As fall rapidly turned to winter during December 1862 on the borderlands of Missouri and Arkansas, armies were again on the move. If you are unfamiliar with the battles of Cane Hill and Prairie Grove, Eric at Civil War Daily Gazette has a series of posts offering an excellent overview of the campaign (but he is not, as of this writing, up to Prairie Grove yet).
His post from December 1 included a map depicting the operational dispositions of the armies at this time 150 years ago. Major General James Blunt occupied an isolated and seemingly tenuous position in the little village of Cane Hill in northwest Arkansas. With Major General John Schofield out of the field due to an illness, Blunt commanded the Army of the Frontier from this advanced position. The only support he could call upon was over 150 marching miles to the north outside Springfield, Missouri where Brigadier General James Totten commanded about 6,000 troops.
On December 2nd, Blunt ordered Totten to move up in support:
Hindman and Marmaduke are concentrating their whole force, 25,000 strong, at Lee’s Creek, 25 miles from this place, on the route to Van Buren, and 15 miles from the latter place, and in my opinion intend advancing upon me here. 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, and keep me constantly advised of your position and movements. Answer by telegraph to Elkhorn as soon as you receive this.
Now there’s fighting spirit! Don’t give up the position without a fight! Needless to say, Blunt’s estimates of the force opposing him were far on the high side. Still he was in a precarious position and needed support.
But Blunt’s orders didn’t find Totten. He was absent. But instead Brigadier General Francis Herron answered the call:
Your telegram just received. Will move both divisions entire at noon to-day, and will make good time to your position. The Second Division is camped at Crane Creek, the Third at Wilson Creek. Will keep you well posted of my movements. The distance from here is so great that it may be necessary for you to fall back a short distance, but I will do my best to make that unnecessary.
No worries about supplies or guerrilla activities. No complaints about the roads being impassable. The only reservation Herron offered was with respect to the distance. And even then, he put the best forward.
So on this day in 1862, two divisions under Herron, comprised of men from Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin and even some Arkansas unionists, took up the line of march. Later in his official report, Herron summed up this movement:
After leaving Wilson’s Creek, in accordance with the orders from General Blunt and yourself, I moved my command by forced day marches, the distance being too great for day and night movements, and, traveling at the rate of 35 miles per day, reached Fayetteville Sunday morning, the 7th, at 3 o’clock. Resting one hour, I pushed on….
Keep in mind the season and the setting of Herron’s march. These are the short days of December, in the sparsely settled Ozark Plateau. The men were not marching the Macadamized Valley Turnpike. Nor were they marching with well stocked trains in their van. Herron’s estimate on the rate of march may be a little high. I’d estimate the marching distance at 110 or 120 miles, a bit less than the 140 miles he suggested with that rate of march. (And for good comparison, draw a 120 mile radius from Washington or Richmond or Nashville. Maybe there were less troops west of the Mississippi, but they had more ground to cover.)
In “pushing on” Herron had another 15 to 20 miles before reaching Blunt’s last reported position. His troops wouldn’t reach that point, however, having to stop and fight a battle on December 7th.
Say what you will of Jackson’s Foot Cavalry in the Shenandoah or Sedgewick’s Sixth Corps marching up to Gettysburg, Herron’s march ranks among the most rapid operational movements of the war.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 22, Part I, Serial 32, pages 102, 805, and 807.)