Start: 1864-04-09 End: 1864-04-13
The Battle of Prairie D’ Ane (April 9 – 13, 1864) (also known as Prairie De Ann, Gum Grove, and Moscow) was fought in present-day Nevada County, Arkansas, as part of the Camden Expedition, during the American Civil War. The Camden Expedition was launched in cooperation with the Red River Campaign of 1864. U.S. planners envisioned two federal armies converging simultaneously, one force under the command of General Nathaniel Banks pressing northward up the Red River commencing at Alexandria, Louisiana and the other federal army under the command of General Frederick Steele driving southwestward from Little Rock, Arkansas. The objective was to press the rebel army of General E. Kirby Smith back upon the rebel stronghold at Shreveport and defeat him. If successful, a somewhat vague second phase envisioned the two federal armies combining into one large force and continuing their offensive with a westward push into Texas.
Prairie D’ Ane was a prominent topographical feature in southwest Arkansas consisting of an open prairie 20 miles square, surrounded on all sides primarily by dense pine forest. In 1864, it was a well-known landmark some one hundred miles southwest of Little Rock. The prairie was a crossroads; to the west lay Washington, Confederate capital of Arkansas since their abandonment of Little Rock in September 1863. To the east of the prairie lay the heavily fortified city of Camden, where many Confederate troops were headquartered. To the south of Prairies D’ Ane lay the strategic Red River and Shreveport beyond.
Prairie D’ Ane became a strategic locale after the US Army captured Little Rock on 10 September 1863. As Union forces marched into the city, the Confederates hastily gathered up their official state documents and moved their seat of government to Washington. In their retreat to the southwest, the Confederates constructed defensive works at several points along the old military road running from Benton to Arkadelphia and they built extensive earthen and log breastworks at the northern edge of Prairie D’ Ane. A Confederate defeat on the prairie would lay open the route to Washington for the federal army. But Prairie D’ Ane posed a difficult defensive problem for the rebels. On the one hand, its wide open plain offered good fields of fire for defending artillery batteries; on the other hand, the same open country offered an attacking force plenty of space in which to maneuver and outflank the defenders in their fixed entrenchments. Much of the heavy rebel defensive barriers erected along the route from Little Rock to Prairie D’ Ane had been built by slave labor. Roving groups of rebel guerrilla cavalry meanwhile were dispatched to harass federal forces along their line of march from Little Rock.
Defending Confederate forces engaged in the battle were under the overall command of General Sterling Price and consisted primarily of Arkansas and Missouri state regiments and local militia comprising three cavalry divisions commanded by General James Fagan, General John Marmaduke and General Samuel Maxey, and three divisions of infantry and dismounted cavalry commanded by Generals John Walker, Thomas Churchil and Mosby Parsons, augmented by five artillery batteries. Many of the Arkansas state troops were conscripts, some of whom had served in previous campaigns, had deserted the ranks, only to be re-drafted by Confederate press gangs.
Attacking U.S. forces comprised the Seventh Army Corps (augmented) under the overall command of General Frederick Steele and consisting of two infantry divisions commanded by Generals Frederick Salomon and John Thayer and a cavalry division under the command of General Eugene Carr, and supported by five artillery batteries. Most of the attacking forces were troops from Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Arkansas and Kansas—the latter including two recently raised African-American regiments. Almost every regiment of the VII Corps was seriously understrength, due to sickness and disability caused by Typhoid fever, measles, malaria (“Southern Fever”) influenza, chronic diarrhea, viruses of unknown origin and chronic painful rheumatism caused by the damp and humid conditions the northern soldiers had encountered while serving in the Arkansas delta country around Helena from 1862 to 1863. At one point in the US Army’s Arkansas campaign, one division had some 1,000 soldiers on the sick list. Death by disease was far more common for federal soldiers serving in the Arkansas theater than death by combat.
Following a crossing of the Little Missouri River by elements of the 36th Iowa Infantry and 43rd Indiana Infantry who waded across the river on the night of 3 April, these regiments were confronted by Confederate units at mid-morning of the following day. The Iowa and Indiana troops held their bridgehead, supported by artillery and rifle fire from Steele’s VII Corps, which was waiting to cross the river from the opposite shore. The fighting at Elkin’s Ford began around 10 am and continued until late afternoon, when the Confederates broke off their attack, forced to leave dozens of dead and dying on the field, the 36th Iowa and the 43rd Indiana also suffering casualties.
The next day, the remainder of Steele’s corps crossed the Little Missouri on a pontoon bridge. Augmented only 2 days earlier by the arrival from northwest Arkansas of Brigadier General John M. Thayer’s Frontier Division, they encamped a few days on the south side of the ford before marching south through the Little Missouri bottom toward the prairie. Resting for a few days at the plantation home of the widow Cornelius, Steele obtained valuable intelligence from wounded and dying Confederates about the strength of the Confederate units in front of him. Reconnoitering from the Cornelius plantation, Federals observed the extensive log and earth breastworks that had been hurriedly established to defend the northern edge of the prairie. Marching south from Cornelius plantation on 10 April, they encountered the line of battle and attacked with artillery, cavalry and infantry skirmishers, eventually driving the line back about a mile before being checked by the Confederates. Skirmishing continued throughout the afternoon of 11 April. In a delaying action, the Confederates fell back, with the intention of mounting a stand further south to defend their capital at Washington, where they expected to receive reinforcements from Kirby Smith at Shreveport.
Inadequate provisions had been brought by the Union’s VII Corps and finding little provender along the way, they had marched from Little Rock on half-rations. This left them in immediate need of both animal forage and food. Steele’s intelligence reports also began to bear rumors that Union forces under Banks that were converging on Shreveport had been repelled by Kirby Smith.
Steele had doubted the wisdom of marching into southwest Arkansas to support Banks’ ill-conceived Red River Campaign and he had delayed leaving Little Rock until finally receiving a rather blunt direct order from his former US Military Academy classmate Ulysses Grant. Now, deep in enemy territory with his forces reduced to quarter rations, with little forage for his mules and horses and marching on muddy, rain-saturated roads, Steele grew increasingly doubtful of his ability to reach Shreveport. A resupply train had started from Little Rock to support Steele on 12 April, but those conditions meant it would probably be delayed in arriving. Additionally, if the rumors of Banks’ defeat proved true, Steele knew this would free Kirby Smith to make an about face and turn the entirety of his army northward to repel him with overwhelming force. Taking the counsel of his officers, Steele decided to divert his army east to take Camden, where they could hopefully capture provisions and await intelligence that would confirm or deny the rumors of Banks’ defeat.
In a diversionary move of his own, Steele ordered Thayer’s Frontier Division to make a feint toward Washington, thereby drawing the enemy into a fight south of the prairie, while the main part of the Union force rapidly diverted eastward on the Camden Road. Thayer’s action was quickly discovered, however, enticing the Confederates into a rear guard action at the hamlet of Moscow, on the southeast edge of the prairie. Steele’s main force, meanwhile, proceeded into Camden and seized the city with minimal opposition, only to find meager supplies and confirmation of Banks’ defeat on the Red River.
After suffering the loss of nearly 500 supply wagons and 1,200 mules in bitter and ferocious ambushes upon Union supply trains at Poison Springs on 18 April, and Marks Mills on 25 April, Steele made the decision to retreat from south Arkansas and save his army. Steele’s VII Corps moved north from Camden on the early morning of 27 April. Steele was pursued by the Confederates all the way to the Saline River, south of Little Rock, where the campaign ended with the Battle of Jenkins Ferry on 29–30 April 1864.
The site of the battle, the Prairie D’ Ane Battlefield is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is part of the Camden Expedition Sites National Historic Landmark.