The 20th Wisconsin Infantry at the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas, December 1862
In late November, 1862 the three division Union Army of the Frontier was split into two widely separated parts. One division, under the command of Brigadier General James Blunt, was at Cane Hill in northwest Arkansas, while the other two divisions, under Brigadier General Francis Herron, were roughly 110 miles north of Blunt at Wilson’s Creek in southwest Missouri. The Army of the Frontier’s overall commander, Major General John A. Schofield, had deployed his army this way before leaving for St. Louis to recover from an illness, with command passing to Blunt.
Meanwhile, at Fort Smith, Arkansas, about 30 miles south of Blunt’s position, Confederate Major General Thomas C. Hindman decided to take
advantage of the separated Federal army and destroy Blunt’s division with his larger force. Hindman’s cavalry, under Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke, had already been engaging Blunt’s Federals off and on, and on December 3rd, Hindman’s infantry marched north. Hindman’s plan was for his infantry to attack Blunt’s position on Cane Hill from the south, while the cavalry would swing around and cut off a possible Union retreat north, and destroy or capture Blunt’s division before any reinforcements could arrive from Missouri.
However, Blunt sent word to Herron to advance rapidly to his aid, and advance rapidly is what Herron did, pushing his infantry to the limit and marching over 100 miles in just three and a half days. Hindman became aware of Herron’s divisions closing in, and decided to change his plan. Hindman’s Confederates would now intercept Herron’s two divisions before they could link up with Blunt, and then go back and destroy Blunt’s division. On December 6th, Hindman placed his army on a hill between the two Union forces, about six miles north of Blunt’s position, and waited for Herron.
Herron’s troops arrived early on December 7th. The Federals deployed their artillery and after bombarding the Rebel positions, Herron ordered an infantry attack across open ground directly in front of him and then up the hill, smashing into the Confederate right. The fighting was intense, and the outnumbered Union troops were driven back. Federal artillery kept the Confederates from successfully counterattacking, but the Union position was precarious and could not hold without reinforcements. Instead of Herron going to reinforce Blunt, Blunt would have to reinforce Herron.
At Cane Hill, Blunt heard the sounds of battle and immediately put his division on the move, swinging around to the west and around the Confederates, and then attacked the Rebel left. Blunt’s attack was repulsed, as was a Confederate counterattack. The two sides continued fighting back and forth, with the Union artillery playing a big part in keeping the Confederate assaults from succeeding. As was often the case in the Civil War, the fighting came to an end when darkness fell. After the two Union forces had joined, a Confederate victory became essentially out of reach, so Hindman withdrew during the night. The Battle of Prairie Grove, named after Prairie Grove Church that was located on the original Rebel line, was over.
The 20th Wisconsin Infantry in the Battle of Prairie Grove
The 20th Wisconsin Infantry was one of the regiments in the 1st Brigade of General Herron’s division. The regiment entered service in August of 1862, but had not seen any significant action. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Bertram of the 20th commanded the brigade, and Major Henry A. Starr was in charge of the 20th. The 20th Wisconsin and 19th Iowa regiments were ordered to take some high ground near the Archibald Borden house. The assault was initially successful, with the 20th capturing Captain William D. Blocher’s artillery battery. The regiment had little time to enjoy this success, as several Arkansas regiments from Brigadier General Francis A. Shoup’s Division counterattacked. “When within 100 yards of the ridge, the Twentieth Wisconsin and Nineteenth Iowa Infantry were ordered to charge a battery placed near a farm house, on the edge of the hill” General Herron wrote after the battle. “The charge was made in gallant style, the enemy driven back, and the battery taken, but the ground could not be held. Regiment after regiment of infantry was hurled upon them, and they were compelled to fall back”. The vastly outnumbered men of the 20th put up resistance, but with heavy Rebel fire and the enemy closing in on the regiment’s right flank, the 20th was compelled to retreat, destroying what they could of the artillery battery on the way out. A follow up assault by the 26th Indiana and 37th Illinois ended in the same way as the attack by the 20th Wisconsin and 19th Iowa did.
Lt. Col. Bertram filed this after action report on his command’s action:
Hdqrs. 1st Brig., 3d Div., Army of the Frontier,
December 9, 1862.
General: I have the honor to report that, on the 7th instant, after being ordered by you to place that portion of the First Brigade under my charge into position, the
orderwas promptly executed by Battery L, First Missouri Light Artillery, supported by the Twentieth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, advancing across the creek. After playing the battery for about thirty minutes, doing good execution, I observed the enemy’s fire to slacken. I then ordered the Twentieth Regiment Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry to move cautiously forward. They advanced about 500 yards across an open field; here I ordered them to lie down under cover.
Receiving information that a heavy force of the enemy was threatening my left flank, I immediately changed front to the left. The Nineteenth Iowa and Ninety-fourth Illinois Infantry following up the movement, brought us en echelon, the Twentieth Regiment leading on the right. After the execution of this movement, I observed a battery of the enemy, supported by infantry, trying to get into position in my front. I immediately ordered the Twentieth Wisconsin to charge the battery, which was done in gallant style, Major [H. A.] Starr leading. After taking the battery, the regiment advanced under a heavy fire to the brow of the hill, where they met a heavy force of the enemy’s infantry, some four or five regiments, advancing, which poured a terrific fire into the Twentieth Regiment Wisconsin Infantry, and obliged them to fallback, which they did in good order, destroying what they could while falling back of the battery taken before. The Twentieth fell back in good style across an open field to a fence, where they reformed and remained until the firing ceased for the day.
Officers and men behaved nobly, and stood fire like veterans. I regret the loss of the Twentieth Wisconsin is heavy. As far as I have been able to ascertain, it amounts to 49 killed, 148 wounded, and 8 missing.
In conclusion, I cannot help but bring to your favorable notice the gallant behavior of Major Starr, in immediate command of the Twentieth Wisconsin, and also Adjutant [H. V.] Morris, of the Twentieth, for the cool and prompt manner in which they executed my orders. Captain Backof’s battery (L) behaved nobly, and did good execution, although exposed for a time to a heavy fire of the enemy’s infantry.
I have the honor to be, your obedient servant,
Lieut. Col. 20th Wisconsin Vols., Comdg. Portion of 1st Brigade.
Comdg. Second and Third Divisions, Army of the Frontier.
Revised casualty figures showed the 20th Wisconsin had 50 killed, 154 wounded, and 13 missing or captured in just 15 or 20 minutes of fighting. The unit’s 217 total casualties were the most by any Union regiment in the Battle of Prairie Grove.
“The Conquest of Arkansas” by Thomas L. Snead. In Battle and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume III, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel.
The Military History of Wisconsin in the War for the Union by E.B. Quiner
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume XXII, Part 1.
Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-1865 by William F. Fox
Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide, with a Section on Wire Road by Earl J. Hess, Richard Hatcher III, and William L. Shea.
Wisconsin in the War of the Rebellion, Volume 2 by William De Loss Love
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