December 7, 1862.--Battle
of Prairie Grove, Fayetteville, or Illinois Creek, Ark.
No. 38.--Report of Col. Joseph O. Shelby, Missouri Cavalry (Confederate), commanding Fourth Missouri Cavalry Brigade, including preliminary skirmishes.
CAMP BELOW VAN BUREN, ARK.,
December 11, 1862.
GENERAL: I have the honor to report the following as the part taken by my brigade in the battle of Prairie Grove, and also the skirmishes preceding it, as required by you in a previous order:
On the morning of December 5, my advance, consisting of Company F, commanded by Captain Rathbun, First Regiment, met a largely superior force of the enemy, and, after a sharp little fight, drove him back in great confusion. I then strengthened my advance, took other precautions against the increasing danger (for we were nearing the enemy's lines), and moved northward again slowly but surely.
When your order was received to cut off, if possible, the enemy's pickets, I immediately ordered Major [B.] Elliott's battalion of scouts to make a forced march across the mountains for that purpose; but, owing to the darkness of the night, the rugged and almost impassable road, and the ignorance of the guide, the expedition failed in its essential points.
During the day of the 5th, a large scout, well acquainted with both country and roads, made a close swoop almost to our camp, but immediately sending forward Colonel [Beal G.] Jeans in command of the Second Regiment, they took the road at a gallop, nor ceased pursuit until the enemy was driven some 10 miles in a running fight.
During this engagement I had the First Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel (B. F.] Gordon, and the Third, Colonel [G. W.] Thompson, dismounted and formed as support to Bledsoe's battery, now in position, with lighted port-fires and eager gunners, keen for the fray that grew fainter and fainter as Colonel Jeans pushed them hard and heavily, until the grand old mountains gave no murmur back, and all was silent, cold, and still.
Early, very early, on the morning of the 6th, I had my brigade under arms, and sending forward three companies as my advance, with the other three regiments dismounted and close up, I drove in the enemy's pickets with great rapidity and execution, although he made three different stands and fought me three times. This advance of three companies was under the charge of Major [M. W.] Smith, who, by his prompt deploying of skirmishers, his quiet self-possession, and his determined coolness, evinced much bravery and skill. The men were this morning keen for a fight, and went furiously up the steep and rugged mountain at a double-quick for miles. After being relieved by a regiment of infantry, I returned with my brigade to camp, where three days' rations were cooked, some little sleep obtained by the men, and again we were marching northward.
After encamping, and upon learning the near proximity of the enemy, I doubled my guards, threw out infantry skirmishers in every direction, under the charge of trusty officers, and lay down with the conscious satisfaction that neither Federal, Kansas jayhawker, nor Pin Indian could surprise us, and if they came they would meet with a bloody and hospitable welcome, for I had ordered my entire brigade upon the slightest alarm to form rapidly as infantry and to sleep upon loaded arms.
Upon the eventful morning of the 7th, long before the full round moon had died in the lap of the dawn; long before the watching stars had grown dim with age, my brigade was saddled, formed, and their steeds champing frosted bits in the cold, keen air of a December morning, ready and eager for the march. After advancing rapidly and without intermission for several hours, I struck their trail, hot with the passage of many feet, reeking with the foot-prints of the invader. It needed no command now to close up. There was no lagging, no break in serried ranks, no straggling from the line, but each man grasped his gun with the strong, firm grasp and the strange, wild looks of heroes and born invincibles. After riding hard for about an hour, my advance came full upon the foe, and, with the mad, fierce whoop of men who have wrongs to right and blood to avenge, they dashed on and away at the pas de charge. Rapidly and in splendid style Colonel Jeans, by my command, rushed on to follow up the attack, while Colonels Thompson's and Gordon's regiments were dismounted and formed in the dry bed of a creek, and so stationed that they could resist an attack either from the east or west. With these two regiments was one piece of Bledsoe's two-gun battery; the other I had sent thundering down the road to support Colonel Jeans. With the Second Regiment of my brigade I also threw forward Captain Quantrill's company, under First Lieutenant Gregg, and Major [B.] Elliott's battalion of scouts, who, joining in the wild halloa, pressed forward eagerly and fiercely, driving the frightened Federals before them like chaff before the winds of heaven. Still the rout continues.
Tramp, tramp, along the land they ride,
Splash, splash, along the lea;
The scourge is red, the spur drops blood,
The flashing pebbles flee!
The fight grows intensely interesting, and my men, feeling the inspiration of the scene, dash on and on, taking prisoners, capturing guns, colors, horses, mules, and every form and variety of clothing, left in the desperate flight of the terror-[stricken] enemy. It was only when I deemed further pursuit not only imprudent, but highly dangerous, that I called off my troops and proceeded to avail myself of the now substantial fruits of the victory, bought with but scarcely any effusion of blood.
At this time Lieutenant [J. E.] Corder, with 20 men, whom I had left on picket when I turned from the main Fayetteville road, came up for orders, he having been driven from his position there by a largely superior force. I ordered him to improvise his men as teamsters and drive the captured train rapidly to the rear, which they did, and did safely.
In this brilliant and dashing charge, Lieutenant Gregg and company sustained their high renown for chivalric courage and daring, capturing, among many other articles, three standards, one of them regimental.
Major Elliott, with his bold scouts, did good work, and it was while leading a headlong charge, five lengths ahead of his best and bravest, that his horse fell with his gallant rider, injuring him quite severely, though not fatally.
The three companies of my advance in this fight were commanded by Major [David] Shanks, which were followed by three more, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel [Charles A.] Gilkey, within easy supporting distance. When the enemy were first found he was in line. The charge was ordered, and Colonel Jeans, Major Elliott, and Lieutenant Gregg rushed their commands straight at the foe. They broke and fled precipitately, followed by the three commands furiously to 1½ miles beyond Illinois Creek, where, drawn up in line to dispute further progress, was a regiment of Federal cavalry. This was hotly charged, broken, routed, and Major [J. M.] Hubbard, the arch fiend of many a midnight foray and murder, was taken prisoner. When I found that large masses of Federal infantry were marching up to support their cavalry, I fell back with this command to the position first occupied by me. Again advanced to within sight, formed and sent out skirmishers all along my front and flanks, holding this position until ordered by you to fall back, which I did, retiring under fire. In the final dispositions of the day, I formed the First Regiment on the extreme right and the Second Regiment on the left, both covering batteries, and both within supporting distance of each other, the Third Regiment having previously been sent to ascertain the position of the enemy in the direction of Cane Hill, which they did, meeting their pickets, engaging them, and, after a sharp little fight, driving them back. They held their position thus gained until ordered to return and cover the rear of General Parsons. Captain Quantrill's company, commanded by First Lieutenant Gregg, was assigned to Colonel Gordon, who had now divided his regiment, leaving four on the right, under Major [George R.] Kirtley, leading the other four on the left, in person, in conjunction with Colonel Jeans, of the Second Regiment, and Major Elliott, of the scouts. The Third Regiment, Colonel Thompson, after returning from its successful reconnaissance, was ordered to the front, on the left of Bledsoe's battery, dismounted. The battle now began with terrific fury. All along the lines the near fire of the infantry rose, crash upon crash, the dense smoke filling the air and the wild powder gloom getting darker and darker. This terrible fire soon rippled out in one vast, mighty wave of bullets, that circled and roared like a storm at sea, varied incessantly by the thunder of impatient cannon and the yell of exultant and furious combatants. On the right, four regiments of Federal infantry formed in the open field, and came up in splendid order, with flaunting banners and waving pennons, the light of battle on their faces and their steps proud with the thoughts of an easy victory. My skirmishers were steadily driven in, and down to meet them like an avalanche our own infantry swept. They met, the shock was terrible, but, broken and rent, our boys drove them back and followed at the charge. Again and again they returned to the fight, and again and again were they repulsed with great slaughter. The four companies under Major Kirtley were now ordered to dismount and join the mad mélée. It was done, and they stood shoulder to shoulder and eyes to the front. Now the enemy, gathering all his remaining strength, came back again with unbroken front and steady step. This conflict was intensely hot. Our men drove them from the woods, drove them across the opening directly in our front, and even drove them beyond their batteries, causing them to limber up and change position. In this charge Major Kirtley led the four companies detached from the First Regiment with much skill and coolness. On the left, the remainder of my brigade was attacked by a largely superior force of cavalry and artillery with much vigor and determination. They fought them as cavalry, and drove them back with heavy loss, although I had not a single piece of artillery to cover my attack or meet the batteries of the enemy.
During all the day I had noticed the terrible efficiency of the enemy's batteries, and saw that they were handled with remarkable skill and effect, and thinking it prudent--nay, absolutely necessary--to change the position of some of our guns, I ordered Captain Bledsoe to bring his battery to the brow of the hill, in the center, and draw their fire, while the other guns could be removed without any unnecessary exposure. This move was executed by Bledsoe in keeping with his hitherto high reputation, and once more, with gathered strength, our batteries opened on the foe. Now, on the left of Captain Bledsoe's battery, the Third Regiment was formed, dismounted, and never did men stand a more terrible and well directed fire, and that, too, without flinching or giving back an inch. When the final struggle came, when General Parsons met the shock of Blunt's entire command, this regiment formed with him, and fought with great effect and intrepidity, for the dead and wounded Federals, lying stretched out in their gory beds, "thick as autumnal leaves in Vallombrosa," can well attest the fury and courage with which the Missourians (fought] shoulder to shoulder and side by side. Colonel Thompson, Lieutenant-Colonel [John C.] Hooper, Major Smith, the captain of each respective company, were amid their men, and did great good by their true and heroic bearing. Now the combat thickens all along the lines, and death, with its black banner on the breeze, nerves each heart and cheers them on to the rough, red fray. Bledsoe was there amid his guns, all dirt-begrimed and powder-blackened, plying his lurid torch where balls would send or powder search, and never once during that long, hot day were they silent, except when going nearer and nearer to the foe. Colonel Jeans, Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon, and Lieutenant Gregg were also on the left, where the fire was getting hotter and hotter, and with the pilot's weary eyes steered their commands safely through the breakers, white with the fire of deadly cannon, and painted with all the dread and gloom of ghastly war. On the right, that part of my command under Major Kirtley had returned from a successful charge, under your immediate eye, and when the dark and weird shadows of night had closed over earth and sky and the dead and wounded, reports of a well-won and well-fought battle came cheerily up from all parts of the field, and I drew my command together calmly and cautiously, knowing that the day in all its bearings was ours. Night had closed the march of death, and the idle breeze now gave no murmur back to tell of what had been passing but a few brief moments before, when--
Our bugles sang truce and the night cloud had
And the sentinel stars kept their watch in the sky;
When thousands had sunk to the earth
The weary to sleep and the wounded to die.
I dismounted my entire command, moved them as infantry to the road leading directly down to the house at the foot of the hill and behind the batteries there stationed, and ordered them to bivouac without fires, with guns in their hands, and determination in their hearts. Down upon the cold, hard earth, without a murmur, without a word spoken above a whisper, they lay, with longing eyes stretched far away northward, thinking of home and the morrow, and another glorious day. When my command was thus formed, I covered my entire front and flanks with picked and vigilant scouts and keen and daring skirmishers, cautioning them to move lightly, step noiselessly, look well and truly about them, and report constantly and frequently. This done, and well done; and no enemy, however insidious or in what guise presented, could have approached to within 300 yards at the nearest to my lines.
When your order came to withdraw my forces and light fires all along my front, I communicated it to the commanders of each command, and not until the fires were lighted, the command withdrawn, and three companies sent back as skirmishers, drew in my well-tried and trusty scouts. My command now, with saddled steeds in readiness, slept with bridle in hand, in line of battle, awaiting any orders you might communicate through me to them, ever on the alert, and ready at the slightest call.
I cannot close this report without speaking in the highest terms of Capt. Westley Roberts, commanding the only rifled battery we had. He took position about 3 o'clock on the brow of the hill just above the house, and for two mortal hours bore that storm of shot and shell without a murmur, and it was [only] when further delay were suicide did he move to a less exposed position. Captain Bledsoe, with his two iron guns, the hero of many a well-fought field, stood and fought, and fought and stood, towering above the press, his clarion voice ringing ever proudly, defiantly, and his smoking guns thundering the mad requiem and belching the wild lullaby of the hated invaders. I would also call your special attention to the knightly bearing and conduct of David Shanks, major of the Second Regiment. Whether amid the crash and clatter of the headlong charge, whether leading the cold and cautious advance, or cheering on his regiment where blue coats and saber-crossed hats went down like apple-blossoms in a sweet May wind, he was ever the same--brave, kind, humane, chivalric, devoted, daring; now three lengths ahead of his best and bravest, and now speaking the quick, keen words of hope and courage. Lieut. Col. [B.] Frank Gordon, of the gallant First, was there among his men, ever where the fire was heaviest and hottest, leading them on to glory, and showing by his actions that Missourians know their rights, and, knowing, dare maintain them. Lieutenant-Colonel Gilkey, Lieutenant-Colonel Hooper, and all my officers behaved in a most gallant and praiseworthy manner, never seeming to mind the tempest of shot and shell bursting all around them. My adjutant (Captain Brewster) was ever with me, brave and daring, carrying orders and forming regiments as if on dress-parade. I will here also state that I noticed with much pleasure the adjutant of the First Regiment, John [N.] Edwards, who was actively engaged in watching the movements of the enemy upon every corner, and with his regiment aiding and cheering them on to victory or death. Also my young orderly, Jimmy Clark, behaved admirably; his fair, boyish face lit up with the halo of battle, and his voice mingling with the rage and roar of the cannon. My aides (also Corder and [L.] Shindler) deserve special mention for their good behavior. Captain [John] Jarrett, of the Second Regiment, bore himself on this eventful day with marked bravery, capturing with his own hand Major Hubbard, of the old First Missouri (Federal) Cavalry, a man well known in that State as a daring and dashing officer. I would also speak in the most favorable terms of Maj. George R. Kirtley, of the First Regiment, and Lieutenant Gregg, Major Elliott, of the scouts, and, indeed, of every officer of my command.
When your final orders came to retire from the field, the theater of high and knightly deeds, I detailed Captain [J. M.]Garrett, commanding Company E, of the First Regiment, to remain with his company to bury our dead, and then marched my entire brigade southward.
The substantial fruits of the victory are 12 standards, 32 wagons, some 400 or 500 stand of arms, about 300 prisoners, besides quantities of clothing, commissary stores, quartermasters supplies, negroes, horses, mules, and every variety and description of articles a corrupt Government can furnish to hired freebooters and cut-throats and thieves. I need not, general, speak further of my command. You were ever on the field, ever under fire, and saw for yourself the actions and behavior of my men, and whether you lead them in Arkansas, Missouri, or Mississippi, you Will constantly find them worthy of your utmost confidence and respect.
I have, general, the honor to be, your obedient servant,
JO. O. SHELBY,
Colonel, Commanding Fourth Missouri Cavalry Brigade.
Brig. Gen. J. S. MARMADUKE,
Commanding Cavalry Division.
visits since 02/04/2004
page revised 05/25/2006