NOTE: This post is focused on the Federal artillery at the battle of Prairie Grove. For more background information on the battle, I refer you to Civil War Daily Gazette’s entry or the Civil War Trust resource page for Prairie Grove.
On this day (December 7) in 1862, one of the westernmost battles of the Civil War took place at Prairie Grove, Arkansas. We don’t often think of artillery in the Trans-Mississippi, yet just as at Pea Ridge the “King of Battle” played an important role.
After the long, rapid march from Springfield, Missouri, Brigadier General Francis Herron advanced from Fayetteville towards the advanced position of Brigadier General James Blunt at Cane Hill to the southwest. Before he could link with Blunt, Herron ran into Confederate Major General Thomas Hindman’s defensive position outside Prairie Grove.
Hindman chose good ground to defend. On the right side of the line, facing the advance of Herron’s Federals, were four batteries – Blocher’s, Marshall’s, and West’s Arkansas batteries along with Bledsoe’s Missouri battery. All told, these batteries fronted six 6-pdr field guns and four 12-pdr howitzers.
When Herron’s column reached Illinois Creek, they came under the Confederate guns. First throwing Captain David Murphy’s Battery F, 1st Missouri Light Artillery over a ford, Herron then moved the remainder of his force over. Rapidly, Herron established a gun line by adding the other three batteries under his command. These were Lieutenant Joseph Foust’s Battery E, 1st Missouri; Captain Frank Backof’s Battery L, 1st Missouri; and Lieutenant Herman Borris’s Battery A, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery. Twenty guns in total – four 10-pdr Parrotts, six 3-inch Ordnance Rifles, six James Rifles, one 6-pdr field gun, and three 12-pdr howitzers.
In his battle report, Foust described the initial phase of the action:
Arriving at the ford of the creek, I was ordered to halt out of sight of the enemy, and to advance and open the battery upon a signal to be given from Captain Murphy’s battery.
We went into action at the signal, under a terrible fire from the enemy while crossing the ford. About the third round the enemy’s guns were silenced. Another battery on our left having got our range, we were compelled to change position to the front….
In his report, Murphy elaborated further about the fire effects noting, “The fire was so well directed that the enemy retired, minus caissons, horses, and one piece disabled.” With the Confederate batteries silenced, and their infantry taking cover, Herron advanced his infantry. Backof’s and Foust’s batteries moved forward to support this assault.
After silencing the enemy’s battery on the hill in front of us, I advanced 200 yards, flanked on the left by the Twentieth Wisconsin Volunteers and by the Ninety-fourth Illinois on the right, and sustained an effectual artillery fire at the enemy’s position (which they moved several times) for three hours. In the same time [the infantry] made a charge…on the hill and through the woods surrounding; meanwhile the shells of my battery did great execution amongst the enemy.
But the Federal infantry found themselves outnumbered when they closed with the Confederates on the hill. When the infantry fell back, Backof covered the retreat with canister. In the melee two of Backof’s guns were disabled (though he later reported only one out of action at the end of the day). His losses were one man killed, two wounded, and eight horses.
Also in this forward position and facing Confederate attacks, Foust wrote:
At this time the enemy attempted to charge our lines, when the whole battery opened on them with canister, and they fell back in confusion. The infantry attempted to charge the hill, but were repulsed by an overwhelming force of the enemy, when we again forced them back with canister. Again the infantry attempted to carry the hill, but were driven back the second time, when we covered their retreat once more with canister, driving the enemy back again to the wood. The enemy seeing the battery without support, made a great effort to take it, but were driven back by the battery.
Herron summarized the defense of these guns,
Never was there more real courage and pluck displayed, and more downright hard fighting done, than at this moment by the above-named batteries. Advancing to within 100 yards of the guns, the rebels received a fire that could not be withstood, and retreated in disorder, receiving, as they ran, a terrible fire, causing great slaughter among them.
Foust would lose also eight horses, along with two men killed and six wounded. Herron would single out Foust for heroism during the repulse of the Confederate attacks.
At this phase of the battle, action shifted to the Federal right flank. Blunt had “moved to the sound of the guns,” quite literally, and arrived to smash into the Confederate left. There three Federal batteries also played an important role there, first defeating the Confederate artillery and then breaking up the infantry. Just as on Herron’s side of the field, the Federal artillery not only outnumbered the Confederates, they outgunned them with six 10-pdr Parrotts, four James Rifles, five 6-pdrs, and one 12-pdr howitzer. In the thick of the action, Captain John Rabb of the 2nd Indiana Battery, recalled,
A heavy musketry fire was then brought to bear on my command. I answered with canister. For fifteen minutes my men stood firm, firing their pieces with terrible precision, making roads in the ranks of the enemy, which were quickly filled by fresh men from the rear. Three times they advanced in heavy force upon the battery, but were driven back to the wood with heavy loss.
In the engagement, Borris reported firing 320 rounds from his two cannons. Foust fired “562 rounds of shot, shell, and canister.” Muprhy’s gunners fired 510 shells and solid shot. That is a lot of iron going downrange… particularly for a “small” battle in the Trans-Mississippi.
Prairie Grove is one of the best preserved battlefields outside of the National Park System. It is a bit out of the way, but worth the drive to visit. For those who haven’t, I’ve posted many of the historical markers on the battlefield in HMDB as a virtual tour.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 22, Part I, Serial 32, pages 100, 106, 112, 124,128-9, and 136.)