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General Ulysses S. Grant, overall Union commander

Report of Captain Rex Griffin, Commanding 77th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry
Frontier Brigade
Field of Cane Hill, Arkansas
November 6, 2005

Sir: I have the honor to report that, with other members of the 77th Pennsylvania Volunteers, we arrived at the field of Cane Hill, Arkansas, a state in rebellion, on the dark, foggy night of October 21, 2005. Joining with others of the Frontier Brigade, we determined to clear that portion of northwest Arkansas of disloyal elements formed to foment traitorous pursuits.

Col. Stan Prater was in overall command of the Brigade, assisted by Major John Tillman, Chief of Couriers. Col. Phil Sample of the Senate Committee on the Conduct of the War was there as an observer. Major Errick Weiser of the Second Battalion was the Brigade field commander, while I was in charge of a company composed of men from the 1st Kansas, 15th and 17th Missouri, 77th Pennsylvania, the Union Rifles and a group of men from Iowa whose regiment I don't recall.

A cool, foggy dampness permeated the camp well into Saturday morn. We had camped in a beautiful little valley in the Ozarks, with hills rising all around us. A wide, deep ravine skirted the northern and western edges of our camp as it turned and headed to points south. An open, grassy field that would be drenched in blood yawned on the other side of the ravine.

A fence defined the southern boundary of our camp. Perhaps having camp boundaries made us complacent, even though we suspected Johnnies were close by.

Once organized, I headed for the wagons to procure some gear when I heard the sharp crack of rifles behind me. I sprinted the couple of hundred yards back to camp, but in that short time the firing ceased. The cunning Secesh had bushwhacked us, but our valiant soldiers had rapidly gained the upper hand and, in less time than it takes to tell, driven the enemy out of the camp.

Pickets were posted and all presumed safe. My physical exertion produced other physical pressures and, after visiting the sinks, I once again heard the rattle of musketry coming from our camp. The pesky Rebs, having not had enough, had regrouped and treacherously attacked again. By the time I arrived, again our men had bravely met the foe and driven him out.

Once the Sesh were finally put in their place, we had time for honing our skills, concentrating on Skirmish Drill. While the men broke for lunch, Major Weiser and myself, having been warned the Rebels intended to attack our artillery overlooking the field on the other side of the ravine, scouted the area adjacent to our camp. A wooded hillside on the far side of the field offered concealment and an excellent place to strike the flank of the enemy, should they be so foolish as to attempt to storm our artillery.

As morning gave way, the Sun was beaming brightly, burning away the air's foggy dampness and bathing the scene in its warm glow. The hillsides were brightening with red and gold intermixed with and supplanting the green of the leaves. It was a beautiful landscape on a gorgeous afternoon, a calm prologue belying the deadly work ahead.

Weapons loaded, nerves taut, the men knew something was in the air. Orders were barked, soldiers formed into lines. At the far end of our camp another Union battalion awaited, grim and ready for the task. Together, we marched through a shallow defile in the ravine and across the field. Our company split away from the main force and took a concealed position on the wooded hillside we had previously scouted. There we awaited events.

A powerful Confederate column came in from the southwest, eagerly eyeing our cannons and fellow Federals protecting them. As well choreographed as a delicate ballet, they formed into battle lines and came on. Our cavalry teased them a little, then fell back to give the artillery a chance. Our cannons, however, were in deadly earnest as they roared to life. Every blast of iron ripped huge gaps in their battle lines, filled in an instant with fresh Butternuts.

Moving over their fallen comrades, they approached to where we awaited, unseen. In the trees and brush we were in a loose skirmish line, five to ten paces apart. When their flank came even with us, we sprang our deadly trap. Our first volley dropped many a Johnny while their line recoiled from the blast. But the Rebels must have been combat veterans, because they recovered quickly and threw out a large company to face us.

Suddenly the battlefield seemed gone, replaced by the face on the other side of the brush and the intensity of kill or be killed. Leaves and splinters flew around us as a hurricane of lead swirled through the trees. Screams and curses added to the cacophony of noise which composed the symphony of battle. The red of blood was heavily splattered on the golds and greens of the autumnal forest.

Major Weiser grabbed me by the shoulder and shouted in my ear, "They're flanking us." The Rebs, more numerous than we, had shifted to our right and were coming into the woods on our flank. The Major ordered me to pull back up the hill in groups of four and five, each unmasked group of that number refusing the flank until the previous group had safely withdrawn. Following his plan we managed to keep the Johnnies at a distance and withdrew in good order. But we had to leave our dead and wounded behind.

Though thoroughly decimated by our fire, the Rebels kept up the pressure, pursuing us all along the side of the hill. When the hillside dipped toward the field, we slipped out of the woods and into the open, not once turning our backs to the enemy. The Rebs came out after us. Once they revealed themselves, we could see our fire had taken its toll, dropping their numbers dramatically. Now we had the advantage. As calmly as if on a drill field, we loaded and fired, Johnnies falling with every shot. Our accurate fire and grim determination broke them and, those that were still upright, either dissolved into the woods or surrendered.

When we first came out of the woods, we linked up on the right flank of another Union unit. But their attention was on the Sesh force in their front, while we were concentrating on the Rebs we had been fighting. When we had taken care of the foe to our front, we turned to the main battle in time to see the Rebel attack fall apart.

Looking across the field, it was like a vast carpet of color, butternut and gray uniforms, green grass and the red of blood. The Confederate army had been nearly destroyed by the outpouring of hot metal from our cannons and muskets. Johnnies lay everywhere in bloody heaps. Pursued by our cavalry, the battered and beaten enemy wearily stumbled back the way they had come.

We were exhausted. Too exhausted to follow, too exhausted to cheer, but not too exhausted to feel a wave of joy and relief at the sight of the Johnnies in retreat.

Once back in camp we had a chance to rest and relax, but not for long. Later that afternoon the Sesh were again on the move. We received orders to fall in.

We were the last company of the Union line. Our brigade marched through a narrow defile which crossed the gully which separated our camp from the battlefield. Once on the field side, our company, under Major Weiser, broke off and followed alongside the ravine until we found a place to reenter it out of sight of the Johnnies.

Major Weiser set up a system of signals with Major Tillman. The plan was for our company to stay hidden until the battle was fully developed, the Rebs fully engaged. Then we were to come up in their rear and catch them between us and the main body of Union troops.

Silently we hid in the ravine and waited. We watched as Reb cavalry searched frantically for us, the missing Federal company. But though we had to move once or twice to keep out of sight, they never spotted us.

A more worrisome factor was civilian children, who we thought were going to give us away. But, instead of warning the Sesh, they helped us by eyeballing Reb movement and warning us of any possible problems.

In that gully, anxious about discovery, we waited noiselessly while we listened to the roar of battle raging nearby. At the given signal, Major Weiser led us out of the ravine, across a field and through the defile, coming up squarely in the rear of the Confederate army.

We announced our presence with a volley into their backsides, which shook the Rebs mightily. Loyal forces had been driven to the edge of the battlefield. With us on their tails, the Johnnies recoiled like a snake ready to strike, trying to face both groups of us without exposing their flanks. Though nearly impossible, they put in a credible effort at the maneuver. But the momentum had shifted. Rebel bodies were strewn across the field, the broken remnants of the Confederate attack.

As the main body of our army pushed the Reb formation back, we linked up on the right flank. Steadily, determinedly we drove the Sesh until they finally vacated the field. Their dead and wounded, piled up like in places like so much cordwood, were left in their wake.

The casualties in our company were minimal, except that Dave Burns of the 17th Missouri was unfortunately scorched in a case of friendly fire. But we were in high feather, having broken two Rebel attacks in one day.

Back in camp, weapons were cleaned, suppers cooked and eaten. Around the fire that night both soldiers and civilians enjoyed cigars, libations and friendly conversation. Though not quite as cold, as it got late the night was still cool. There was no fog, but there was a slight shower in the wee hours of the morning.

The headquarters tent was a scene of some animation. An amorous raccoon is said to have mounted Major Tillman during the night. Though it is a subject of some conjecture what attracted the raccoon to the Major, it is known that the Major had an enormous smile on his face the next morning.

The emergence of the sun again saw considerable Rebel activity. During the morning, an armed company of Johnnies entered the far end of our camp. But, under a flag of truce, an exchange was made, the Rebs ending up with a pie. Though we can't be sure of their intentions, it seems the pie forestalled a sneak attack.

Later, as the men were again practicing as skirmishers, another enemy column was spotted moving suspiciously through the gully near camp. But the Reb column surprised us by marching harmlessly back to their camp.

Major Weiser had had enough of Secesh shenanigans and ordered the company to load their weapons, then marched us to the edge of the field. That is where an error in communication occurred. Major Weiser meant for us to march to the edge of our camp; I thought he meant march to the edge of THEIRS.

I ordered the company around and past the fence, to the corner of the Rebel camp, the Johnnies totally unsuspecting. Nearby a group of Sesh saw us and slowly, hesitatingly, began to deploy in a skirmish line.

Turning to the Major for further orders, to my utter astonishment, he was nowhere to be seen. As I found later, he, thinking we were in our camp and not exposed, was in the ravine scouting for a place to emerge and surprise the Rebs.

But we WERE exposed. The enemy was moving and I, with little recourse, thought, "We're here. Let's do it." The company opened up on them with a unified blast of musket fire. Then, deploying as skirmishers, we poured lead into the surprised Sesh. Our fire was intense and accurate, but we were vastly outnumbered. Perhaps we should have withdrawn by platoons, but I was afraid my second platoon would have been separated and demolished in the process. So we stood our ground until finally overwhelmed by superior numbers.

The Confederate commander was so impressed by our bravery and audacity, he paroled us on the spot with his compliments. But no one was in doubt that we would tangle again.

After lunch, we received word that the Johnnies were again on the move. The Brigade was formed, our company again the Fourth, or last, company in line.

As we moved through a defile in the ravine, our company was ordered to drop out of formation and hold the defile in case the Rebs came that way. We constructed abatis, fascines and gabions across the road that led through the draw, intending to slow down any Sesh that wandered down that trail. At first we deployed as skirmishers, but that proved unwieldily, especially in the event we needed to withdraw. At my suggestion we redeployed in a column of fours, ready to use street firing tactics to hold the defile in case of attack.

It wasn't long before we spotted Rebel skirmishers headed our direction. Behind them was a long column of gray and butternut, that bloody red flag at its head.

As they neared, it became readily apparent that the only way through the ravine was through us. They couldn't gain our flanks, so they had to come straight ahead. That screaming caterwaul called the Rebel Yell corkscrewed through the air and down our spines. But we grimly stood our ground and held our fire as they came on.

We waited until they bunched up and got tangled in our obstruction, then we opened up. With every step backward we gave them a face full of fire. In close quarters, the carnage was frightful. They hesitated, bodies already piling up like stacked wood, and came on very slowly, Johnnies dropping by the handsful with every one of our volleys. We marched steadily backward, but with discipline and dignity, making them pay dearly for every step of ground.

As we emerged from the ravine into the open field, it was apparent we were in trouble. Behind us and on our right flank, the Reb cavalry came thundering down on us. As we turned to face their cavalry, the Rebel infantry came charging out of the ravine on our left.

Momentarily, we tried to refuse the left flank. But we didn't have enough men to hold them off as we backed up rapidly, giving them the space to bring up their whole infantry column.

Bullets swarmed around us like maddened hornets, coming from every angle. Outnumbered, exposed, we tried to march backwards, but our men were falling like raindrops from the thunderstorm of fire and lead.

Major Weiser ordered us, "Right About Turn! Right About Fire!" We were putting up a scrap.

As we neared our own lines, half our men had already fallen. To make matters worse, our ammunition was running low. We had to take rounds from our dead and wounded to replenish our cartridge boxes as best we could.

We took a position on the left of the formation, just as the Reb cavalry charged on that flank. Misunderstanding the order, "Charge Bayonet!", our depleted ranks, still full of fighting spirit, charged the cavalry in the most splendid and courageous example of manhood I ever witnessed. Behind them, in astonishment, the Major and I looked at one another and, with hardly a word, charged, too. Outnumbered, the surprise of the maneuver and fearsomeness of the men dispelled their cavalry, who took off at the gallop.

We turned again to face the enemy infantry. Their hordes were irresistible. The bodies of our men littered the field in heaps of bloody blue. Lt. Colonel William Griggs, commander of the Union forces in the field, came up to the Major and I. With regret in his face, but his jaw set in fierce determination, he ordered us to hold the line so the remainder of the Union army could withdraw. With a final word of compliments on our courage, he withdrew, leaving us to our fate.

We had seen the elephant many times, but at that moment we felt its weight on our shoulders. Grimly, we turned to the foe and commenced firing our last few rounds. We held as the army withdrew in good order. The handful of us that were left followed behind, the Rebs hard on our heels. Thus ended the Battle of Cane Hill.

Those few of us who survived swore there would be another day, another chance to battle Secession and put down Rebellion, to finally unite this country and shake hands with our enemy across the bloody chasm.

I have the honor to be your most humble and obedient servant,
Capt. Rex Griffin
Coy. E, 77th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry
The Bell Guards

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