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Union troops divided between Arkansas and Missouri were easy targets—what could possibly go wrong?

When Thomas Hindman Jr. entered Congress in March 1858, his reputation as an unapologetic fire-eater was well established across the South—as was his affinity for getting what he wanted. It didn’t take long for his new colleagues to learn that, too. He was “an irreconcilable man…[who] seemed as if he were perpetually anxious to have a duel,” noted Ohio Congressman Samuel Cox. “Uncompromising in everything,” agreed a friend, Edward Nash.

Hindman’s resolve and obstinacy would prove both a blessing and a curse once the Civil War began. Elected by Arkansas voters to a second term in 1860, just as several Southern states were threatening to secede from the Union, he chose not to serve and instead began focusing on the defense of his adopted state from his home in Helena. He led recruitment of the 2nd Arkansas Infantry, becoming the regiment’s colonel, and in September was promoted to brigadier general. The following April he was promoted to major general for his contributions at the Battle of Shiloh, a quick ascent for a man with little antebellum military experience.

By the fall of 1862, Hindman was in command of the 14,000-man Trans-Mississippi Army, defending southwestern Missouri, the Indian Territory and most of Arkansas. He had done a commendable job that summer assembling from scratch an effective, adequately equipped force. But his ruthless tactics—which included declaring martial law and even commandeering soldiers and supplies destined for other theaters— earned him some powerful political enemies and scores of disaffected citizens.

It was not Hindman’s nature to play it safe. He believed aggressive action was needed to regain territory lost at the Battle of Pea Ridge back in March, as well as in Missouri and the Indian Territory. In late November he learned that divisions of the Union Army of the Frontier—temporarily under Brig. Gen. James Blunt’s command—were more than 100 miles apart. Blunt was with the 1st Division not far from Maysville, Ark., while the 2nd and 3rd Divisions, under Brig. Gen. Francis J. Herron, were camped near Springfield, Mo. On December 1, Hindman began moving toward Blunt from his headquarters at Fort Smith. After defeating Blunt, he planned to proceed back to Little Rock to refit his army and prepare for further operations in Missouri.  Blunt soon realized he was in danger and sent word to Herron for relief. In one of the more remarkable achievements of the war, Herron led a forced march of some 115 miles over three days to reach the outskirts of Fayetteville the morning of December 7. Hindman had driven back Federal pickets at Cane Hill the night before and was confident he’d make quick work of Blunt’s outnumbered Kansas Division the next day.

Though Herron’s unexpected approach forced Hindman to alter his plans, he never balked. Now, with his army aligned between the two Federal forces, he would create a diversion for Blunt and strike Herron first. After taking care of Herron, he would repeat the feat on Blunt in the afternoon.

Placing a brigade on a ridge opposite Blunt’s position at Cane Hill, Hindman had men light extra campfires to give the impression his army was larger than it was. His cavalry, under Maj. Gen. John S. Marmaduke, began moving at 4 a.m. and made contact with Herron just after daybreak. A quick attack by Col. Joseph Shelby’s troopers created a general panic among Herron’s horsemen, with 40 Federals killed and 300 captured.

Hindman uncharacteristically hesitated, however. Rather than press the attack, he pulled back and established a defensive position on a nearby ridge. Given a reprieve, Herron quickly brought up two infantry regiments and a battery of 12-pounder Napoleons, driving Marmaduke’s cavalry four miles back to Hindman’s main lines.

Realizing his precarious situation with the Confederates arrayed between his force and Blunt’s, Herron remained aggressive. But he knew he needed Blunt’s help-—and soon. With both Federal forces engaged, Hindman would no longer have a decided edge in manpower.

Fought mostly in a chilly drizzle that froze soldiers’ clothes to their bodies, the battle quickly evolved into a slugfest. Herron’s artillery caused considerable damage, but three separate Union infantry attacks failed, with devastating casualties. In one of them, the 19th Iowa and 20th Wisconsin each suffered 50 percent losses.

Four hours into the battle, his men near the breaking point, Herron began to wonder where Blunt might be, unsure he’d have anything left should Hindman unleash one more attack. Herron’s prayers were answered at 3:15 when Blunt, marching since before 10 a.m., finally appeared.

The Kansas Division’s arrival decided the outcome. Blunt quickly ordered an attack on Brig. Gen. Daniel Frost’s Division, then withstood a furious counterattack, ultimately benefiting from his army’s artillery superiority. The fighting ended at nightfall, but Blunt expected it to resume the following day and had his men sleep on their guns. Hindman, however—low on ammunition and food for his men and horses—retreated overnight, tying blankets around the wheels of his artillery and supply wagons to disguise the withdrawal.

Arkansas would be forever lost to the Confederacy, but Hindman continued to fight elsewhere for Southern independence. He was wounded in the neck at Chickamauga in September 1863 and again in the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. When the war ended, Hindman chose not to surrender and fled to Mexico, living in exile until 1867.


Chris Howland is a senior editor for America’s Civil War.

Originally published in the November 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.