On the Wednesday of our camping trip, seven of us drove about 25 miles north to visit this Civil War Battlefield. We toured the museum, walked the hiking trail and drove the driving tour. In other words, we saw it all. (I promise you here and now, that if you read this post carefully, you will know more about the Battle of Prairie Grove than anybody you’ll meet today. Go ahead and test this claim if you will — ask the next person you see, “Who commanded the smaller Union force at Prairie Grove?” And don’t be afraid to be Blunt about it.)
The battle took place on December 7, 1862, which is why December 7 has forever since been known as Pearl Harbor Day. The history goes something like this …
The Confederates, under General Thomas C. Hindman, raised an army in Arkansas. The Federals formed the Army of the Frontier to meet the threat. A small Union force under General James G. Blunt moved down into Arkansas to the town of Cane Hill. Hindman, with a much larger force, moved to attack him. Blunt called on General Francis J. Herron, who was up in Missouri with a larger Union force, to come help him, and Herron and his men came running. When Hindman learned that a larger force was on its way, he bypassed Blunt’s small army and attacked Herron at Prairie Grove (although I’m not sure exactly what Prairie Grove was at the time — the current town was named for the battle). Hindman took up a position on a ridge. Herron set up his artillery in the valley along the Illinois River. The two forces took turns attacking and being repelled by each other, beginning early in the morning and continuing until dark. Blunt came racing up with his smaller force and joined the party, but he was also knocked back. At the end of the day, both armies were in the same position they were in when the battle began, but there were now 2,700 men either dead, injured or missing. The Confederate army retreated because they were low on ammunition, and the Union army declared victory. Here’s a sign on the battlefield that gives a briefer summary with a map that I have magically enhanced with color through the wonders of technology. (You can click on this photo, and many of the others in this post, to enlarge them.)
We began our tour in the visitor center where we saw a film about the battle and wandered through the small and unimpressive museum.
The walking tour was one mile in length. There were informative markers along the way, as I will share with you as we go along. But most of them can be summed up with “The Confederate army was up here and the Union army was down there,” or “The Union army was down here and the Confederate army was up there.”
Here’s a map of the immediate battlefield. The walking tour circled the right-hand side of the map, around the Borden House. Ignore the “You are here” arrow. You actually aren’t anywhere near there.
Here’s the start of the trail, with the first marker on the left of the path. For a brief few moments, the sun came out and made things decidedly hot. The moments were brief indeed, and it was soon overcast and chilly again.
Many of the trail markers had photographs of officers involved in the battle. Most of them appeared to have woodchucks hanging off their lower lips.
Trail Stop #1
The brochure had this to say (everything in italics below is from the brochure): As part of General James F. Fagan’s Arkansas Infantry Brigade, the 34th Arkansas took position from the ravine west to the Fayetteville-Cane Hill Road. The men from companies B and K were from the Cane Hill and Prairie Grove areas.
Trail Stop #2
The 29th Arkansas Infantry was next in line, occupying the ravine at the start of the battle. This regiment suffered 49% casualties including its commander, Colonel Joseph Pleasants, who received a mortal wound and died soon afterwards.
The path now approached the top of the ridge near the Borden House. The left side of this panorama looks down the ridge to the north toward where the Union forces were situated. The right side looks along the ridge where the Confederates were. The Borden House is on the far right.
Trail Stop #3
The four bronze cannons in Blocher’s Arkansas Battery attracted the attention of General Herron who ordered that they be taken. The 20th Wisconsin charged up the hill and captured them, before being driven back by a superior Confederate force.
Joshua tipped the barrel of this cannon forward and about a gallon of water poured out, leading us to wonder if the Confederates were using squirt guns during the battle.
Trail Stop #4
The 19th Iowa Infantry advanced into the apple orchard behind the Borden House in support of the 20th Wisconsin. Both units quickly found themselves surrounded on three sides by a superior Confederate force which poured volley after volley into the blue ranks. Among the dead was Lieutenant Colonel Samuel McFarland who took nine muskets balls and died instantly.
Trail Stop #5
Colonel Joseph Orville Shelby’s dismounted Missouri cavalry protected the right flank of the Confederate Army. Armed mostly with shotguns, they waited until the Federals were within 40 yards before firing.
Trail Stop #6
The 19th Iowa advanced through these woods during the first Union charge. When they returned from the ridge, they had lost 49% of their men.
Trail Stop #7
The 20th Wisconsin advanced and then retreated across this ground. The thrill of capturing Blocher’s cannons was replaced by the misery of loss. The entire color guard was killed in the charge up the hill. The Borden cornfield extended from here north to the road. Confederates chased the retreating Federals through the field before being cut down by deadly canister fire from massed Union batteries to the north.
Looking north from the base of the ridge below the Borden House.
There were two trees (of different species) on this part of the battlefield that had grown so closely together that they essentially made up one tree. The trunks were fused together and the branches were intertwined.
(You can see a summertime photo of the trees from a visit I made to the park back in 1989. At that time, I was using a film camera and could not afford to be as comprehensive in my coverage of the battlefield. You can also see that, in the ensuing 21 years, my sense of humor has apparently not advanced to any notable degree.)
All seven of us had cameras and were stopping frequently to photograph this and that. At times, this became rather amusing.
Trail Stop #8
After stopping the Confederate counterattack, General Herron ordered a second charge by the 37th Illinois and 26th Indiana Infantry regiments. They advanced up the slope under heavy small arms fire.
My daughter (representing the Confederates) and Joshua and Angela (representing the Federals) reenacted the battle of Prairie Grove with snowballs.
Joshua was aiming at a squirrel with this shot, but his snowball sailed through the branches of the tree and hit a passing stranger in the foot.
Meanwhile, Katherine decided to make her own charge up the ridge.
Trail Stop #9
Forced to fall back, the Union soldiers took a position behind the remnants of a fence at the foot of the ridge, where they rallied and faced another Confederate counterattack. Effective fire blunted the Southern assault which fell back up the ridge. This ended the heavy fighting on the eastern end of the battlefield.
Trail Stop #10
The Aday Post Office and several family homes were in the line of fire throughout the battle and sustained damage. The four families that lived on the ridge hid in the cellar on William Morton’s farm.
Trail Stop #11
The 20th Iowa Infantry was awaiting another Southern attack when two cannonballs landed amidst the regiment about 3 PM. Fearing the Confederates were behind them, two companies quickly turned to face the new threat, only to discover the shells were signals announcing the arrival of General Blunt’s Union command. The 20th Iowa joined the Federal attack on the western end of the ridge by protecting Blunt’s left flank and lining up next to the loyal Cherokees, Creeks, and free Blacks in the Third Indian Home Guard.
A few old buildings have been gathered from around the area and placed in the park near the visitor center.
One of these buildings was the Morrow house, originally located nine miles from the battlefield. It was used as Confederate headquarters on the night before the battle.
The inside was set up with period furniture and a few displays, one of which featured the least-informative information notice I’ve ever seen.
A few monuments were scattered on the lawn in front of the Morrow House, including this 55-foot-tall chimney.
We drove the five-mile auto tour route. It pretty much just circled around the outside of the battlefield that we’d already seen from the middle. Here’s a shot from the Union position looking south toward the ridge. The Borden house is visible through the trees on the left.
We only got out of the car one more time, at an overlook by the Morton Hayfield. (Remember the “You are here” from the map early in the post? I took this photo from that spot.) The Confederates charged across this field but were repelled. A farmer named Robert West sat with his family on the hill in the left distance and watched the battle.
And just in case you haven’t had enough yet, here’s the brochure from the auto tour for your reading pleasure.