Dec. 7 marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Prairie Grove in Arkansas. Although a stalemate, Confederate forces retreated after the clash and thus abandoned northwest Arkansas to the Union Army for the remainder of the Civil War.
Playing an important role that day was the 94th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Organized under the command of 30-year-old Bloomington attorney William Ward Orme, the 94th would be the only Union regiment comprised entirely of men from McLean County.
In early December 1862, Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman’s Army of the Trans-Mississippi marched into the Boston Mountains of northwest Arkansas looking to engage Brig. Gen. James G. Blunt’s Union Army of the Frontier. Anticipating an attack, Blunt called for two additional divisions under the command of Brig. Gen. Francis J. Herron, whose men were camped some 120 miles away in Springfield, Mo. The 94th Illinois (known as the McLean County Regiment or simply “Old McLean”) was part of Herron’s force that raced to Blunt’s aid, completing a grueling 120-mile march in three-and-a-half days.
The aggressive Hindman decided to bypass Blunt and engage Herron’s weary reinforcements (including the 94th) about 10 miles southwest of Fayetteville, Ark.
The Confederates established defensive positions along a line of hills near the hamlet of Prairie Grove. Below them and to the north were several farm fields and beyond that a line of timber and the Illinois River (not the one in Illinois, obviously). On Dec. 7, Herron’s bluecoats crossed the river and faced off against the “boys in butternut.”
William Orme found himself in command of 1,600 men at Prairie Grove — not only the 94th, but also regiments of Iowa infantry and Missouri cavalry and artillery. The 94th, now under the direction of Lt. Col. John McNulta, occupied the far left flank of the Union line. This was fortunate, for the Union right flank was the scene of a series of charges and countercharges, leaving heavy casualties on both sides.
In contrast, the 94th’s position remained relatively fixed throughout the day.
“From two o’clock until dark, the two lines (the Union left and Confederate right) were maintained about as they were when first established,” noted assistant regimental surgeon Archibald E. Stewart. “It was simply a pounding match. The enemy, lying in the edge of a piece of brown woods that crowned the brow of the hill, kept up an incessant fire of artillery and musketry. Our men, lying at the foot of the hill on the opposite side of the field, kept up an equally incessant fire.”
Although the men of the 94th were “green,” (organized in August 1862, the regiment had yet to face the enemy) they stood their ground. McNulta, a Bloomington cigar maker before the war, “rode back and forward along the line amid a perfect hurricane of balls, calling on his comrades to stand by their colors to the last,” wrote Stewart. Even the 94th’s chaplain Robert E. Guthrie got into the act, “exhorting his brethren to ‘trust in God and fire low.’”
Remarkably, the 94th escaped relatively unscathed, with only one killed and 26 wounded that day.
All told, about 2,700 men — North and South — were killed, wounded or left unaccounted for at the Battle of Prairie Grove.
Hindman, with no reserves and having lost much of his artillery and running low on ammunition and supplies, had no choice but to withdraw.
In a letter written more than a month after the battle, McLean County farmer William H. Horine of the 94th’s Co. K talked of “seeing the elephant” (that is, combat) for the first time.
“The first round or two I felt like dodging a little,” he told his brother, “but after firing several times I didn’t think anything more about it. I loaded and fired as deliberately as if I was shooting hogs.”
The day after the battle, Pvt. Horine somehow found himself five yards away from Confederate Brig. Gen. John S. Marmaduke. “If he hadn’t had a flag of truce with him I would have blowed h—ll (hell) out of him in no time that’s certain,” he bragged.“I had a notion to do it anyhow. He is a d—d (damned) mean looking cuss. He was as dirty and ragged as an old Irish man that just chucked out of a swill barrel.”
When the 94th mustered out in July 1865, it had seen further action in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama, most notably during the sieges of Vicksburg, Miss., and Mobile, Ala. The war claimed 175 enlisted men and officers of “Old McLean,” with most succumbing to camp-borne illnesses.