The Battle of Cane Hill was part of a Confederate attempt to drive the Union forces back into Missouri and recapture ground lost during the Pea Ridge campaign of early 1862, when Union forces had secured parts of northern Arkansas. Now, Confederate General Thomas C. Hindman moved his army of 11,000 soldiers into Fort Smith, Arkansas, and prepared to move across the Boston Mountains into the extreme northwestern corner of the state. Awaiting him there was Blunt with 5,000 troops. Hindman hoped to attack Blunt's force, which was over 70 miles (110 km) from the nearest Union reinforcements. Hindman dispatched Marmaduke and 2,000 cavalry troopers to hold Blunt in place while Hindman moved the rest of his force through the mountains.
Blunt disrupted the Confederate plan by advancing south when he heard of Marmaduke's approach. Marmaduke was not prepared to meet Blunt, who was 35 miles (56 km) further south than expected. Marmaduke's troops were surprised and outnumbered when Blunt suddenly attacked on November 28. Marmaduke began a hasty retreat and ordered Col.Jo Shelby's cavalry to fight a delaying action while the rest of the Confederates headed for the mountains. Blunt pursued Marmaduke's forces for 12 miles (19 km) before the Confederates reached the safety of the hills. Though the conflict lasted for nine hours, casualties were light. The Union troops suffered 41 men killed or wounded, while the Confederates lost 45.
This small engagement was a prelude to a much larger clash at the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas, nine days later. Blunt's advance left him dangerously isolated from Union forces in Springfield, Missouri, but when Hindman attacked again on December 7, he again failed to expel Blunt from northwestern Arkansas.