Civil War Battles
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The Battle of Cane Hill was a significant preliminary event to the Battle of Prairie Grove. Fought on November 28, the engagement lasted 9 hours and extended through villages and farms and across mountainsides and valleys. Casualties were light considering the intensity of the fight, but both sides agreed the battle was hard-fought and that both Federals and Confederates exhibited remarkable courage and determination. According to Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman, the area in 1862 was one of the more prosperous points in Northwest Arkansas:
" Cane Hill is a ridge of perhaps 8 miles length and 5 miles width, in the southwest part of Washington County, Arkansas, just beyond the north base of the BostonMountains. Three villages are built upon it (Russellville, Boonsborough, andNewburg), which almost blend with each other, covering a distance, as the road to Fayetteville runs, of 3 or 5 miles…."
In addition to its agricultural and commercial interests, Cane Hill was noteworthy as the site of Cane Hill College. The first institution of higher learning in Arkansas, the college had been in operation for 30 years by the time of the Civil War.
The strategic location of the community, where several roads united after crossing over the Boston Mountains, gave it significant military importance early in the war. This was evidenced in late November, when Hindman sent a large cavalry force under Brig. Gen. John S. Marmaduke to occupy Cane Hill. Following on the heels of a Union scouting party that had penetrated south of the mountains, Marmaduke positioned his brigades at successive points along Cane Hill ridge. Among the men attached to his command, were William C. Quantrill’s notorious guerillas. Quantrill himself was not present and his company was headed by a lieutenant. Marmaduke’s occupation of Cane Hill was in anticipation of a planned movement by Hindman to bring his entire Confederate army over the mountains in hopes of destroying Union forces in the region in detail.
The Federals were quickly alerted to this movement and Marmaduke’s pickets skirmished with Union scouts near Cane Hill on November 25, while calls for reinforcements were rushed up to the Union commanders in Missouri. Deciding that the “best defense is a good offense,” Brig. Gen. James G. Blunt organized his men and moved to attack Marmaduke before Hindman’s main army could come across the mountains.
Leaving his camps on November 27, Blunt marched south. The rough country across which he marched caused his 5,000 men to become strung out, and most of his infantry was still miles to the rear when his cavalry reached Cane Hill at between 9:00 and 10:00 A.M. on November 28:
"In passing down a gorge between two abrupt hills, their grand guard was encountered in considerable force. Dashing on, and driving them before us, a few hundred yards brought us to where the bluff on the right terminated, and in full view of the enemy, who were posted on the right of the road, on elevated ground, with timber in their rear, their guns in battery, bearing upon the road on which I was approaching, and from which they immediately opened a brisk fire. I at once ordered Rabb’s battery into position, and also the two howitzers under Lieutenant [E.S.] Stover, when a fierce cannonading ensued, which lasted for the space of nearly an hour."
Although forewarned that the Federals were coming, Col. “Fighting” Jo Shelby still allowed himself to be taken by surprise. Blunt achieved this by advancing via an unexpected road and the battle was opened before Shelby had much of a chance to respond.
The fighting at the northern end of Cane Hill quickly developed into an intense artillery exchange. The Confederates held their position for as long as they could in the face of the developing Union line, then fell back through the village to a ridge about 3/4 of a mile south of their original position. This withdrawal, which both sides recorded was handled efficiently, took both the retreating Confederates and the pursuing Federals past the grounds of the Cane Hill College. The rest of Marmaduke’s division was already in place at the new position and the Confederates watched with interest as the Federals deployed ahead of them.
The sight was more than “splendid” to the Confederates, for it convinced them they could not hope to hold their new position against the oncoming Northern army. Despite Union reports claiming 8,000 or more Confederates were on the field at Cane Hill, the actual number was less than half that. In short, the Union army had more men (even without the delayed infantry), more artillery, and the element of surprise.
Deciding to withdraw to the Boston Mountains, the Confederates again left their position and retreated, fighting as they went. Along the way, they stopped and formed in a few positions long enough to force the Federals to deploy and move up their artillery, but generally continued to fall back until they reached the first significant ridge of the mountains.
This ridge, which separates Cane Hill from the Cove Creek valley, offered a commanding view of the surrounding country and had the Confederates not run out of ammunition for their cannon they likely would have inflicted much heavier damage on the approaching Union column. The fighting once again grew intense.
Blunt also reported that the fight on the mountainside was determined and severe. The Confederate fire that came down the side of the mountain, both from small-arms and artillery, was intense. Unfortunately for them, most of it went over the heads of the Union troops without doing much damage. The Union regiments steadily pushed the Confederates before them, until the crest was reached when the Confederates again fled in disorder.
From the mountaintop, the Confederates withdrew down into the Cove Creek valley. The valley was a narrow but natural gateway connecting Washington County with the Arkansas River Valley below. Cove Creek Road was used repeatedly by both armies throughout the war.
Finding the ground in the valley more suitable for the use of cavalry, the Federals launched a cavalry attack against the Confederate opponents. The movement almost induced panic in the Confederate ranks, as many of the men became convinced their comrades were being hacked to death by Union soldiers, but Marmaduke had a final bit of strategy up his sleeve.
Thrown back for the first time of the day, the Federals now were forced to rally behind 3 companies of the 6th Kansas Cavalry and beat back the Confederate counterattack. According to Blunt, he was preparing for another assault when a Confederate officer approached his lines under a flag of truce and asked permission to remove the Confederate dead and wounded from the battlefield. Because darkness was falling and expressing concern that the Confederates might “murder” Lt. Col. L.R. Jewell, who had fallen during the ambush, Blunt agreed to the request and the battle came to an end.
Marmaduke withdrew during the night into the mountains and Blunt and his men returned to Cane Hill. The two forces would fight again just 9 days later at the Battle of Prairie Grove.
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