Battle of Prairie Grove

Late November 1862 found three Union divisions positioned in northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri — two under Brigadier General Francis J. Herron were camped near Springfield, while the third, the “Kansas Division” led by Brigadier General James G. Blunt, was located more than 100 miles away at the village of Cane Hill, Arkansas.

Confederate Major General Thomas C. Hindman, commander of the Trans-Mississippi Army, saw an opportunity to snatch the strategic initiative from the Federals. He proposed to march his troops north from Van Buren and destroy Blunt’s isolated division. By the time Hindman’s men arrived within striking distance of Blunt’s force, however, conditions had changed. The Confederate commander learned that Blunt had sent an urgent message to his superiors asking for help, and that Herron had been ordered to bring his troops to Cane Hill as quickly as possible. Faced with fighting two enemy forces, Hindman revised his battle plan. He proposed to destroy each Union force in detail, first Herron, then Blunt.

Herron’s men made an incredible forced march of more than 100 miles in three and a half days, arriving at Prairie Grove, southwest of Fayetteville, on the morning of December 7.

There they found Hindman’s army in position on a ridge near Prairie Grove Church. Knowing that his orders were to reach Blunt at Cane Hill as soon as possible, Herron ordered two unsuccessful assaults on the Confederate position that afternoon, followed by rebel counterattacks; after brutal fighting, neither Hindman nor Herron were able to gain any appreciable advantage.

In the meantime, Blunt discovered that Hindman had bypassed him to deal with Herron. The aggressive Union commander rushed his troops to Herron’s assistance at Prairie Grove. He arrived mid-afternoon, and about 4 p.m., launched his own attack on Hindman’s position. Like Herron, Blunt was unable to drive the Confederates from the ridge.

Believing the Federals were spent, the Confederates tried one more counterattack at about 5 p.m.; it was likewise stopped. Finally, as the sun set, the five-hour battle ended. Late that evening Hindman began to retreat back to Van Buren.

The losses at Prairie Grove were staggering. Of approximately 8,000 Union troops engaged in the battle, more than 1,200 were casualties. Approximately 11,500 Confederates took part in the action, and at least 1,500 were lost. Tactically, the battle was a draw; strategically, a Union victory.

A major Confederate effort to regain over northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri failed on the field of Prairie Grove. Following the battle, Blunt and Herron moved south and captured Van Buren in late December (and quickly abandoned it), but Hindman withdrew his army to Little Rock. As 1863 dawned, practically all of Arkansas north of the Arkansas River was in Union control.

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