A Study of Initiative: Prairie Grove December 7, 1862

As you may have guessed, I excelled somewhat in the formal professional military history classes while in the Army.  Often in my zeal to impress, I’d pick obscure (to the audience) battles to reference when asked for examples.  Visiting Prairie Grove last week, I had flash backs to a paper written about initiative as a principle of war.

Initiative, on the battlefield, is to present a series of threats to the enemy which they must respond to.  Initiative is not just bold aggressive moves.  It can, contrary to some notions, include occupying and fortifying a key terrain feature.  To “take the initiative” a commander changes the current state of affairs in such a way that his opponent must respond in a somewhat predictable manner.  (And conversely to “lose the initiative” is to alter the current state in a way that gives the opponent more options.)

The American Civil War is filled with great examples of initiative applied in tactical, operational, and strategic contexts.  Think of Chancellorsville and Joe Hooker at first “taking” then “losing” the initiative.  The word initiative rolls off the tongue when discussing Jackson’s ’62 Valley Campaign.   And you cannot discuss either Grant or Lee without saying a paragraph or two about initiative.

Another less cited example of initiative played on the stage of northwest Arkansas in the late fall of 1862.  In November of that year, Brigadier General John M. Schofield split his Army of the Frontier with one division forward near Fayetteville, Arkansas under Brigadier General James G. Blunt and the remainder at Springfield, Missouri under Brigadier General James Totten.  In the last week of November, Schofield took ill and command temporarily fell to Blunt.  Logically, Blunt should have returned to Springfield, suspending operations for the winter.  But he didn’t.

Hearing Confederates were massing forces near the village of Cane Hill, Arkansas, Blunt marched 35 miles southwest to strike Confederate General John S. Marmaduke on November 28.  As result of the all day fight, Blunt was exposed deep in enemy country, but he was also in a position that General Thomas C. Hindman, overall Confederate commander, could not ignore.

Hindman tried to seize the initiative for himself, moving behind Blunt, figuring to defeat Blunt then any reinforcements sent in piecemeal fashion.  Hindman outnumbered his adversary on paper, and intended to translate that into a stunning victory.  But Hindman had not closed all options to his enemy, and did not fully gain the initiative.

From Cane Hill, Blunt sent orders to Totten on December 2: “… I desire you to move as much of your force as possible, especially the infantry, to my support as I do not intend to leave this position without a fight.  You should move by forced marches via Fayetteville….” [Official Records, Series I, Volume 22, Part I, Serial 32, page 805].

But Totten didn’t receive the message.  He too was on leave (something in the water I guess), but his replacement General Francis J. Herron, responded adding, “Will keep you well posted of my movements.”   [OR, Serial 32, page 807] Something every commander loves to hear.   And Herron didn’t just move, he moved with all haste.  In a march that would make the Stonewall Brigade wince, Herron covered over 100 miles in three days (in December, in the mountains, during some of the shortest days of the year).

Herron’s arrival near Fayetteville changed the game.  The initiative balance had teetered between the two sides, now tipped firmly to the Federals.  Hindman picked a good ridge line on which to defend astride the main road through the area and began consolidating his command – at an area known locally as Prairie Grove.  However, his posture left open maneuver room for the Federal commands.  Maneuver, of course translates into options.

On the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1862 (history has a funny way of hitting some dates over and over, you know), Herron encountered Hindman’s defenses.  Herron interpreted that to be only a portion of the Confederate force, and attempted to push through to Blunt.  After two organized assaults, Herron’s command was for the most part spent.  However, his artillery kept the Confederates at bay.

Realizing Hindman had slipped by him, on the morning of the 7th Blunt fell back north to Rhea’s Mill, about five miles from Herron’s position.  There, Blunt changed his direction, “…when I heard the discharge of artillery in a northeast direction, and immediately moved rapidly, with the Second and Third Brigades, in the direction of the firing….” [OR, Serial 32, page 74].   Or in more romantic form, he “moved to the sound of the guns!”

When Blunt’s division arrived on the field in the afternoon, the Federals still held the initiative, partly due to artillery superiority.  Blunt launched an attack on the left flank of the Confederate defense at about two in the afternoon.  Stubborn defense, and the early December sunset, checked Blunt’s attack.  While tactically both sides were at a stalemate, operationally Hindman had shot his wad.  The Confederates began a retreat that night (and used the cover of a truce in part to gain further distance from pursuit).   A costly battle, certainly one of the bloodiest in the Trans-Mississippi theater, Prairie Grove tipped the operational and strategic initiative to the Federals.

Three times in the campaign, Blunt could have fallen back citing caution, and history would not have judged him wrong.  Yet three times he chose to act in a way that would force his adversary to choose particular courses of action, and keep them reacting.  Not all of Blunt’s actions were the mark of a great commander, but his use of the initiative was remarkable.  I would argue that Blunt shaped the situation, through his own actions and orders, to make it predictable.

A co-worker of mine from years past often said, “Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb, if you can predict how that limb is going to break.”  Perhaps that is the kind of logic that passed through Blunt’s mind on those fall days of 1862.

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