Civil War Battles
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On December 28, 1862, the Union Army of the frontier swept out of the Boston Mountains and attacked Confederate troops at Dripping Springs and Van Buren, Arkansas.
The first confrontation of this brief campaign was the Battle of Dripping Springs, a sharp cavalry fight at a vital crossroads between Van Buren and the approaches to the mountains
After the Battle of Prairie Grove, the Confederates under Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman fell back across the Boston Mountains to Van Buren. The Federals, under Brig. Gens. James G. Blunt and Francis J. Herron, remained at Prairie Grove and in nearby encampments. Neither side knew what the other might do next.
For the Federals, the ferocity with which Hindman had advanced out of the mountains and fought them was troubling. They were equally vexed by the success with which he got his battered army off the field and back into the mountains. When scouts brought in intelligence that the Confederates were being reinforced and planning a second attack, Blunt and Herron listened carefully. They had already considered following Hindman to his base at Van Buren, but the weather in the weeks after the battle did not allow. On the night of December 25, as the weather improved, they agreed upon a plan that would lead them south to the Arkansas River.
Hindman, meanwhile, was in no way prepared for a renewal of the fighting. Union intelligence to the contrary, his army was disintegrating rather than growing: " After the battle of Prairie Grove, having returned south of the mountains, I found it impossible to forage Marmaduke’s cavalry in Northwest Arkansas, and accordingly ordered him to Lewisburg, 100 miles below Van Buren. My force being thus reduced and continuing to diminish in strength daily by desertions and a frightful increase of sickness, the latter caused by the unprecedented hardships to which the men had been exposed, the former resulting principally, in my opinion, from the non-payment of the troops and the consequent sufferings of their families, I decided that it was advisable to keep my main body on the north side of the river, and, therefore, crossed it to the south side, and went into camp in the vicinity of Fort Smith."
Hindman’s decision to move his army across the Arkansas placed the natural barrier of the river between his men and the Federals at Prairie Grove. It was wise that he moved when he did.
Even with the Arkansas River as a natural moat, Hindman was aware of the danger that Blunt and Herron posed to his army. To help provide advance warning should they cross the mountains, he had placed the 1st Texas Partisan Rangers, a cavalry unit, at Dripping Springs on the main road connecting Van Buren with the mountains. The commander of the regiment, Lt. Col. R.P. Crump, was further ordered to place a picket guard at Oliver’s Store, closer to the mountains at the confluence of Cove and Lee Creeks, and to station similar parties on any other road by which the Union army might approach.
To further protect his supplies and wounded in Van Buren, Hindman placed an infantry regiment and section of artillery in the town. Blunt and Herron marched out from their camps at Prairie Grove, Rhea’s Mill and Cane Hill on the morning of December 27. Herron moved his men down the old Telegraph road, while Blunt swung across Reed’s mountain to Cove Creek, which he followed through the mountains. Their total force numbered 8,000 men and 30 pieces of artillery.
It had snowed the week before the march and there was still snow and ice in the mountains when the Union soldiers broke camp. Most of the participants who left eyewitness accounts remember the bitter cold of that first night on the march and the ordeal of splashing back and forth across Cove Creek: " By ten o’clock we struck the head of Cove Creek. It winds through the mountains in a southerly direction, and as it is fed by mountain streams, now regular torrents, it of course increased in volume as we descended it…. We had crossed it when we bivouacked at ten o’clock that night, according to my count, thirty-three times."
Things were no better for the men in Herron’s column. Instead of following the icy creek, they were marching up and over the mountains: " We crossed the mountains in the night, and was more of a contract than I had yet got. It required 12 horses to draw the artillery over, and sometimes 50 men on a rope, in addition. The feat, however, was accomplished without losing anything."
Despite the ordeal, the Federals made it over the mountains and the two wings of the army met at Oliver’s Store at 3:00 A.M. of December 28. The cavalry picket Hindman had ordered posted there was nowhere to be found. What the Federals did find, however, was information on the actual location of Crump’s cavalrymen. Whether this intelligence came from a deserter, a civilian, or their own scouts is unknown, but according to Herron, they learned specifics about, “their camps, pickets &c.”
Taking advantage of this new information, the 2 Union generals pushed forward in person with around 3,000 cavalrymen and 4 howitzers. The rest of the column was ordered to follow as rapidly as possible: "The general and I pushed on, striking their first picket 3 miles from Oliver’s. After iring upon us, they ran, we following them into the camp at Dripping Springs. Here a regiment was formed in line, but our cavalry charged and drove them in great disorder, capturing wagons, tents, and all their camp equipage complete."
As soon as he learned from his pickets that the Federals was approaching, Lt. Col. Crump sent a rider to inform Hindman. According to the general’s report of the affair, this courier reached him at 10:00 A.M. This is a bit confusing since Blunt says he attacked the Confederates at Dripping Springs at the same time, but the two men could have been keeping different times on their watches. In those days it was common for people to set and keep their watches on their “home” time, regardless of where and how far they traveled. Consequently, many Civil War reports give different times for the same events.
A member of the 6th Kansas Cavalry left a somewhat more detailed account of the Battle of Dripping Springs. Beginning with the spotting of the Confederate pickets 3 miles below Oliver’s Store, he wrote: "Our movements gradually quickened, and shortly our cavalry was in full gallop, which was kept up for five or six miles and until we camp in sight of the enemy’s camp at Dripping Springs. In the meantime Gen. Blunt, who had kept up with us, sent back an order for the artillery and infantry to move forward with a quick step. The enemy, under command of Col. Crump, of a Texas cavalry regiment, were encamped along the north side of a hill, and immediately north of their camp were several fields with intermediate spaces covered with undergrowth of woods."
The account goes on to relate how the Union soldiers crossed through the fields, throwing down the fences that blocked their way, and formed into a line of battle at a trot. Once this maneuver was complete, they: " …Charged across the field in a full gallop, and when within fifty years of the enemy’s camp delivered a volley into the ranks of those who had formed in line and thought of making a stand. The Second Kansas Cavalry took the left of our line, and the Sixth Kansas cavalry and several companies of the Third Wisconsin cavalry the right. After firing a few rounds from our carbines, Gen. Blunt ordered the bugles to sound the charge, and with gleaming sabers we dashed forward like a whirlwind, throwing up a perfect cloud of dust. The enemy did not wait to feel the edges of our sabers, but fled in the direction of Van Buren, and in their flight left their tents, amp, and supplies of every kind in our possession."
Despite the broken nature of the ground, the Union cavalry maintained a semblance of a line of battle as it moved forward and over a steep hill south of the Confederate camp. Once they cleared the crest of the hill, they could see the dust rising from the hooves of the Confederate horses and realized they were in full retreat for Van Buren.
Reports and Eyewitness Accounts Battle of Dripping Springs
Hdqrs. 2d and 3d Divs., Army of the Frontier
Van Buren, Ark.
December 29, 1862
Report of Brig. Gen. Francis J. Herron, U.S. Army
…Yesterday morning we left north side of the mountains, General Blunt taking Cove Creek road and I taking Telegraph road. It was a terrible trip. We formed junction at daylight this morning, and pushed the cavalry into Van Buren without halting. Two regiments of cavalry were encamped at Dripping Springs and showed fight, but after killing a few and wounding some, they left….
Official Records, Series 1, Volume XXII, pages 168-169.
Headquarters Second and Third Divisions
Prairie Grove, Ark.
December 31, 1862
Report of Brig. Gen. Francis J. Herron, U.S. Army
At daybreak on the 27th, we moved out of camp, with picked men of the whole command, General Blunt going from Cane Hill, by the Cove Creek route, while I took the Telegraph or mountain road. We marched all of that day and until 3 o’clock the next morning, crossing the mountains successfully, and forming a junction at Oliver’ s Store, 18 miles from the river. Getting information in regard to their camps, pickets, &c., General Blunt instructed me to advance all my cavalry, leaving Huston, with the infantry and artillery, to follow up. The general and myself pushed on with the advance guard, striking their first picket 3 miles from Oliver’s. After firing upon us, they ran, we following them into the camp at Dripping Springs. Here a regiment was formed in line, but our cavalry charged and drove them in great disorder, capturing wagons, tents, and all their equipage complete…They made three attempts to check us between Dripping Springs and Van Buren, but were driven every time. The last 10 miles was traveled in one hour, the whole cavalry force going in at a gallop.
Official Records, Series 1, Volume XXII, page 169.
Headquarters Hindman’s Division
Little Rock, Ark.
February 15, 1863
Report of Maj. Gen. T.C. Hindman, C.S. Army
…One of Fagan’s infantry regiments, with a section of artillery, remained at Van Buren, and one regiment of cavalry, under Lieut. Col. R.P. Crump, was posted at Dripping Springs, 9 miles north of that place, instructed to picket at Oliver’s, 19 miles north, and at corresponding points on all other roads leading toward the enemy, scouting actively on each road, and keeping up constant patrols by day and night between the several picket stations.
…On December 28, at 10 a.m., Lieutenant-Colonel Crump reported to my by courier
that the enemy was advancing on the Cove Creek road in heavy force of cavalry,
infantry, and artillery….
Official Records, Series 1, Volume XXII, page 171.
Britton, Wiley. Memoirs of the Rebellion on the Border, 1863. Chicago: Cushing,
Thomas, 1882., pages 61-64.
…But when we crossed Lee’s Creek we were still about twenty miles from Van Buren. We continued to march along leisurely, occasionally halting a few moments to allow the infantry and artillery to close up, until towards eight o’clock, when a report came along the column that our advance guard had come upon the enemy’s pickets who, on discovering us, fled towards their camp in the direction of Van Buren. Our advance pursued them closely, so that they should not reach their camp in time to give the rebel troops many moments warning of our approach. Our movements gradually quickened, and shortly our cavalry was in full gallop, which was kept up for five or six miles and until we came in sight of the enemy’s camp at Dripping Springs.
In the meantime Gen. Blunt, who had kept up with us, sent back an order for the artillery and infantry to move forward with a quick step. The enemy, under command of Col. Crump, of a Texas cavalry regiment, were encamped along the north side of a hill, and immediately north of their camp were several fields with intermediate spaces covered with undergrowths of woods. But when we came to the fences inclosing the fields, there was scarcely a moment’s delay, for they were instantly
thrown down and we came into line of battle in a trot, and charged across the field in a full gallop, and when within fifty yards of the enemy’s camp, delivered a volley into the ranks of those who had formed in line and thought of making a stand. The Second Kansas cavalry took the left of our line, and the Sixth Kansas cavalry and several companies of the Third Wisconsin cavalry the right. Gen. Blunt ordered the bugles to sound the charge, and with gleaming sabers we dashed forward like a
whirlwind, throwing up a perfect cloud of dust. The enemy did not wait to feel the edges of our sabers, but fled in the direction of Van Buren, and in their flight left their tents, camp, and supplies of every kind in our possession.
After charging through their camp we could not preserve our line of battle in perfect order, on account of the broken condition of the ground. Nor was it necessary as the enemy had broken up completely, and thought only of saving themselves. We were cautious, however, as we did not know but that they had formed another line back some distance, with the determination of contesting our advance. The Sixth Kansas cavalry and Third Wisconsin cavalry, therefore, moved right straight forward over the steep hill south of their camp. But when we were passing down the southern slope of the hill, we saw from the clouds of dust hanging over the high road leading to Van Buren, that they had no intention of making a stand short of that place. We also learned from several rebel soldiers and teamsters, whom we had captured, that they were completely surprised, and that their retreat had become a stampede.
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