November 3, 1864: “They attacked my pickets and commenced bombarding the town”: Arkansas unionists defend Fayetteville

Northwest Arkansas has, in my opinion, not received its due attention from historians.  Several major military campaigns took place in that hilly section of the state, in particular those leading to Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove.  And for those of us interested in Southern Unionism, there was a strong movement in that portion of the state… so strong that several regiments were recruited.   The 2nd Arkansas Cavalry (Union) served in Brigadier-General John Sanborn’s brigade and saw action across Missouri as that command chased Major-General Sterling Price in the fall of 1864.  During that same time, the 1st Arkansas Cavalry (Union), under Colonel M. La Rue Harrison, maintained posts in Northeast Arkansas, using Fayetteville as a base of operations.

Fayetteville was a waystop on the Old Wire Road (prior to the telegraph, the Military Road between St. Louis and Fort Smith ran through Fayetteville) between Jefferson City and Little Rock.  As one of the few roads leading into the Boston Mountains, this waystop made Fayetteville an important objective.  In addition to military activity during the two campaigns mentioned above, the Confederates made an attack on the town in April 1863.  So Fayetteville had seen its share of action.  In the fall of 1864, it would see more.

Confederate Major Buck Brown and Colonel William H. Brooks operated in Northwestern Arkansas with around 1,500 men.  Harrison reported,

These bands during the summer have given Union citizens great annoyance, constantly plundering and driving them from their homes, until the rebel rule in the surrounding country has been for a time almost complete.

However, against the Federal garrison, Brown and Brooks had not done much, save cutting of telegraph lines and harassment of foraging parties.  While Price’s men were marching through Missouri, those Confederate forces attempted some diversions, as Harrison recalled:

Since the commencement of Price’s raid these desperadoes had become more bold and seriously threatened for some time the post of Fayetteville and the Government supply trains. On the 20th of October, while I was passing with a train through Benton County from Cassville, Mo., with an escort of 170 men, I met and attacked 600 men under Buck Brown, who was awaiting my approach. The engagement lasted for over two hours, when the rebels were routed in confusion, with a loss of several killed and wounded. Before my arrival I learned that Brooks, with 800 men, was lying in ambush at Fitzgerald Mountain, and at midnight passed around his camp, leaving it five miles on my left, and arrived in safety with my train at 1 p.m. on the 25th. Brooks then invested the town of Fayetteville with his forces, expecting thereby to starve the garrison into submission, but in this he was deceived. By reducing my issues to seven ounces of bread per day I found that my stores would hold out for twenty days, and felt assured that ere that was exhausted assistance would come. My only trouble was forage. It was impossible to send out my train without the most imminent danger of its capture. I therefore procured gunny-sacks for each teamster and mounted man, and watching the safest opportunities sent out my men as often as possible under an experienced officer.

For just over two weeks, Fayetteville was under a state of siege … loosely defined.  There was a sharp engagement on October 27 involving 500 of Brown’s Confederates an a foraging party sent out of Fayetteville. Then on October 28, the Confederates mounted a direct attack on the town, suffering nearly fifty casualties while inflicting only seven on the Federals.

Price_Campaign_Oct31

The situation came to a head on November 3.  From the Cane Hill area, Price dispatched Major-General James Fagan and the remainder of his division to reinforce Brown and Brooks.  Harrison detected this move, but there was little he could do but brace:

Price detached Fagan with 5,200 men and two pieces of artillery, which force was joined on the march by 1,500 men under Brooks and Brown. They attacked my pickets and commenced bombarding the town with all their boasted chivalry, not giving me the least time to remove families (mostly their own at that) nor demanding a surrender. The bombardment was kept up with one 6-pounder rifled gun and one 12-pounder field howitzer until nearly sunset. Three times the order was given to charge the works, but each time the men on coming within range of my rifles shrank from the assault and fled to a safe position. At sunset the retreat of the enemy commenced and was continued during the whole night by divers routes, the majority, with the artillery, returning to Cane Hill; at sunrise on the 4th instant only about 600 remained to cover the retreat. By the admissions of the enemy and reports from prisoners their loss in killed, wounded, and prisoners was about 100 (over 75 being killed and wounded). My loss was 9 wounded–1 mortally, 8 slightly. The strength of my command during the engagement was 958 volunteers and 170 militia; total. 1,128.

Major-General Samuel Curtis’ Army of the Border arrived after that and Harrison’s command joined the pursuit of Price.

Though not a major action by any definition, this Second (or was it Third?) Battle of Fayetteville featured Arkansans fighting Arkansans.   Beyond that, was there ever a larger battle in which a force predominantly composed of Southern Unionists fought a regular Confederate force, as on November 3, 1864?

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 43, Part I, Serial 83, pages 398-400.)

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