The night of August 31, found the Union Army of the Frontier, commanded by Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt, encamped just 3 miles from the Poteau River and was closing in on the Confederate troops of Brig. Gen. W.L. Cabell. Blount and his men were a mere 9 miles from the Arkansas border stronghold of Fort Smith. They expected an intense fight with Cabell’s men the next morning. The Confederates, however, had other plans.
The confrontation along the Poteau in eastern Oklahoma ended quietly. After skirmishing with the Federals off and on throughout the day, Cabell knew he couldn’t hold them. His total force, reduced by heavy desertion, numbered only 1,250 men (although the Federals believed he fielded twice that many). Rather than risk the destruction or capture of his brigade, he decided that discretion was the better part of valor: " Knowing positively that the enemy had at least 2,300 effective men and eight pieces of artillery, and knowing that I could rely on but little more than one-half of the small number of men I had to fight, I determined to fall back, and to reach, if possible, a range of mountains in my rear, and to get all the trains and public property of every description across these mountains, with the hope that I might possibly save them."
At 9:00 P.M., Cabell decided to fall back to Waldron, where he had already sent the ox train carrying his ordnance supplies. The rest of his supply trains were ordered to Waldron via the small community of Jenny Lind, in Sebastian County. He then retreated past Fort Smith to Jenny Lind and began to move south for Waldron.
The Federals were unaware of the Confederate retreat prior to the morning of September 1. Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt related his surprise a few days later: " At daylight the following morning, I advanced to attack his position, but found that he had retreated during the night a short distance toward Fort Smith, and that from that point his force had divided, proceeding by various routes southward."
Blunt ordered Col. William Cloud to continue in pursuit of the Confederate forces that had withdrawn from Fort Smith on August 31 and were chased to Old Jenny Lind. Seeing an opportunity, Blunt suddenly became very aggressive. While he moved with the main body to take position of the works and town of Fort Smith, he ordered forward his effective cavalry – the 2nd Kansas and 6th Missouri – with 2 sections of Rabb’s Indiana Battery and instructions to pursue the retreating Confederates.
Commanded by Cloud, the Union force clashed with the Confederate rear guard at Jenny Lind at around 9:00 A.M. Obviously anticipating the anxious Union pursuit, the Confederate pickets withdrew ahead of Cloud’s men, leading them directly into the trap that Cabell was laying on the slopes of Devil’s Backbone.
The Devil’s Backbone was appropriately named, at least for military purposes. Stretching east to west for miles along the horizon south of Fort Smith, the rocky ridge provided a natural barrier dividing the Arkansas River valley from the Ouachitas region to the south. Confederate commanders in the region quickly recognized the value of the ridge as both a natural defense and screen for troop moments, and used it repeatedly throughout the war. Knowing that once the Federals realized he was retreating, they would likely try to pursue him aggressively with a flying column of cavalry, Cabell decided to lay a trap for them where the Jenny Lind to Waldron Road crossed the Backbone.
From his subsequent report, it is clear that Cabell positioned his men in successive lines or positions leading up to his main battle line, which he spread out along the rocky spine at the top of the ridge. Devil’s Backbone is unique in that its crest forms an almost natural breastwork of stone, which the Confederates reinforced by piling stones in weak points. As expected, the Federals pursued the retreating Confederate rear guard headlong into the trap. Lines mentioned in Cloud’s report was Capt. Edward C.D. Lines who commanded Company C of the 2nd Kansas Cavalry.
Lines lived for about 3 hours, but died at about the same time that the battle came to a close. For 3 or more hours after the ambush, the battle raged on, characterized especially by an intense exchange of artillery between the Confederate gunners and the men of Rabb’s battery. Neither side did much damage with their cannonading. Likely this was due to the fact that, based on the discovery of artillery shells some distance from the battlefield, both Federals and Confederates were overshooting their opponents.
While the Union guns did not inflict much physical damage on the Confederate line, they may have had a significant psychological impact. Both sides relate how, after hours of fighting, a temporary lull in the cannonade brought about a collapse of the Confederate line. Union officers were at a loss to explain the sudden disappearance of their opponents, as was Cabell himself.
Cabell listed his casualties at only 5 killed and 12 wounded, but could not estimate the number of missing because hundreds of his men simply disappeared. Hill’s and Thomson’s regiments and Woosley’s cavalry battalion, he related, “ran in the most shameful manner.” Hill’s men even overran the brigade’s provost guard and carried away with them 80 prisoners who were being held on charges of treason and desertion. The 8 companies of Morgan’s regiment, who had started the battle, “acted but little better” according to the general.
Cloud reported a total loss of 14, noting that, “the enemy suddenly withdrew, leaving his dead and wounded, together with arms, baggage, &c., in our possession. I immediately occupied the field, and extended my pickets beyond, taking prisoners and receiving deserters, who came flocking in."
More than 100 of the deserters, including 3 officers, took part in another battle at Dardanelle, Arkansas, just 8 days later – this time on the Union side.
Fort Smith, Arkansas
September 3, 1863
Report of Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt, U.S. Army
“…On the 31st ultimo, I encamped 3 miles west of the ford of the Poteau, 12 miles
from its mouth. I there learned that Cabell was strongly posted near the ford, on the
right bank of the creek, and had obstructed with fallen trees all the other roads
leading this way. His force consisted of six regiments of infantry and cavalry and four
pieces of artillery, in all numbering about 2,500 effective men.
“At daylight the following morning, I advanced to attack his position, but found that he
had retreated during the night a short distance toward Fort Smith, and that from that
point his force had divided, proceeding by various routes southward. I then detached
Colonel Cloud, with the Second Kansas and Sixth Missouri Cavalry and two section
of Rabb’s battery, in pursuit of the fleeing enemy. He followed them closely 16 miles,
when he engaged their rear, killing and wounding from 20 to 30 and capturing 40
prisoners. His advance guard, Capt. Edward Lines’ company of the Second Kansas,
unfortunately fell into an ambush prepared by the enemy, and suffered a loss of 8
wounded, 2 of them mortally. One of the latter was Captain Lines, a brave and skillful
officer, whose loss is sincerely deplored. After detaching Colonel Cloud, I marched
with my staff and body guard and the First Arkansas Infantry to this place, and
possessed the fort and city without opposition.”
Official Records, Series 1, Volume XXII, Part One, pages 601-602.
Camp opposite Little Rock
September 20, 1863
Report of Col. William F. Cloud, Second Kansas Cavalry.
“In the morning, moving my brigade to the attack, the enemy were found to have
retreated, at 12 o’clock in the night, in the direction of Fort Smith; but, upon following
in his trail, it was determined that he had turned in the direction of Arkadelphia,
entering that road at a town named Jenny Lind.
“At my request, General Blunt consented that I should take the efficient cavalry and
the two sections of Rabb’s Second Indiana Battery and two mountain howitzers and
push the retreating enemy, hoping to capture baggage, &c. At 12 o’clock we came to
their rear guard in ambush, whose deadly fire cut down Captain Lines and 10 or 12
of his command. I found a line of dismounted cavalry and howitzers, and steadily
drove their rear from their position, and up the mountain side, to within one-fourth of
a mile of their line of battle, skillfully formed upon the summit of Backbone Mountain,
of the Poteau range. I here brought my whole force into action, and for three hours
the battle raged with variable violence. During a suspense of my fire, the enemy
suddenly withdrew, leaving his dead and wounded, together with arms, baggage,
&c., in our possession. I immediately occupied the field, and extended my pickets
beyond, taking prisoners and receiving deserters, who came flocking in.
“Our entire loss was 14. The enemy’s, in killed and wounded, was from 15 to 20.
“In the morning I returned to Fort Smith and assumed command, where I remained
until the 9th, receiving several hundred deserters, to whom I extended the lenient
policy directed in General Schofield’s letter upon that subject…”
Official Records, Series 1, Volume XXII, Part One, pages 602-603.
Fort Smith, Arkansas
September --, 1863
Letter from J.W.R., Assistant Surgeon, Second Kansas Cavalry, to C.B. Lines, father
of Captain Edward E.D. Lines, Second Kansas Cavalry.
“…Our command, under Col. Cloud, marched about 17 miles, and were ambushed
by the rebels, Company “C” being in our advance. The enemy formed in a dense
growth of small timber and brush, and when our scouts came up, they let them pass
through without firing a gun, but when Company C came up, they opened upon them
a very heavy volley of infantry in two columns. Your son was killed at that time. He
was in the extreme advance, (as was his custom,) and was shot by minnie ball,
through the bowels and liver. He lived about 2 1/2 or 3 hours after the wound,
remaining entirely sensible to the last moment. He died as brave a man as ever
gave his life for his country.”
Memorial of Edward C.D. Lines, Late Captain of Co. C, 2d Reg’t Kansas Cavalry,
New Haven: Tuttle Morehouse & Taylor, Printers, 1867, Appendix.