements, under Brigadier-General Francis J. Herron, marched 110 miles in 3 days, reaching Elkhorn, just north of Blunt’s position, on 6 December.

Hindman learnt of this, and decided to deal with Herron’s force before Blunt’s. Accordingly, on the morning on 7 December he moved out from his positions in front of Blunt’s men, leaving behind a cavalry force that managed to convince Blunt that he was about to be attacked. A rapid march allowed him to intercept Herron at Prairie Grove. However, instead of attacking, Hindman decided to form a line and await Herron’s attack.

Herron launched that attack at noon. Hearing the sound of the guns, Blunt rushed to Herron’s assistance. Hindman found himself fighting the combined Union force. This denied him his crushing victory. When darkness ended the fighting, both sides had suffered similar losses. Confederate losses were reported at 164 dead, 817 wounded and 336 missing, for a total of 1,317. Union losses were 174 dead, 813 wounded and 262 captured or missing, for a total of 1,251.

Hindman retreated back to the south bank of the Arkansas River. When Blunt appeared on the opposite bank, he finally obeyed his original orders and retreated to Little Rock. The focus of the war in Arkansas moved away from the north west corner of the state. Arkansas Post was captured on 10-11 January 1863, exposing the heart of the state to Union attack. An attempted counter attack at Helena in July 1863 ended in disaster on 4 July, the same day that Vicksburg finally surrendered. With the Mississippi finally secure, Union forces were able to turn once again towards Little Rock, finally capturing the Arkansas state capitol in September 1863.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 August 2007), Battle of Prairie Grove, 7 December 1862 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_prairie_grove.html

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