Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
Prairie DeAnn Battlefield
Prairie DeAnn Battlefield

PRAIRIE DEANN BATTLEFIELD, PRESCOTT, NEVADA COUNTY

ELABORATION

The Battle of Prairie DeAnn

In 1864, Prairie De Ann was a circular body of land surrounded by forest, 25 to 30 miles square, a well-known landmark one hundred miles southwest of Little Rock. The prairie was something of a crossroads; to the west lay the Confederate capital of Washington, to the east lay the heavily fortified city of Camden, where many Confederate troops were headquartered, while to the south lay the strategic Red River and Shreveport beyond. One soldier, on viewing the prairie for the first time, wrote that it "stretched away smoothly as a sea of glass"; another described it as "like an oasis...a relief for the eye of the traveler, who for many days has hardly seen anything but rocks crowned by dark pines or gloomy cypress swamps." Except for a few scattered farmhouses and the tiny village of Moscow on its eastern edge, the prairie was mostly unoccupied. Arriving on April 5, Marmaduke took a position behind a frail line of earthworks on the southwestern side of Prairie De Ann to protect the approach to Washington and await the arrival of reinforcements. Meanwhile, scattered skirmishing continued with the slowly advancing Federals.

On April 6, the Yanks finally received word of the approach of Thayer's column from Hot Springs, and Steele decided to await their arrival on the Cornelius farm, a short distance south of the Little Missouri. A heavy rain fell that evening, flooding the bottomlands and washing away bridges. Working parties were sent to repair the damage and construct a new pontoon bridge across the Little Missouri in preparation for the passage of Thayer's wagon train. By the time Thayer's Frontier Division arrived on April 9, the troops were destitute of supplies, while Steele's decision to delay his advance by three days had further diminished the Union rations; the Federals no longer had sufficient supplies to carry them to Shreveport, and Steele was forced to send word to Little Rock to dispatch a supply train with 30 days' half-rations for 15,000 men. The arrival of Thayer's column increased Steele's effective fighting force to 10,400.

Meanwhile, Marmaduke's position on the Confederate side was strengthened with the arrival on April 6 of Brig. Gen. Richard M. Gano's Texas cavalry brigade, a part of Maxey's division from the Indian Territory. Sterling Price, the Confederate district commander nicknamed "Old Pap" by his men, arrived on the 7th along with the brigades of Crawford and Dockery, taking direct charge of Confederate operations amid growing concerns as to the effectiveness of the general's military decisions thus far. Of the five Confederate brigades at Price's disposal, only three had been used effectively, and these under Marmaduke's orders. Crawford and Dockery's brigades had been left east of the Ouachita when it should have been obvious that no Union attack would be forthcoming from Pine Bluff. Subsequently, Price was unable to contest with his full force Steele's crossing of the Little Missouri, and the best opportunity to halt the Federal advance was lost. Fully expecting a Union attack on Washington, Price had pulled almost all of the Confederate troops from Camden and assembled them on Prairie De Ann; unknown to Price however, Steele had decided as early as April 7 to go to Camden for desperately needed food and forage. On April 10, the Confederates were well-prepared when the Federals drove Shelby and Dockery back and Steele's forces began to move across Prairie De Ann.

As Col. Adolph Engleman's 3rd Brigade of the Third Division, together with Company A, 3rd Illinois Artillery, emerged from the thick pine forest onto the prairie, they were confronted by "large numbers of the enemy cavalry...deployed upon the central ridge of the prairie running east and west, while the ridge in front commanding the point where the road enters the prairie was held by the enemy's skirmishers concealed in the dense undergrowth covering the same." The bluecoats deployed to the west of the road, the 40th Iowa to the right of the battery and the 43rd Illinois on the left; these troops soon moved forward as skirmishers, extending westward as much as a mile, while the 27th Wisconsin advanced to support the battery. After the 3rd Brigade had filed into position, Brig. Gen. Rice's 1st Brigade - consisting of the 50th Indiana, 29th Iowa, 33rd Iowa, and Voegele's Battery manned by Company F, 9th Wisconsin Infantry - entered the prairie and deployed to the left of the road.

Col. William E. McLean's 2nd Brigade, the last to enter the prairie, was initially charged with guarding the Federal's supply and pontoon trains, but as skirmishing intensified the 77th Ohio and 36th Iowa were ordered to advance and take positions on the right and left of the Old Military Road respectively. Company E, 2nd Missouri Light Artillery, deployed to the extreme right of the Union line and was soon engaged in an artillery duel that lasted through the afternoon and evening. The 43rd Indiana, in the rear of the Union train, arrived in the Union camp at midnight, while Thayer's troops did not arrive until the following day.

Though mounted, the Confederate forces often fought as infantry, with every fourth man remaining in the rear to hold horses. Facing the advancing Federals, stationed one-half mile southeast of the Union line on a small ridge covered with brush, were the 18th, 19th, and 20th Arkansas, as well as the 12th Arkansas Battalion of Sharpshooters, under the command of Gen. Dockery. Farther back and to the east was Shelby's brigade, including the 1st Missouri Battalion; 5th, 11th, and 12th Missouri Regiments; Hunter's Missouri Regiment; and Collins' Battery. To the west was Col. Greene's Brigade; the 3rd, 4th, 7th, and 8th Missouri, as well as the Missouri Battery. Cabell's Brigade, including the 1st, 4th, and 7th Arkansas, in addition to Gunter's Arkansas Battalion and Blocher's Arkansas Battery; and Crawford's Brigade, composed of the 2nd Arkansas Regiment, Crawford's Arkansas Regiment, Wright's Arkansas Regiment, Poe's Arkansas Battalion, and McMurtrey's Arkansas Battalion, were all stationed in various positions along the southern and western sides of the prairie. Together, the combined forces of Dockery and Shelby totaled 2,000 effectives, while Greene, Cabell, and Crawford collectively commanded about 4,000 men. Gano's Texas Brigade and Walker's Indian Brigade of Choctaws and Chickasaws totaled about 1,000 men, so that the assembled Confederate forces were about half as large as the opposing Federals. Expecting a Union attack on Washington to the west, the Confederates had thrown up their fortifications along the western and southern edges of the prairie.

An artillery duel developed as the Federals deployed on the battlefield. Union skirmishers moved forward and small arms fire broke out between the Yank vanguard and Dockery's troops. Dockery fell back and was ordered to take a position to the left of Shelby's line. The bluecoats continued their slow advance over the next three hours as the fighting continued. "The artillery duel was terrible and magnificent," Shelby wrote later. "The long lines of cavalry on either side of the Guns, and over all the bursting bombs and the white powder clouds came fast and furious." As darkness fell on the 10th, Marmaduke ordered Shelby to withdraw his forces to the rear, beyond the grove of gum trees that would provide the Confederate name for the battle. The Union troops occupied the high ridge formerly defended by Shelby's retreating troops.

Darkness brought no respite in the fighting. From his new position at the Gum Grove, Shelby attempted to check Steele's relentless advance by deploying most of his brigade as skirmishers. In his report, Shelby described the night battle that ensued: "For three hours more the fight went on, the whole heavens lit up with bursting bombs and the falling flames of muskets. Their advance was checked for the night, and at 12 P.M. I drew off after eight hours of severe fighting." A postwar account of the fighting by one of Shelby's troops described the scene in vivid detail:

The horizon from east to west was one leaping incessant blaze of about six thousand muskets lighting up the very sky and making night hideous with the screaming missiles. The batteries, too, joined in the combat and burst like volcanoes from the solid earth, throwing large jets of flame at every discharge.

Late in the evening, some of Price's men mounted an assault against a Federal battery but were repulsed, and at midnight the cannonading ceased for the night.

The following day, April 11, except for occasional skirmishing and cannon fire, there was little action until the afternoon. A soldier in the 33rd Iowa later noted that "[i]t was a beautiful day, and the singing of birds in the thicket near us contrasted oddly with the occasional booming of the cannon and the continued skirmishing on some part of the line. As for us, we hunted rabbits, played euchre, read old novels, wrote away at letters, slept, and so on, as though there were no thoughts of battle in the world." At 2:30, the Federals once more deployed into cavalry, infantry and artillery battle lines, two to three miles in length across the prairie, and began to advance on the Confederates. After several hours of skirmishing and artillery action the Union troops withdrew, while Shelby and Marmaduke pulled their forces back to Prairie De Rohan twelve miles to the south. Sterling Price withdrew most of the rest of the Confederates to a point about eight miles east of Washington in order to better defend the capital from the advancing Federals. A small contingent was left to defend the Confederate entrenchments on the western side of Prairie De Ann.

Dawn on April 12 found the Union army again on the move, advancing across the prairie toward the Confederate entrenchments to the west. The Confederates slowly withdrew in the face of the Union thrust, evacuating their entrenchments and falling back to rejoin Price's army near Washington. On reaching the western edge of the Prairie, the bluecoats found "nearly a mile of rifle pits with positions for artillery, and nearly a mile of felled timber thrown up as breastworks." Union cavalry pursued the retreating rebels down the Old Washington Road, suggesting to Price that the main body of the Federal force was on its way; however, the main Union column, as well as the wagon train, instead took the eastern road back across the prairie toward Camden. After following the retreating Confederates for several miles to mislead Price, the cavalry doubled back to rejoin the main column. That night, the Union vanguard camped on Terre Rouge Creek, while Thayer's troops at the rear of the column did not leave Prairie De Ann proper until the following day.

Price discovered the Union deception on April 13, and hastily returned to Prairie De Ann to attack the Camden-bound Union column as it withdrew. Gano's Texas Brigade, Walker's Choctaw Brigade, and Dockery's Brigade recrossed the prairie and assailed Thayer's troops as they were leaving Prairie De Ann the afternoon of the 13th. Thayer deployed his men along the timberline on the eastern edge of the prairie near the village of Moscow to meet the pursuing Confederates; in the four hours of combat that ensued, the 2nd Indiana Battery fired more than two thousand shots, solid and shell. As the afternoon turned to evening, the Confederates withdrew and were pursued back across the prairie for about four miles by Thayer's people. The Federals reported seven killed and 24 wounded in the "Battle of Moscow"; Confederate losses were not reported. As evening fell, Thayer withdrew from the prairie and marched all night to catch up with the main Union column en route to Camden.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Atkinson, J. H. "The Action at Prairie De Ann." Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Volume XIX, Number 1 (Spring 1960): 40-50.

Bearrs, Edwin C. Steele's Retreat from Camden and the Battle of Jenkin's Ferry. Little Rock, Arkansas: Pioneer Press, 1966.

Carle, Glenn L. "The First Kansas Colored." American Heritage, Volume XLIII, Number 1 (February/March 1992): 79-91.

Johnson, Ludwell. The Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins Press, 1958.

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Richards, Ira Don. "The Battle of Jenkin's Ferry." Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Volume XX, Number 1 (Spring 1961): 3-16.

Richards, Ira Don. "The Engagement at Marks' Mills." Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Volume XIX, Number 1 (Spring 1960): 51-60.

Richards, Ira Don. "The Battle of Poison Spring." Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Volume XVIII, Number 4 (Winter 1959): 338-349.

Shea, William L., "The Camden Fortifications." Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Volume XLI, Number 4 (Winter 1982): 318-326.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 4 series, 70 volumes. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.