Civil War Battles
State War Records
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In 1864, Prairie De' Ane was a circular body of land surrounded by forest, 25 to 30 miles square, a wellknown landmark 100 miles southwest of Little Rock. The prairie was something of a crossroads; to the west lay the Washington, the capital of Arkansas, to the east lay the heavily fortified city of Camden, where many Confederate troops were headquartered, while to the south lay the strategic Little Red River and Shreveport beyond.
On April 10, the stage was set for the Union advance onto the prairie. Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele was encamped on the Cornelius farm, some 4 miles to the north. He had arrived here 3 days earlier, and had waited for the army of Gen. John M. Thayer to join him. Steele had set out from Little Rock on March 23 and Thayer from Fort Smith on the same day. Thayer had been delayed but had finally joined Steele on April 9.
The combined forces, now ready to advance, consisted of approximately 13,000 men, 800 wagons, and 12,000 horses and mules, and 30 pieces of artillery.
Soon after noon, Steele broke camp and began moving his troops along the road toward the prairie. For about 4 miles the road led through a pine forest. When the troops reached the edge of the prairie they looked out over the broad expanse of landscape and the land beyond. They saw "large numbers of the enemy cavalry ... deployed upon the central ridge of the prairie running east and west, while the ridge in front commanding the point where the road enters the prairie was held by the enemy's skirmishers concealed in the dense undergrowth covering the same."
As the Union army advanced, the main Confederate line was formed along the highest ridge of the prairie. Just to the rear of this line was the Camden-Washington road and from it a road led away to the south. There were thus 3 routes along which the Union forces might attempt to advance once they had come upon the prairie. They might follow the road to the left and advance toward Camden. They might continue south across the prairie and on to Red River, or they might turn to the right and try to advance toward Washington. The Confederates evidently expected them to choose the last of these three routes, because it was on the western and the southern edges of the prairie that they had spent most of their labor in building fortification. Steele had already decided, even as early as April 7, that he would go to Camden. He informed Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman in a dispatch of that date in which he told Sherman that he had to go there for food and forage.
As the Union troops entered the prairie, firing began and soon an artillery duel was in progress. Skirmishers were sent forward and heavy firing of small arms began between these and Dockery's troops. In a short time Dockery's troops were withdrawn, and were ordered to take position on the left of Shelby's line. The Union troops continued to advance and for about 3 hours, until dark, the fighting went on. Then Shelby, under Marmaduke's orders, withdrew his forces a mile to the rear, and the Union troops occupied the high ridge where the Confederates had been stationed during the afternoon. Between this ridge and Shelby's new position is the "Gum Grove" from which the battle takes its name.
On April 11, there was little action until the afternoon. At about 2:30 P.M., the entire Union line was drawn up in battle array and a forward movement began. The line of cavalry, infantry and artillery, extending some 2 or 3 miles across the prairie, was an imposing sight. Even the Union troops themselves were impressed. The Confederates, too, must have been.Toward evening the Union line halted for some time on the high prairie. There was considerable skirmishing in front. There was also considerable artillery action. As night came on, the Union troops withdrew and at least a part of them went back to occupy the same camp they had occupied the night before.
That night, the troops commanded by Shelby and Marmaduke left Prairie De Ann and camped on Prairie De Rohan, the present site of the city of Hope, some 12 miles to the south.
The same evening Price withdrew most of the other troops from the fortifications on the southwestern side of the prairie to a point 8 miles east of Washington. He stated that he did this in order to find a more suitable location for making a successful stand against the Union advance. It is also possible that Price had been influenced to withdraw the Confederates from the prairie by the formidable showing made by the Union troops in their advance that afternoon.
On April 12, at about daylight, the entire Union army began advancing over the prairie toward the Confederate entrenchments on the western side. Price had left a small force here with orders to withdraw as the Union forces advanced. At times the skirmishing was reported to be "quite lively." The Confederates gradually withdrew. About 9:00 A.M., the Union troops reached the edge of the woods and entered the Confederate entrenchments which had just been evacuated. They found "nearly a mile of rifle pits with positions for artillery, and nearly a mile of felled timber thrown up as breastworks."
As the Confederates withdrew, the Union cavalry was sent in pursuit, as if it were Steele's intention to follow Price in the direction of Washington, but the main column, with the wagon train, took the road eastward across the prairie in the direction of Camden. After following the Confederates for several miles, the Union cavalry returned to the prairie and joined the rest of the Union forces in the march eastward. That night, the head of the Union column encamped on Terre Rouge Creek, several miles to the east of the present city of Prescott. Other Union troops camped along the road in the rear of these, and many, especially Thayer's troops, did not leave the prairie until the next day.
When Price discovered that the Union army had changed its course and was moving in the direction of Camden, he decided to return to the prairie and attack its rear as it withdrew. For 4 hours the fighting continued. Thayer deployed his men in the edge of the timber. At length, the Confederates withdrew, and were pursued back across the prairie for a distance of some 4 miles. About 5:00 P.M., the pursuit ended and the fighting ceased. Under cover of the night, Thayer withdrew his troops from the prairie, renewed the march, and "marched all night through a swamp" to the east of Moscow.
The Battle of Prairie De Ann had been the turning point in the expedition.