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The sudden route of the Confederate cavalry at Dripping Springs did not bode well for Confederate efforts to defend the town of Van Buren. What followed was one of the more unique events of the Civil War in Arkansas. " On we traveled, chasing them through the streets of Van Buren, to the great surprise and astonishment of the citizens, who had heard nothing of our coming. They made 3 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.
Although they put up a valiant fight, Lt. Col. R.P. Crump’s men were severely mauled by the Federals and eventually tried to flee by steamboat along with an infantry regiment and section of artillery posted in Van Buren itself. In this they were largely successful, although the Union army captured 100 prisoners of war and a large number of wagons, teams and other material.
According to Brig. Gen. Francis J. Herron’s report, the fight – which had involved mostly cavalry to this point – turned amphibious when his men reached the crest of Logtown Hill overlooking the town: " Arriving on the hill overlooking the town, we found three steamboats leaving the wharf and the ferry, making good time over the river. We chased them with the cavalry, overtaking the first one a mile below town, and, by a well-directed fire of musketry, brought her two. Colonel Cloud followed the other two 10 miles, capturing both, and bringing them back to the wharf. They were all loaded with corn and other stores. In the mean time, the cavalry were scouring the country, and wagons were being brought in from every direction."
The Union attack came on so quickly that Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman had little time to react. Although the Northern and Southern accounts disagree somewhat as to timing, he reported that the Union troops were in the streets of Van Buren by 11:05 A.M., only 1 hour and 5 minutes after he first learned they were coming. He identified the steamers captured by the Union cavalry as the CSS Notre, CSS Key West, and CSS Rose Douglas. Two other boats, the CSS Eva and the CSS Arkansas were burned by the Confederates themselves to prevent their capture.
Either anticipating that the Federals planned to cross the river or hoping to inflict as much damage upon them as possible, Hindman ordered Shaver’s brigade to the river bank opposite Van Buren with a battery (West’s) of artillery. Frost’s division was ordered up in support from its encampment ten miles away, with a second detachment of infantry and artillery being sent to Strain’s Landing, about 6 miles downstream.
According to Hindman, Brig. Gen. Joseph R. West’s artillerymen opened fire on the Federals from across the river when they were seen approaching the Van Buren landing, driving them back. The Union officers, however, considered the affair much more sinister: " About 2:30 o’clock (we had arrived at 12 o’clock) a battery opened on the town from the opposite side of the river, and shelled the town for an hour. One of our men was killed and 5 wounded. General Blunt and myself made a narrow escape. We soon hurried up a long range battery, and drove them off. The transaction was diabolical, to say the least of it, the town being full of women and children. At least 100 shells were fired into the houses, doing great damage, only one citizen being hurt that I know of."
Hindman does not mention shelling Van Buren in his report, but does describe skirmishing across the river with the Federals who he said responded with rifled cannon from the “commanding heights in and above the town.”
The fighting now shifted south to Strain’s Landing, which according to Hindman came under attack late in the afternoon: " About dark, artillery firing commenced at Strain’s Landing, between Frost’s detachment, posted there, and a Federal force on the opposite side, having field pieces of large caliber. It continued during two hours, when the enemy retired."
Writing to Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis, his commanding officer, that same night, Brig. Gen. James G. Blunt reported that he was then shelling the Confederate encampments 5 miles below Van Buren, an apparent reference to the fight at Strain’s Landing. He also indicated that if the Confederates did not, “retire during the night, I shall endeavor to cross my troops over the river in the morning and offer them battle.”
In the meantime, the Federals set about consolidating as much of the captured supplies as possible. The loaded captured wagons with Confederate sugar which they shipped back north to their camps in northwest Arkansas. After supplying themselves and feeding their horses as much as possible, they destroyed an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 bushels of corn.
The battle that Blunt hoped for the next morning was not to be. When the sun rose on the 29th, the Federals found that the Confederates had evacuated Fort Smith and were in retreat: " They at once evacuated Fort Smith; destroyed all their stores on hand and burned two steamboats, and traveled, leaving 4,000 sick in a very destitute condition. The divisions of Frost, Shoup, Roane, and Fagan retreated in great confusion, each taking the first road they came to, and without any plan for concentrating. They are demoralized and broken up, and I think this section is rid of Hindman."
Hindman did not tell a dramatically different story. Early in his report of the affair he mentioned that his army was demoralized due to lack of pay and heavily burdened with sickness. When the fighting ended for the night, he withdrew: " …I had now removed all the public stores for which I had transportation. My whole force did not exceed 4,000. That of the enemy in and near Van Buren was not less than 7,000. His cavalry, moving on both my flanks, might soon get entirely in my rear. I therefore determined to retire all my command southward, and cross the river near Clarksville, unite with Fagan, and there take position. This intention was carried out without any occurrence that need be reported."
The Federals decided not to remain in Van Buren after learning that Hindman had retreated. It would be virtually impossible for them to supply themselves there and there was not sufficient forage for their horses. The trip back over the mountains was arduous, but was completed with no interference from the Confederates.
Total casualties from the campaign are difficult to assess, but they do not seem to have been particularly high. In the wake of the brutal all out fight between the two armies at Prairie Grove only 3 weeks earlier, the Van Buren raid was a stunning success for Blunt and Herron. It also demonstrated how much the battle and retreat from Prairie Grove had taken out of Hindman’s army.
It has often been speculated that Hindman might have prevailed had he not withdrawn during the night after the Battle of Prairie Grove, but the performance of his men just 3 weeks later suggests that his army was much more demoralized and weak after the fighting of December 7 than has traditionally been realized. Putting together the army had been a remarkable achievement to begin with, and to his credit Hindman seems to have known its limits. When pressed by the Federals in late December, there was little he could do but withdraw.
Battle of Van Buren - Confederate Reports
(The following is excerpted from the Official Records, Series 1, Volume XXII.)
Headquarters, Hindman’s Division
Little Rock, Ark.
February 15, 1863
Report of Maj. Gen. T.C. Hindman, C.S. Army.
Colonel: 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 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 unadvisable 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.
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 me by courier that the enemy was advancing on the Cove Creek road in heavy force of cavalry, infantry and artillery. A few minutes afterward, Brigadier General Cooper, who was at Scullyville, in the Choctaw Nation, 15 miles from Fort Smith, reported to me by courier that a Federal cavalry force of three or four regiments, with artillery, under Colonel Phillips, had crossed to the south side of the river, at Fort Gibson, the preceding day. Immediately after, I received information by telegraph from a detachment of cavalry posted at Borland’s, 35 miles below Van Buren, on the north side of the river,
covering the roads from Fayetteville to Ozark and Clarksville, that a regiment of Federal cavalry was within 20 miles of that position, moving south.
Fagan’s division was on the march 25 miles below; Frost’s was 10 miles below; Shaver’s brigade, less than 1,000 strong, with one battery, was 2 miles below, in camp.
General Cooper was ordered to retire southward upon his depots of supplies, the nearest of which was Johnson’s Station, on the Canadian, about 90 miles from Fort Smith. Shaver’s brigade was put under arms, and moved forward to the river opposite Van Buren. Frost was ordered back to Shaver’s position, detaching enough artillery and infantry to hold the crossing at Strain’s, 6 miles below Van Buren; and orders were given to remove by boat and wagon, as rapidly as possible, the public property at Van Buren and Fort Smith. At the same time I telegraphed General Marmaduke, at Lewisburg, to move northward and strike the enemy in flank and rear.
At 11.05 o’clock, being one hour and five minutes after the first notice of the enemy’s advance, the Federal cavalry and light artillery were in Van Buren. As they approached the landing, West’s battery, of Shaver’s brigade, drove them back, killing and wounding several. Skirmishing continued there till nearly sunset, when the Federal infantry appeared, and two batteries of heavy rifled pieces opened from the commanding heights in and above the town. Meanwhile a cavalry force pursued and captured Colonel Crump’s train and part of a train laden with supplies for my wounded at Cane Hill, and also captured three steamboats, the Notre, which had grounded on a bar 1 mile below Van Buren, and the Key West and Rose Douglass, which had been ordered down, but had stopped for some cause unknown on the south side of the river, opposite Strain’s Landing. This was before there was time for Frost’s detachment to reach that point. The steamers Eva and Arkansas, being still
above Van Buren, were burned by my orders, after transferring to wagons all their freight for which I had transportation.
About dark, artillery firing commenced at Strain’s Landing, between Frost’s detachment, posted there, and a Federal force on the opposite side, having field pieces of large caliber. It continued during two hours, when the enemy retired. I had now removed all the public stores for which I had transportation. My whole force did not exceed 4,000. That of the enemy in and near Van Buren was not less than 7,000. His cavalry moving on both my flanks, might soon get entirely in my rear. I therefore determined to retire all my command southward, and cross the river near Clarksville,
unite with Fagan, and there take position. This intention was carried out without any occurrence that need be reported.
I forward herewith the reports of my staff officers [Note: Not included in Official Records], showing the losses of public property at Van Buren and Fort Smith. All is reported as lost which was not actually brought away by them, although a considerable quantity of these stores has since been recovered.
The report of Lieutenant-Colonel Crump and his officers commanding pickets, scouts, &c., is forwarded also [Note: Not found for the Official Records].
I likewise forward herewith Brigadier-General Marmaduke’s report of his expedition into Missouri, under the ordered telegraphed him by me on December 28.
(Major General T.C. Hindman to Col. S.S. Anderson, Assistant Adjutant-General
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