With the Arkansas Conscripts at Prairie Grove

    Alexander Hawthorn was a veteran of Shiloh with the 6th Arkansas Infantry when he was given the task of the leading the 39th Arkansas Infantry; the regiment had a whole host of different names, but one thing it had in abundance was conscripts. Little was expected of men drafted into service, but Hawthorn reported with pride in the following letter to his brother that at the Battle of Prairie Grove, his "Arkansas conscripts" toed the mark just fine, thank you.

    Prairie Grove was fought December 7, 1862 in northwestern Arkansas between the 12,000 men of the Trans-Mississippi army under General Thomas C. Hindman and two Federal divisions, one under General James G. Blunt and the second under General Francis Herron. As part of General James Fagan's brigade of General Francis Shoup's division, Hawthorn's regiment arrived on the field about midday and took up a good position on a ridge, prepared to hold off an expected Federal attack. Ordered to advance through a thicket, Hawthorn and his men stumbled into action, finding Blocher's Arkansas battery being overrun by Federals. 

    "As they rushed up and took the battery their blue coats shone through the thicket, and I saw them. Both parties discovered each other about the same time, and rapid and deadly volleys were exchanged. For a few moments the fight was terrific. I heard the Yankee commander order his men to mount the horses and take away the guns: and then, for the first time, I understood that one of our batteries had been captured. Not a moment was to be lost. I dashed to the front and called upon my brave conscripts to charge and retake the guns. They responded with an Arkansas "yell" that rang out loud and clear above the roar of battle, rushed forward at a double quick, drove the enemy from the battery, out of the thicket, through a little orchard in our front, down the hill and across the field in utter confusion and dismay back to their batteries, at least a half mile distant," he related.

    Hawthorn's letter, written to his brother back in Alabama, was published in the January 31, 1863 edition of the Mobile Advertiser & Register.


Alexander Travis Hawthorn (1825-1899) was promoted to brigadier general shortly after the battle at Prairie Grove and held that rank for the remainder of the war, continuing to serve in the Trans-Mississippi. An attorney prior to the war, he later became a Baptist minister.

Camp near Van Buren, Ark.

December 13, 1862

 

On the 7th instant, this army, under the command of Major General Thomas Hindman, fought the battle of Prairie Grove 50 miles north of this. It was a most terrific fight, lasting from 12 o'clock until dark. I take it for granted that you would like to hear the particulars of the battle, and of the part which my regiment took in it. I will endeavor to describe it.

We left Van Buren on the morning of the 3rd, and encamped on the night of the 6th within eight miles of the enemy. Boston Mountain lay between us, and here the roads forked, one crossing the mountain and leading direct to Cane Hill, the other sweeping round to the right and rear of Cane Hill, and crossing the mountain at a point where the difficulties were not so great. General Hindman made a most splendid and masterly movement. He threw forward a heavy force of cavalry on the road towards Cane Hill and made such demonstrations as induced the enemy to believe that he was moving in heavy force upon them in that direction, while in reality he was rushing with his whole infantry and artillery to the right and rear of the enemy, and by sunrise we were completely in rear of Cane Hill, fronting the main body, under General Francis Herron, having completely cut the enemy's lines and divided his army into two parts; one part at Cane Hill, commanded by General James Blunt, the other at Ray's mill, about five miles distant, under General Herron. The result of this brilliant maneuver was the capture of 400 of the enemy's cavalry, 32 wagons and teams, a large amount of quartermaster and commissary stores, etc.

 So far the maneuver was brilliant and resembled one of Napoleon's lightning-like strokes. But we did not pursue our advantage with sufficient rapidity. We ought to have thrown our whole force upon one part and destroyed it, before the other could come to its relief; instead of which, we halted, fronted to all points of the compass, in the form of a hollow square, and waited for the enemy to attack us. The result was that General Blunt passed with his whole force around our left, united his forces with General Herron, and together they attacked our lines.

Our brigade, General James Fagan's, was drawn up in line of battle on the crest of a hill; our batteries and skirmishers were placed about 300 yards in front, near the foot of the hill and on the edge of a field. About 12 o'clock the enemy commenced a most furious cannonading. Shot and shell flew thick and fast in all directions. Five batteries were directed against us, while we had only two with which to reply, and these being smooth bore, soon ceased, because they were out of range.

This map of the Battle of Prairie Grove shows the relative positions of the two armies near the Illinois River. Hawthorn's regiment was on the right of the Confederate infantry line and grappled with two regiments for possession of Blocher's guns, the 37th Illinois and 20th Wisconsin. 


At length, about one o'clock, we received the order to advance from General Fagan in person. The ground in my front was covered by an almost impenetrable thicket. So great was the difficulty in getting forward through the thick undergrowth, that I asked and obtained permission to advance by the right of companies, rather than in line. I continued to advance until the rapid and heavy firing in my front convinced me that the enemy was moving up in heavy force, when I threw my men into line and halted, expecting every moment to see my skirmishers running in. A moment after halting I heard loud cheering just ahead of me, but I could not tell who it was that cheered, nor why they cheered. One of our batteries (Captain William Blocher's four-gun Arkansas battery) which I supposed to be at least 300 yards to my right, was immediately in my front; but the thicket was so dense that I could see nothing ahead of me more than 40 yards. It was the Abolitionists that cheered, and they were charging Blocher's Battery.

As they rushed up and took the battery their blue coats shone through the thicket, and I saw them. Both parties discovered each other about the same time, and rapid and deadly volleys were exchanged. For a few moments the fight was terrific. I heard the Yankee commander order his men to mount the horses and take away the guns: and then, for the first time, I understood that one of our batteries had been captured. Not a moment was to be lost. I dashed to the front and called upon my brave conscripts to charge and retake the guns. They responded with an Arkansas "yell" that rang out loud and clear above the roar of battle, rushed forward at a double quick, drove the enemy from the battery, out of the thicket, through a little orchard in our front, down the hill and across the field in utter confusion and dismay back to their batteries, at least a half mile distant.

We now fell back to the edge of the thicket and reformed. Scarcely had we done so when the enemy again advanced with fresh regiments to retake their lost ground. Our whole brigade now advanced to meet them. We charged and drove them, with great slaughter, a second time back to their batteries. Again we fell back and reformed, and again the Yankees, with increased numbers and fresh regiments advanced upon our position, making the most stubborn and determined efforts to take it. But our men had now become accustomed to victory, and they charged with such fury that the enemy broke and fled in the utmost disorder, leaving the ground literally covered with their dead. Every time that we drove them down the hill, their batteries would open furiously upon us, throwing solid shot, shell, canister and grape. The enemy's loss in killed, on this part of the field, was really frightful, and is without any parallel in this war, according to the numbers engaged. We fought them with only four regiments, numbering in all not more than 1,500 men, and yet we killed outright upon the field not less than 700 of them, to say nothing of the wounded. Among them I saw two full-blooded negroes lying near the battery that my regiment retook.

Prairie Grove was in itself an indecisive stalemate; both armies suffered 1,200-,1,300 casualties and essentially held their ground, but Hindman soon retreated. Federal control was northwestern Arkansas was thus secured. For the enlisted men such as the one depicted above, it was another instance where their valor in battle was undone by events outside of their control. 

The battle now ceased upon our right only to be renewed with increased violence on our extreme left. I had reformed my regiment after the last charge, but I was without orders. When I heard the terrible fire on our extreme left, without waiting for further orders, I moved my regiment rapidly in that direction. We advanced at double quick something less than a half mile, when we came in full view of this most terrible contest. The enemy were pressing our men very hard. I found my regiment at right angles with the line occupied by the enemy, and charged him instantly, both in flank and rear. The effect was like magic. In five minutes, his lines were broken and disordered and he in full retreat. But again, the enemy rallied, and came back with more determination than ever. They assailed us with fresh regiments and overwhelming numbers.

The fight was now desperate and bloody beyond all description. The enemy advanced amid a storm of bullets within fifty yards of our lines, when our men, with loud shouts, rushed forward to meet them, and the closing scenes of Waterloo itself were not more terrific than the scenes that were here enacted. But the hired assassins of Lincoln could not stand before the free sons of the South. They broke and fled in all directions, leaving the ground covered with their mangled corpses. The slaughter was horrible to behold, and for the numbers engaged is without parallel in this war. Thus ended the battle of Prairie Grove.

I omitted to state that the other regiments of our brigade took no part in this last engagement, remaining in line of battle upon the right, to meet any further movements of the enemy in that direction. The loss of the brigade was over 500 killed and wounded; in our whole army about 1,200. The enemy's loss cannot be less than 4,000 killed and wounded, beside 500 prisoners. My loss was 144 killed and wounded, out of 350, with which I went into action. Out of 27 officers in my regiment 18 were killed and wounded. I never dismounted during the entire engagement, and yet strange to say, though I was in the hottest fire, though my regiment made five desperate and bloody charges, though five batteries were playing upon us for six mortal hours, I never received a single scratch, nor was my horse touched by a single bullet. My battle-flag was literally riddled with balls.

For want of subsistence our army has again fallen back to Van Buren. The enemy has been heavily reinforced since the battle, and it may be that we will soon have another engagement.

 

Your affectionate brother,

Alexander T. Hawthorn

 

Source:

Letter from Colonel Alexander T. Hawthorn, 39th Arkansas Infantry, Mobile Advertiser and Register (Alabama), January 31, 1863, pg. 1


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