Battle of Prairie D'Ane
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The Battle of Prairie D'Ane (also known as Prairie De Ann, Gum Grove, and Moscow) was fought April 9–13, 1864, in Nevada County, Arkansas as part of the Camden Expedition of the American Civil War. The Camden Expedition was launched in cooperation with the US Army's Red River Campaign in the Spring of 1864. U.S. planners envisioned two federal armies converging simultaneously, one force under the command of General Nathaniel Banks pressing northward up the Red River commencing at Alexandria, Louisiana and the other federal army under the command of General Frederick Steele driving southwestward from Little Rock Arkansas. The objective was to press the rebel army of General E. Kirby Smith back upon the rebel stronghold at Shreveport and defeat him. If successful, a somewhat vague second phase envisioned the two federal armies combining into one large force and continuing their offensive with a westward push into Texas. 1,2
Topography and Stategies
Prairie De Ann was a prominent topographical feature in southwest Arkansas consisting of an open prairie 20 miles square, surrounded on all sides primarily by dense pine forest. In 1864 it was a well known landmark some one hundred miles southwest of Little Rock. The prairie was a crossroads; to the west lay Washington, Confederate capital of Arkansas since their abandonment of Little Rock in September 1863. To the east of the prairie lay the heavily fortified city of Camden, where many Confederate troops were headquartered. To the south of Prairies D'Ane lay the strategic Little Red River and Shreveport beyond.
Prairie D'Ane became a strategic locale after the US Army Captured Little Rock on 10 September 1863. As Union forces marched into the city, the Confederates hastily gathered up their official state documents and moved their seat of government to Washington. In their retreat to the southwest, the Confederates constructed defensive works at several points along the old military road running from Benton to Arkadelphia and they built extensive earthen and log breastworks at the northern edge of Prairie D'Ane. A Confederate defeat on the prairie would lay open the route to Washington for the federal army. But Prairie D'Ane posed a difficult defensive problem for the rebels. On the one hand, it's wide open plain offered good fields of fire for defending artillery batteries; on the other hand, the same open country offered an attacking force plenty of space in which to maneuver and outflank the defenders in their fixed entrenchments. Much of the heavy rebel defensive barriers erected along the route from Little Rock to Prairie D'Ane had been built by slave labor. Roving groups of rebel guerrilla cavalry meanwhile were dispatched to harass federal forces along their line of march from Little Rock.
Defending Confederate forces engaged in the battle were under the overall command of General Sterling Price and consisted primarily of Arkansas and Missouri state regiments and local militia comprising three cavalry divisions commanded by General James Fagan, General John Marmaduke and General Samuel Maxey, and three divisions of infantry and dismounted cavalry commanded by Generals John Walker,Thomas Churchil and Mosby Parsons, augmented by five artillery batteries. Many of the Arkansas state troops were conscripts, some of whom had served in previous campaigns, had deserted the ranks, only to be re-drafted by Confederate press gangs.
Attacking U.S. forces comprised the VII US Army Corps (augmented) under the overall command of General Frederick Steele and consisting of two infantry divisions commanded by Generals Frederick Salomon and John Thayer and a cavalry division under the command of General Eugene Carr, and supported by five artillery batteries. Most of the attacking forces were troops from Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Arkansas and Kansas-- the latter including two recently raised African-American regiments. Almost every regiment of the VII Corps was seriously understrength, due to sickness and disability caused by Typhoid fever, measles, malaria ("Southern Fever") influenza, chronic diarrhea, viruses of unknown origin and chronic painful rheumatism caused by the damp and humid conditions the northern soldiers had encountered while serving in the Arkanas delta country around Helena from 1862 to 1863. At one point in the US Army's Arkansas campaign, one division had some 1000 soldiers on the sick list. Death by disease was far more common for federal soldiers serving in the Arkansas theater than death by combat. 1,2
Following a forced crossing of the Little Missouri River by elements of the federal 36th Iowa Infantry and 43rd Indiana Infantry who waded across the river on the night of 3 April, these regiments were vigorously assaulted by rebel units at mid-morning of the following day. The Iowa and Indiana troops stubbornly defended their bridgehead, supported by artillery and rifle fire from the rest of Steele's VII Corps, which was waiting to cross the river from the opposite shore. The fighting at Elkin's Ford began around 10 am and continued until late afternoon, when the rebels broke off their attack, leaving dozens of dead and dying on the field. Both the 36th Iowa and the 43rd Indiana suffered light casualties. 1,2,3,4
After defeating the Confederates at the ford on 4 April, the remainder of Steele's corps crossed the Little Missouri on a pontoon bridge. Steele's corps, augmented only 2 days earlier by the arrival from northwest Arkansas of Brigadier General. John M. Thayer's Frontier Division, encamped a few days on the south side of the ford before marching south through the Little Missouri bottom toward the prairie. Steele's corps emerged upon high ground, resting for a few days at the plantation home of the widow Cornelius, where Steele obtained valuable intelligence from wounded rebels about the strength of the rebel force and the Confederate units in front of him. Reconnoitering from Cornelius plantation, the Federals observed extensive log and earth breastworks defending the northern edge of the prairie. Marching south from Cornelius plantation on 10 April, they encountered the Confederate line of battle, driving it back primarily with artillery fire, cavalry and infantry skirmishers about a mile before being checked. Skirmishing continued throughout the afternoon of 11 April. The rebels did not make a determined stand, but fell back with a delaying action, with the intention of mounting a stand further south to defend their capital at Washington, and also hopefully receive reinforcements from Kirby Smith at Shreveport. Most of Steele's infantry lay in reserve positions along the high ground north of the prairie during the fight on the prairie. As noted the rebels were dislodged from their works primarily by Infantry skirmishers and cavalry supported by very accurate federal artillery fire. 1,2,3,4,5,6
Having marched all the way from Little Rock on half-rations and finding precious little local provender in the surrounding countryside, the VII Corps was in immediate need of both animal forage and food. Steele's intelligence reports also began to bear rumors that the federal forces under Banks converging on Shreveport had been badly beaten and halted by Kirby Smith. Steele had always doubted the wisdom of marching into the barren back country of southwest Arkansas to support Banks' ill-conceived Red River Campaign and he had delayed leaving Little Rock until finally receiving a rather blunt direct order to move from his former US Military Academy classmate Ulysses Grant. Now, deep in enemy territory with his forces reduced to quarter rations, with little forage for his mules and horses and marching on muddy, rain-saturated roads, Steele grew increasingly doubtful of his ability to reach Shreveport. A resupply train had started from Little Rock to support Steele on 12 April, but with muddy road conditions it would certainly be delayed in arriving. Additionally, If the rumors of Banks' defeat proved true, Steele knew this would free Kirby Smith to make an about face and turn his entire formidable army northward to attack him with overwhelming forces. Taking the counsel of his division and brigade officers, Steele therefore decided to move east to take Camden, where his army could hopefully rest and resupply with captured provisions and await intelligence that would confirm the rumors of Banks' defeat. 1,2,3,4
In a brilliant diversionary move characteristic of Steele, the corps commander ordered Thayer's Frontier Division as the rear guard to make a feint toward Washington by drawing the enemy into a fight south of the prairie while the main part of the Federal force rapidly deployed eastward undetected on the Camden Road. Thayer executed this rear guard diversionary action with perfect timing, enticing the insurgents into a sharp fight at a hamlet called Moscow Church on the southeast edge of the prairie. Steele's main force meanwhile proceeded into Camden and seized the heavily fortified city with minimal opposition. Upon reaching Camden and finding only meager supplies, and receiving confirmation of Banks' defeat on the Red River, Steele made the decision to retreat from Camden and save his army. After suffering the loss of nearly 500 supply wagons and 1200 mules in bitter and sanguinary ambushes upon federal supply trains at Poison Springs on 18 April and Marks Mills on 25 April. Steele's VII Corps moved north from Camden on the early morning of 27 April. Steele was pursued by the Confederates all the way to the Saline River, where he turned and defeated them decisively in a brilliant retrograde battle at the Battle of Jenkins Ferry on 29-30 April 1864. 1, 2, 3, 4
The site of the battle, the Prairie D'Ane Battlefield is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is part of the Camden Expedition Sites National Historic Landmark.
1. Bearss, Edwin C., Steele's Retreat From Camden and the Battle of Jenkins Ferry (Little Rock: Arkansas Civil War Centennial Commission, Pioneer Press, 1961)
2. Forsyth, Michael J., The Camden Expedition of 1864. (Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland and Company, 2003)
3. The War of the Rebellion: Official Record of the Union and Confederate Armies (O.R.), Series I VOL 34, pp. 659-849 (Washington DC. Government Printing Office, 1891)
4. Walker, Joe, Harvest of Death (Sheridan, Arkansas: The Friends of Jenkins Ferry Batlefield, 2011).
5. Pearson, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin, Company G, Thirty-Sixth Iowa Infantry Regiment, US Vols., Benjamin Pearson War Diary (Des Moines, Iowa: Annals of Iowa, VOL XV, Nos 2-6, 1925-1927).
6; Hittle, Jon B., ''Citizens and Patriots: A History of the 36th Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Civil War''. (Iowa GenWeb Civil War History Project), 2009. http://iagenweb.org/civilwar/regiment/infantry/hittle.htm)