The Battle of Van Buren was fought three weeks after the bloody stalemate at the Battle of Prairie Grove. Union and Confederate forces fought this time for control of the Arkansas River city of Van Buren.
The battle took place on December 28, 1862. It was the last violent outburst of the Prairie Grove Campaign.
Van Buren was a base for Gen. Thomas Hindman’s march north through the Boston Mountains and it was back to the community that he withdrew following the fight at Prairie Grove. The ferocity with which he came out of the mountains troubled the Federals, as did the relative ease with which he withdrew back down the Cove Creek valley to Van Buren.
Union generals James G. Blunt and Francis Herron thought about following him into the mountains, but winter weather intervened and the Union army was still in its camps around Prairie Grove three weeks after the battle there. The Federals were spurred to action when scouts reported that Hindman’s army, camped at Van Buren and Fort Smith, was receiving reinforcements for another advance on Northwest Arkansas.
The information was incorrect. Hindman had pushed his men too hard with too little training and too few supplies and his army was now disintegrating. The Federals had no way of knowing this and Blunt and Herron decided to attempt a preemptive strike. They marched south from Prairie Grove battlefield into the Boston Mountains on the morning of December 27, 1862.
Blunt led a column down the Cove Creek road, a twisting route that crossed back and forth over the icy creek. Herron, meanwhile, brought a second column down the Telegraph or Wire Road that ran along the disabled telegraph line that connected Van Buren with Fayetteville before the war.
The two columns converged in northern Crawford County at three o’clock on the morning of the December 28. The generals gave their men a brief rest but soon ordered them back into the ranks. They resumed their advance on Van Buren before sunrise with a large cavalry force in the lead.
Fighting broke out at the Confederate outpost of Dripping Springs when the Union cavalry attacked the camp of Lt. Col. R.P. Crump’s regiment of Texas cavalrymen. The Confederates fought back, but were driven from the field by an overwhelming Federal charge. They fell back in the direction of Van Buren.
Several additional skirmishes took place as the two forces remained in close proximity as they moved south. The Confederates topped Logtown Hill on the northern edge of Van Buren with the Union cavalry close behind. Both thundered down the main road into town, arriving so quickly that the citizens were caught completely by surprise. One Federal participant later recalled the “great surprise and astonishment” of the people.
The Confederates avoided a fight in the center of town where civilians might have been harmed and instead made for steamboats tied up at the riverfront. They planned to make their escape across the Arkansas River but Union soldiers brought up artillery and opened fire on the boats.
Most of the Southern soldiers managed to escape before cannon and musket fire forced three of the boats to shore. Around 100 men were captured along with their horses, arms and other supplies. Two additional steamboats were burned by the Confederates to prevent their capture.
At 2:30 in the afternoon, when the Union army had full possession of Van Buren, Gen. Hindman ordered one of the Confederate batteries to open on the town from across the river. One shell nearly killed Generals Blunt and Herron, buildings and homes were damaged and six Union soldiers were either killed or wounded. Civilian casualties were also reported as the Southern gunners rained an estimated 100 shells on the town.
Fighting continued from opposite banks of the river for a considerable distance until nightfall. The Federals were prepared to continue the battle on the next morning, but Gen. Hindman withdrew his army from the vicinity under the cover of darkness. Realizing they were too far advanced to sustain their position on the Arkansas River, Blunt and Herron withdrew from Van Buren and returned over the mountains to their winter camps in Northwest Arkansas.
Federal troops returned to Van Buren and Fort Smith the following year, seizing the cities after defeating Confederate forces at the Battle of Devil’s Backbone.
The site of the Battle of Van Buren is still the center of the historic community. The troops charged down Main Street past the old Crawford County Courthouse which still stands and is beautifully preserved. The shelling took place along the riverfront, much of which is public. Some of the casualties from the battle are buried at Fairview Cemetery in Van Buren.