- General Blunt's trains return to Rhea's Mills from Fayetteville -- resources of the country around Rhea's Mills -- furnishes forage for the cavalry and transportation animals -- native animals stand the service better in that section than animals brought from the north -- preparations for the expedition to Van Buren -- Incidental reflections -- the expedition on the march -- crossing and recrossing the raging, foaming and splashing mountain stream thirty-nine times -- an unpleasant march for the infantry -- the troops bivouac by this stream -- the march resumed -- an outpost of the enemy struck by the Federal cavalry advance -- the chase -- battle Dripping Springs -- Federal charge on the enemy's camp -- flight of the enemy to Van Buren -- Federal pursuit -- capture of Van Buren -- burning of steamboats and supplies -- artillery duel across the Arkansas River -- the enemy shell their own city -- return to Rhea's Mills.
Before saluting the new year we must notice some further operations of considerable importance. A few days after the battle of Prairie Grove, General Blunt ordered his supply and baggage trains back from Fayetteville to Rhea's Mills, and our division went into camp again. General Herron's division went into camp on the ground it occupied during the battle. The battle will probably always be known in history as the battle of Prairie Grove, for the two opposing armies met near Prairie Grove meeting house, on a northern slope of the Boston Mountains. This section is regarded as the wealthiest and most fertile region in northwestern Arkansas, if not indeed  of the State. The climate and soil seem peculiarly adapted to raising sweet potatoes, apples, pears, peaches and many other kinds of fruit. Wheat, corn and oats are also raised in considerable abundance. But the farms are not large like the farms in Missouri. We have found almost sufficient forage to supply our animals, and we have also replenished the larder of the commissariat to some extent. The cattle and hogs taken from disloyal people of this section furnish us with fresh beef and pork. The water-power mills on the never-failing mountain streams, have rarely been burned, and turn out a good deal of flour, which is applied to subsisting the army. All commissary and quartermaster supplies for our division, with the exception of those that this section furnishes, are transported by four-mule teams from Fort Scott, Kansas, a distance of one hundred and forty miles. Gen. Herron's division is supplied from Springfield, Missouri. Though our base of supplies is this great distance from us; and though most of the country our trains pass over is infested with guerrilla bands that annoy our escorts by now and then picking off a trooper with their rifles or muskets, yet we have not, up to the present time, lost a train or suffered any inconvenience for want of full rations. A considerable body of our cavalry has, however, been detached from actual field service to perform escort duty, during the autumn and winter. But taking into account the amount of this kind of service, and the fact that scouting parties or reconnaissances are daily sent out in every direction, our cavalry horses are in remarkably  good condition. That they have stood the campaign so well, I think is due to the fact that they have been collected mostly from Missouri and Kansas, a climate not differing perceptibly from this. Last spring the Second Ohio cavalry accompanied us on an expedition known as the “Indian, Expedition.” The men of that regiment were mounted on fine horses brought from northern Ohio, which were in splendid condition when the regiment left Fort Scott. But when we returned to Southern Kansas in August, after an absence of less than four months, nearly all the horses of this finely equipped regiment had either died or been abandoned in the Indian country. Very few of the troopers of the Second and Sixth regiments, Kansas cavalry, were dismounted on our return. I have therefore felt convinced since that “Expedition” that our native animals are more suitable for army service in this section than horses raised four or five hundred miles north of this latitude. Animals, like men, in few generations become adapted to the conditions of particular localities, and in a measure unadapted to the conditions of other localities. After an active campaign, camp life becomes monotonous to the soldier, and he begins to crave new excitement. We remained in camp at Rhea's Mills about three weeks after the battle of Prairie Grove without undertaking any other important movement. Reconnaissances have of course been sent out at intervals of a few days, but in each instance return to camp without discovering any indications of the enemy in force. But, on the evening of December 26th, I received  instructions to issue to the number of men reported present for duty in each company of our regiment, five days rations suitable for carrying in haversacks, and to be ready to march at 3 o'clock on the morning of the 27th. At the time designated all the cavalry, infantry and artillery, except a force deemed sufficient to guard our trains and camp, under Brig.-General Solomons, were in column and in readiness to march. Very few, if any, of the officers knew where we were going, or the exact object of the expedition. It was thought by some that we were going to attack the rebel army in the vicinity of Van Buren — and Fort Smith. It did not seem probable that it was the intention of General Blunt to attack the main body of the rebel army, as we had recently received information that it was encamped around Fort Smith,on the south side of the Arkansas river, four miles above Van Buren.-Even if our force had been sufficiently strong to make our success reasonably certain, it was difficult to see how we should get our army across the river as rapidly as would be required, as we have had no pontoon trains such as the eastern armies are furnished with. We thought it possible that the commanding general wished to take a more advanced position, to occupy Van Buren, and to clear the country all north of the river of the enemy. There were, however, serious difficulties to be encountered in taking this view of the-matter. Our base of supplies would be further removed from us; besides our supply trains would be obliged to pass over the Boston Mountains, a rough and rugged region. But with a-line of stations in our rear we thought  that the army might move to Van Buren, as we were in complete possession of western Arkansas north of the river. I need not, however, recount further what our thoughts were in regard to the ultimate object of the expedition. Suffice it to know that General Blunt had information that a brigade of Texas cavalry, under command of Colonel Crump, was encamped at Dripping Springs, eight miles north of Van Buren, and that he wished to capture them or break up their camp. He was also informed that large quantities of quartermaster and commissary supplies were stored at Van Buren, and that four or five steamboats were coming up the river from Little Rock with cargoes of supplies for General Hindman's army encamped in the neighborhood of Fort Smith, and that the steamboats would probably reach Van Buren about the time he calculated we would get there. If we could capture and destroy those supplies and steamboats, and capture or break up Colonel Crump's camp it would of course cripple the rebel army in Arkansas to a very great extent,besides it would add to its demoralization, which was already great since the battle of Prairie Grove. We heard even before that battle that their supplies were scanty in many respects. I don't think that the rebel soldiers had any genuine coffee. We heard that they had not, and I saw in the haversacks on a number of their dead bodies at Prairie Grove, nothing but a kind of meal made of parched corn, a piece of bacon and a piece of black looking bread, which we could not eat unless we felt the pinch of hunger more keenly than  we have at any time in the past. When I saw their dead bodies scattered over the field, I could not help feeling that most of them surely had no definite notion of what they were fighting for. Though in death, particularly of a soldier who has died on the battle field in the midst of fire and smoke and dust and excitement, I suppose we cannot judge accurately how he looked when living; yet I think that most of the enemy's dead I saw on the field must have been poor men; who probably never owned a slave, nor never would have owned one even if slavery were permitted to remain an institution of the South. Under such circumstances I sincerely pity those men who are sacrificing their lives to perpetuate and sustain an institution that never has had, and never will have, any sympathy for them in their ignorance and poverty. Should I or my brother fall any day, we know that we shall have fallen in defense of our government, which is, perhaps, the best the world has yet seen; but we also know that we shall have fallen in defense of a principle which has for its object the making of all men free and equal before the law. Had not such thoughts as these been in my mind, I could never have persuaded him to leave his home and young wife, to enlist into the Federal army. If we come out of the war safe, we feel that we will have an interest in the future, but that if we do not come out safe, that our sacrifice will not have been for nothing. We know that the cause for which we are striving does not tend to establish am aristocracy or privileged class, which  shall in various ways be favored by the laws of the land. Though we may not live to enjoy the blessings we hope will come when the storms of war shall have passed away, there is at least a satisfaction in believing that there are those who are dear to us who will enjoy these hoped — for blessings. But let us not dwell too long upon such thoughts. The expedition is all ready to start. At 3 o'clock it is rather chilly, for the temperature is a little below the freezing point, as the puddles in the road are covered with thin sheets of ice. The three or four inches of snow that fell a few days ago, have not quite disappeared, and as all the little depressions in the road are filled with water or slush, the outlook for the infantry and artillery is not very cheerful. But a few hours marching brought us daylight and into a region where the snow and ice had entirely disappeared, and where the roads were firmer and inclined to be somewhat rocky. By ten o'clock we had struck the head of Cove Creek. It winds through the mountains in a southerly direction, and as it is fed by mountain streams, now regular torrents, it of course increased in size and volume as we descended it, The rapid melting of the snow in the mountains, and the heavy rain-fall the day before we set out, swelled it to overflowing. We had crossed it when we bivouacked at ten o'clock,that night, according to my count, thirty-three times. We were on the march the next morning at three o'clock and crossed it five or six times before daylight. We had heard that we should be obliged to cross it thirty-nine  times; and I think we did. This would be crossing it somewhat more than once every mile on an average. The infantry, when they first came to it, could cross it dry shod, by stepping from stone to stone, as its swift current ran splashing and foaming along. When they crossed it the next time they got their feet wet, but kept their pantaloons dry by turning them up. The fourth and fifth times they waded it with their shoes on and their trousers rolled up. After this they fenced against the waters no further, except to see to it that their cartridge boxes were kept dry inside, and they themselves should not be washed down the swiftly running current, for when we bivouacked that night at the most favorable crossings that could be found the water was well nigh to the armpits of the men. It was almost ice-cold, for it came mostly from melted snow that had just run down in the mountain brooks. The men, however, stood this extraordinary day and night's march without a murmur, and in fact from conversations with several infantry-men just before we bivouacked, appear to have suffered less discomfort than I supposed they would. Though their clothing to, their waists was wet all the afternoon and evening, the physical exercise of marching kept them from getting chilled. Immediately after we halted that night on the bank of Cove Creek, a thousand blazing fires were kindled, and the infantry-men dried their clothing; and food and a refreshing sleep prepared them for the next day's march, which would determine the object and success or failure of the expedition. A few  moments after the bugle sounded the halt, I rode back towards the rear of the column, and listened to the conversations of the men, and talked to some of them myself, so that I might form some idea of the feelings of those whose march had been so disagreeable and fatiguing, for we had marched since we left Rhea's Mills, upwards of thirty miles. I found the infantrymen quite cheerful, and the artillery men thought that their ammunition had not been perceptibly damaged by the water splashing against the caissons. Late in the evening the caissons of our howitzers were detached and put into an ambulance to keep the ammunition dry. The ambulances had been obliged to take up also a few men during the day, but the number was much smaller than I supposed it would be. After the men had dried their clothing and taken such food as their appetites demanded, they spread their blankets on the ground, and threw themselves upon them, and soon sweet sleep closed their eyes, and they were wandering through the realms of dream land. If during their waking moments the cares and fatigues of the day had prevented their thoughts from often turning homewards, no doubt but that in their calm sleep many dreamed of pleasant conversations with their families and dear relatives and friends at home, And perhaps pleasant smiles played upon the faces of some who, in dreamland, thought that they were watching the pranks of their rollicking children. Such were the thoughts that came into my mind concerning my comrades, until gentle sleep came to me, bringing that which nature demanded I should accept, rest.  Within a space of less than two miles, in a narrow gorge in the mountains, near the margin of the noisy, foaming and gurgling stream, thus slept three thousand men. At three o'clock next morning the bugles sounded,, and in a few moments our entire force was in readiness to resume the march. About twenty minutes, however, were given us to feed our horses and take such food ourselves as would satisfy the pinch of hunger. A few hours of refreshing sleep is beyond doubt very beneficial to an army, after constant marching all day. The sky had become partly overcast during the night, so that it was pitch dark when we resumed the: march. I could not distinguish the color of my gray horse sitting on him. The proximity of the steep sides of the mountains would have made it quite dark even had it been a clear moonlight night, unless the moon had-been high in the heavens near: the zenith. Several companies of the Second Kansas cavalry, under command of Col. W. F. Cloud, one of the most dashing cavalry officers of our division, was given the advance. Then came the Sixth Kansas cavalry, under command of Col. W. R. Judson, with whom I rode. As already mentioned, we crossed the provoking stream five or six times before daylight and left it, having passed the mountains. In the course of five or six hours Cove Creek had run down considerably; still it was up to the bellies of our horses, and being so cold was anything but inviting to the infantry. They probably wished it was not necessary to  take a cold water plunge so soon after awakening from profound sleep. But when we crossed Lee's Creek we were still about twenty miles from Van Buren. We continued to --march along leisurely, occasionally halting a few moments to allow the infantry and artillery to close up, until towards eight o'clock, when a report came along the column that our advance guard had come upon the enemy's pickets who, on discovering us, fled towards their camp in the direction of Van Buren. Our advance pursued them closely, so that they should not reach their camp in time to give the rebel troops many moments warning of our approach. Our movements gradually quickened, and shortly our cavalry was in full gallop, which was kept up for five or six miles and until we came in sight of the enemy's camp at Dripping Springs. In the meantime Gen. Blunt, who had kept up with us, sent back an order for the artillery and infantry to move forward with a quick ,step. The enemy, under command of Col. Crump, of a Texas cavalry regiment, were encamped along the north side of a hill, and immediately north of their camp were several fields with intermediate spaces covered with undergrowths of woods. But when we came to the fences inclosing the fields, there was scarcely a moment's delay, for they were instantly thrown down and we came into line of battle in a trot, and charged across the field in a full gallop, and when within fifty yards of the enemy's camp, delivered a volley into the ranks of those who had formed in line  and thought of making a stand. The Second Kansas cavalry took the left of our line, and the Sixth Kansas cavalry and several companies of the Third Wisconsin cavalry the right. After firing a few rounds from our carbines, Gen. Blunt ordered the bugles to sound the charge, and with gleaming sabres we dashed forward like a whirlwind, throwing up a perfect cloud of dust. The enemy did not wait to feel the edges of our sabres, but fled in the direction of Van Buren, and in their flight left their tents, camp, and supplies of every kind in our possession. After charging through their camp we could not preserve our line of battle in perfect order, on account of the broken condition of the ground. Nor was it necessary as the enemy had broken up completely, and thought only of saving themselves. We were cautious, however, as we did not know but that they had formed another line back some distance, with the determination of contesting our advance. The Sixth Kansas cavalry and Third Wisconsin cavalry, therefore, moved right straight forward over the steep hill south of their camp. But when we were passing down the southern slope of the hill, we saw from the clouds of dust hanging over the high road leading to Van Buren, that they had no intention of making a stand short of that place. We also learned from several rebel soldiers and teamsters, whom we had captured, that they were completely surprised, and that their retreat had become a stampede. We now changed from line of battle to columns of fours, and struck the gallop again, preserving such order  as was possible, and chased the flying enemy to Van Buren, and when they passed through the city we were right at their heels. General Blunt sent out detachments of cavalry on both sides of the main road to scour the country and pick up their stragglers. If the city had any Home Guards or military organization to defend it, the men disappeared on our approach. We therefore followed the enemy right through the city, making the dust fly in the streets so that they had no time to form in line, or to take the steamboats lying at the wharves to cross the river, but continued their flight on the road along the north bank of the Arkansas. A squad of rebels, however, attempted to escape over the river on a horse-power ferry, but they had scarcely reached the middle of the stream when they were discovered. The two mountain howitzers of the Sixth Kansas cavalry, which had kept up with us during the entire chase, were immediately brought down to the wharf, and after firing several fuse shells at the boat, struck the horse at the wheel and killed him. Another shell exploded, wounding several men. As the boat had by this time got into shallow water, the rest of the men jumped overboard and escaped. Four steamboats with cargoes of supplies for the rebel army, on the first signal of our approach, got up steam and made an effort to escape down the liver. Two of them had proceeded a mile or so down the river, but as the channel now changed to near the north bank, and as our cavalry and one of our howitzers were waiting for them, a single shot from the  howitzer convinced the officers that it was useless to make further efforts to escape, and hastened to display a white flag. The boats were boarded by several of our officers and two squads of soldiers, and then directed to steam back up the river to Van Buren. The other two boats did not get more than a half mile below the city, as they were detained some time in endeavoring to find a landing on the opposite shore for a party of rebel officers and citizens they had taken aboard. They got near enough to shore, however, to allow nearly all the rebels to escape in small boats. It was the intention to also leave the steamboats at a landing near the opposite shore, but, as the engineers and officers had not left them, they were compelled, when the two lower boats came up with the armed Federal soldiers on board, to get up steam and take their boats back to the city. The pursuit of the flying enemy having been given up, our cavalry having returned to the city, and the boats having been made fast to their moorings, we dismounted on vacant lots and squares, and soon found abundance of forage for our tired and hungry horses. Nor had we any difficulty in replenishing our haversacks from the rebel commissary supplies. Such of the noncombatant population as showed themselves seemed perfectly amazed. A few hours before their city was as peaceful as the mist we had lately seen resting on the mountain side. No one dreamed that the “Yankee” foe was rapidly approaching; and being a bright Sunday morning many of the good people had been to  church, and were just returning home when the alarm was given that we were near at hand. Immediately after the boats had been made fast, several more of our officers went aboard them to examine their cargoes and to obtain such information as they could get from those who had remained in charge of them, in regard to the strength, movements and intentions of the rebel army in the vicinity. As we seemed to be in quiet possession of the city, a good many of our officers and soldiers left their horses where they had dismounted to feed them, a few blocks back from the river, and also came down to the river front to look at the captured boats. Col. Judson and I had just walked down and were taking a survey of the situation and talking over the exciting transactions of the morning, when suddenly the sound of artillery resounded in our ears, and then an instant after, with a crash came a solid shot or shell, striking the ground not more than two or three yards from us. After an interval of a few seconds there came another, and still another, and we looked in the direction from whence they came and saw a rebel battery near the opposite shore and the smoke rising from it. We retired to our horses to await orders. Gen. Hindman, having heard by telegraph or special messenger that we were in Van Buren, sent down from Fort Smith a force of artillery and infantry to let us know that he was there. But in the meantime our infantry and artillery were coming up and soon arrived on the heights overlooking the city, the river and the country far off to the south. It was  now perhaps after two o'clock, and the artillery duel over the river immediately commenced and lasted until dark. The distance, however, which separated the combatants was so great that no loss was sustained by our troops, and probably not much by the enemy. The shot and shell from the enemy's guns fell short of our position on the heights of the city. But the percussion shells from our rifled guns I could see flew over the river and struck very near where the enemy's batteries were posted. I could not see whether they inflicted any damage to the enemy, as they were covered by the timber. Whenever one of our percussion shells struck a tree or solid object, I could see by the smoke that arose that it exploded with terrific violence. It was not necessary for our cavalry to make any material change in position after the cannonade opened, as it was covered by blocks of brick buildings. Some of the officers and soldiers, however, desired to occupy positions where they could get a good view of the rebel batteries. Late in the afternoon the echo of the thundering artillery seemed to roll down the river to a great distance, gradually growing fainter until it had died away. While we were not much disturbed by their cannonade, the people of Van Buren were greatly agitated; and well they might be, for it was their friends who were firing shot and shell into their city, and endangering their lives. We felt somewhat surprised that Gen. Hindman should have permitted the shelling of the city without any warning to the inhabitants, inasmuch  as they were nearly all his own people. Even we, as enemies, would not have committed such an act without giving the women and children and old men an opportunity of leaving the city. I heard that several persons, women and children, were killed and injured by exploding shells from the enemy's guns. I was unable, however, to collect .exact information of the casualties in the city, as we were under strict orders to observe great vigilance. It was not known but that Gen. Hindman would show fight, as we understood that he had an army of ten or twelve thousand men in the neighborhood of Fort Smith. Night came on, and we could see from the heights of the city to the heights on the south side of the river, that the enemy were displaying great activity from some cause. But whether they were retreating or concentrating their forces at some point in the vicinity, we were unable to decide. After dark, the enemy withdrew his batteries and the thundering of the artillery ceased. And now the disposition of the contraband property awaited the orders of Gen. Blunt. The steamboats, after taking from them such supplies as he wished to take back with us, he ordered burned. Before setting fire to them a number of officers and men were permitted to take from them something of insignificant value, to serve as a memento of the expedition. I got a blank book from the “Steamer Rose Douglas” to keep my Chronicles of our operations. The burning of the boats made a tremendous fire, and lighted  up the country for miles around. When the flames, which were soon climbing high in the sky, were first noticed by the people, they thought we were going to burn the city. But their fears were soon dispelled when they were assured that only the destruction of contraband property was intended. Private property was respected. Though the population of the city is perhaps upwards of two thousand, yet I did not hear of a single complaint of trespassing upon private premises; or of any rude conduct of our officers or soldiers towards the ladies of Van Buren. I speak of this with some pride, for I found that the non-combatants were strongly impressed with the notion that our Kansas troops were a kind of Vandals or barbarians, lawless, and utterly disregarded the methods and usages of civilized warfare. As our division is composed of Kansas troops, with the exceptions already noted, I think we may justly feel proud of their conduct upon every field, and of the results of the campaign up to this point. Since we attacked the enemy in the last engagement at Newtonia on the 4th of October, we have driven him, step by step, before us; so that now there is not a rebel organized force north of the Arkansas River, excepting guerrilla bands. But notwithstanding the series of splendid achievements, we hear that Gen. Blunt has made this expedition in the face of orders to fall back from Rhea's Mills to the southern line of Missouri. If this be true, it is to be deeply regretted, for our toils in this campaign will count for almost nothing;  and we surrender back to the enemy all that we have gained. I do not believe that, if the Department Commander thoroughly understood the situation here, he would permit this army to abandon this section after we have gained it at the cost of so many bloody contests. Though we have reliable information that the enemy are greatly demoralized; yet if we fall back from our present position, it will be almost equivalent to a defeat on the field, and he will doubtless feel encouraged to quickly organize his shattered forces and follow us up. At eight o'clock we received orders to be in readiness to march the next morning (29), at seven o'clock, on our return to Rhea's Mills. But before we commence our return march, let us take a glance at Dripping Springs. When we passed through the rebel camp there, it was about nine o'clock, and the rebel soldiers had apparently just finished their breakfasts, for their mess pans, camp kettles, etc., indicated that their cooks had not yet “washed their dishes.” Their tents were standing just as they had occupied them; and broken gunstocks lay scattered over the camp, showing that they had given a moment to the destruction of such property as they could not take with them. A number of teams were harnessed and ready for some service when we came upon them, for on the road to Van Buren I saw not less than twenty wagons partially upset and in attitudes showing that they had been suddenly abandoned by having the mules or horses cut loose from them to enable the  driver and parties in them to escape. Articles of camp and garrison equipage, and even ammunition, lay scattered upon the road all the way to Van Buren. When we reached the city, the enemy's Military Telegraph was in perfect working order, but I did not hear whether Gen. Blunt sent his compliments to Gen. Hindman or not. He could have done it had not more important matters occupied his attention. The circuit, however, was soon broken on the Little Rock as well as on the Fort Smith end of the line. On the morning of the 29th we set out on our return march to Rhea's Mills. Many of the soldiers had their haversacks crammed with sugar and the best things the enemy's commissariat afforded. The troops and animals had a bountiful supper and breakfast, and a good night's rest, and seemed as fresh as if they had been in camp a month. Guards were posted during the night at every necessary point, so that we would not be subject to surprise by the enemy. The expedition accomplished all that could be reasonably expected of it. We did not capture many prisoners, but we destroyed a large amount of rebel public property, and property pressed into rebel service by the Confederate authorities; besides bringing away with us considerable quantities of such of the captured supplies as we can use. While the ladies of Van Buren did not, as far as I know, take pleasure in expressing their hatred of “Yankees” as they call us in that section, or show by their actions that they hated us at all, yet I think that  they are nearly all strong adherents of the Southern cause. If there were any Union families in the city at the beginning of the war, they probably managed to move north long before we arrived. We bid good-bye to Van Buren, but not without thoughts of returning again to stay until this contest shall have been decided. Our return march was conducted leisurely; the weather was pleasant and warm, and Cove Creek, the winding mountain stream, had fallen almost to its ordinary dimensions and volume, so that the infantry were much less inconvenienced in crossing and re-crossing it than when we came out on the 27th. They were nearly three days on the march to Rhea's Mills. Most of the cavalry, however, got in on the evening of the 30th. Thus ended the expedition to Van Buren, and in fact the campaign of the Army of the Frontier in northwestern Arkansas. An expedition of nearly two thousand men, mostly Indians, and a section of light artillery, were sent out under Col. W. A. Phillips, about the time we left Rhea's Mills, in the direction of Fort Gibson. After a short engagement, Col. Phillips captured and destroyed Fort Davis near Fort Gibson, on which the Confederate Government expended upwards of a million dollars. In point of importance, the success of his expedition deserves to be set down among the splendid achievements of the campaign. Old Year! I bid you adieu. When some future historian writes of the great events which have turned the  eyes of the civilized world to this country, he will surely turn to you as having witnessed the greatest events in the history of our Government. You have brought sadness to the hearts of thousands of our people this night. I know, too, that in the hospitals near me there are hundreds of comrades, and among them my brother, whose hearts ache with the thought that they will never again see the faces and sweet smiles of affection of those dearest to them in this world. The lights of many noble lives are going out with you. Old year, farewell!