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[71]

But it was a quiet to be of very brief duration here. On the second of December Gen. Blunt received information of a character to leave no doubt upon the subject that the united rebel forces in Western Arkansas, at least twenty-five thousand strong, under the command of Hindman, a Major-General in their service — with Marmaduke, Parsons, Roane, Frost, Shoup, Fagan, and others as brigadiers — were preparing to march upon him from a point midway between Van Buren and Cane Hill, and that they might be looked for at any day; the distance from their position to the latter point being not to exceed twenty miles. Determining at once to hold Cane Hill, unless driven from it by an overwhelming force, General Blunt immediately sent despatches for the Second and Third divisions of the army of the frontier--which he had been advised by Gen. Schofield were placed at his command — to march with the least possible delay for Cane Hill. Those two divisions were in the neighborhood of Springfield, Mo., from one hundred and thirty to one hundred and forty miles away. Gen. Totten, commanding one of them, was absent in St. Louis; as was also Gen. Schofield, the latter sick. The command of both divisions fell thereby on Gen. Herron, who, with a true soldier's promptitude that does him honor, made his arrangements to march at once, and join the First (Kansas) division at Cane Hill. At noon on Wednesday, the third, he commenced his long march, one that must, necessarily, even if the weather and roads remained good, occupy several days, (perhaps a week, if it rained) to perform; but he had assured Gen. Blunt that he should lose no time on the road, and that he would keep him advised, from day to day, of his progress. He nobly kept his word.

Some time during the night between the fourth and fifth, word came to Gen. Blunt that the enemy — still some dozen or fifteen miles off — were approaching Cane Hill by the mountain road, over which, less than a week before, Marmaduke had been driven from it. A small force was sent some miles into the mountains to hold them in check. Early the next morning the entire command took position upon the strong points in the southern part of the town, which control the approach into it from the south. Waiting there several hours, no enemy came. On the morning of December sixth the same ceremony was gone through, with a similar result. Again on the seventh it was repeated, news having come that the enemy was actually on the march, and their advance but a few miles off. All this time detachments had been sent out, of course, some miles to the east and south-east to watch the Cove Creek, Van Buren and other roads leading toward Fayetteville, and see that the enemy did not pass up on one of them, During the night, between the sixth and seventh, some two thousand of Herron's cavalry reached Cane Hill, with intelligence that he himself had arrived in the neighborhood of Fayetteville — only some twenty miles off — with the remainder of his command. While, on the seventh, between nine and ten o'clock, still occupying Cane Hill with the Second and Third brigades of the Kansas division, word came to Gen. Blunt from the officer in command of a detachment sent to watch one of the roads to the east of the town, that the enemy, ten thousand strong, had managed somehow to slip by him — and were on their way north I How such a thing could have occurred with any thing like due precaution and vigilance on the part of the officer referred to, is something very extraordinary; yet, happen it did. Possibly some explanation, with at least a show of reason in it, may be offered in regard to this matter; and for the present therefore, I forbear further comment upon it; but it would seem to have been a piece of neglect which, in a time of war, and in the heart of an enemy's country, when a single mismovement may be productive of disastrous results, as to be almost unpardonable.

Of course the receipt of the intelligence just referred to, produced a prompt change in the proceedings of the day. The Second and Third brigades of the First division at once faced north, and proceeded by a rapid march in pursuit of the rebel force.

Under this new state of affairs, two things were to be considered. The enemy might move first upon Rhea's Mills--eight miles off, and a little to the west of north from Cane Hill — for the purpose of destroying the large train there, of some three or four hundred wagons; or he might proceed directly up the Fayetteville road — on which Herron was undoubtedly approaching in a southwesterly direction, and not very far off — with the view of crushing or crippling his command first, and then turning upon the First division. Such turned out to have been his plan.

Gen. Blunt determined to make sure the safety of the train — to do which would increase the march but a few miles — and then move rapidly to the right, to Herron's relief, if necessary. Rhea's Mills is at the eastern extremity of a beautiful, undulating and cultivated prairie — dotted by fine farms and patches of woods, of about eight miles long from east to west, by an average width of perhaps two miles. Near the eastern extremity of this valley Gen. Herron came out, on the mountain road, from Fayetteville in his march to Cane Hill; and it was in that neighborhood that he met the advance of Hindman's forces early in the day. Between eleven and twelve o'clock the engagement between them became serious — to last until nightfall.

At about one o'clock, and soon after reaching Rhea's Mills, General Blunt became aware that a battle was going on, and starting immediately with his command for the scene of action, obtained the first knowledge of the enemy's extreme left being immediately in his front, at about two o'clock. They occupied the woods on the south side of the prairie, from the house of one Branch on the west, to the Prairie Grove church on the east, a distance of some three miles, and had received since the commencement of the fight with Herron, large accessions to their forces, thus numbering with those before on the ground, not less than twenty-five thousand men. Of cannon, they


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James G. Blunt (7)
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