John C. Black – Lieutenant Colonel 37th Illinois Infantry

With a short narrative of the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas

I recently finished reading Professor William L. Shea’s newest book, “Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign.”  This is an excellent book on the little known Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas.  I am hoping to have a text based interview with Dr. Shea published in the near future.  While reading the book I came upon the heroic story of CSA Colonel Joseph C. Pleasants.  I was so intrigued by Pleasants that I decided to write an article on the Confederate hero.  It can be read by clicking HERE.  As a companion to that article, I decided to write the following narrative on another American hero, Lieutenant Colonel John C. Black, who commanded the 37th Illinois Infantry, of the Federal Army of the Frontier, at Prairie Grove.  Black would fight in the opposing lines against Colonel Pleasants’ Arkansas infantry.  Both of their stories are fascinating and deserve to be told.

Lieutenant Colonel John Charles Black

John Charles Black was born on January 27, 1839 in Lexington, Mississippi.  The family would move to Danville, Illinois in 1847.  His father, John, was a Presbyterian minister and would marry Josephine Culbertson.  She would bear him four children, with John Charles being the oldest.  His father, having died in 1847, would leave Josephine to raise the four children.  She would marry William Fithiane and continue to reside in Danville.(i)

With the outbreak of the Civil War, John and his younger brother William, would enlist in the 11th Indiana Infantry, commanded by future major general, and author, Lew Wallace.  Enlisting as a private, he would reach the rank of sergeant-major during his 90 day term of enlistment.  During his tenure with the 11th Indiana, Black would fight at Romney, West Virginia, earning accolades for his bravery.  After being mustered out of the 11th, Black would return to Danville where he would help recruit Company K, 37th Illinois Infantry.  He would be elected captain of the company, with William being elected first lieutenant.(ii)  With the formal organization of the 37th, John would be appointed major, with William being promoted to captain of the company.  Known as the Fremont Rifles, the 37th Illinois would be commanded by Colonel Julius White.  Officially mustering into service on September 18, 1861, at Chicago, Illinois, it would depart for St. Louis, Missouri the next day.  After arriving in St. Louis they would be reviewed by US Major General John C. Fremont, during which his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, tied red, white and blue ribbons to the staff of their regimental colors.

From St. Louis the 37th Illinois would be sent to Boonville, Missouri in early October.  On October 13, the regiment, less two companies left at Boonville, would march with Fremont to Springfield, Missouri, where CSA Major General Sterling Price’s Missouri Home Guard was garrisoned.  By the time they arrived, the Confederates had retreated into northwest Arkansas.  The regiment would be reunited in southwest Missouri, in February 1862, where it became part of the newly christened Army of the Southwest, commanded by US Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis.

Curtis would waste little time, quickly pursuing the retreating Confederate army on the Wire Road.  Pushing through Cassville, Missouri, Curtis’ Federal forces would march into northwest Arkansas where they would be camped on Sugar Creek in early March 1863.  On March 7, CSA Major General Earl Van Dorn would launch a surprise attack against the Federal army at Pea Ridge, Arkansas.  During the first day’s fight, the 37th Illinois would be brigaded with the 59th Illinois and the Peoria Battery.  Commanded by Colonel White, the brigade would repulse a much larger Confederate force at Oberson’s Field, during the opening engagement of the battle.  Fighting in a woodlot, north of Leetown, Major Black’s 37th Illinois would perform bravely in the seesaw fight.  They would sleep on their arms that night.  The battle would resume the next day when Curtis would rout the larger Confederate force, that had little ammunition.  During the hard fought battle, the 37th Illinois would suffer 135 casualties, 21 being killed in action.  Colonel White would be promoted to brigadier general after the battle, and would be sent east.  Lieutenant Colonel Myron Barnes would be promoted to colonel with Black being promoted lieutenant colonel.

During the summer of 1862 the 37th was assigned guard duty in southwest Missouri.  Frequently fighting bands of guerillas, the regiment would endure significant marching during that hot summer.  Black would lead an independent command against a Rebel force at Neosho, Missouri successfully driving them into present day Oklahoma.  Over two days, Black would march his regiment over 100 miles, engage in a significant skirmish and capture over 300 prisoners.  Inevitably, this independent performance would garner much attention.

By late September the 37th Illinois was pulling out of their camps, near Springfield, Missouri.  With US Brigadier General John M. Schofield now in command of the Army of the Frontier, it contained two Missouri Divisions commanded by brigadier generals James Totten and Francis Herron.  Moving east to connect with Schofield was a mixed division of soldiers called the Kansas Division.  This division was commanded by Brigadier General James G. Blunt.  On September 30, some of Blunt’s forces were surprised by a Confederate cavalry attack at Newtonia, Missouri.  With the Confederates holding the village, Schofield and Blunt quickly sent reinforcements to the vicinity, launching a large artillery attack on the Confederate position on October 4. Offering scant resistance, the Rebel calvary quickly vacated the area.  One Texas cavalier aptly described the rout, “The men were panic stricken and nothing could be done with them, in fact I think the officers were in the forefront.”(iii)  The 37th Illinois, and the rest of the Missouri divisions, continued pushing after the fleeing Confederate cavalry.  Without a fight the Confederacy had given up their only lodgement in southwest Missouri.

Over the coming four weeks Brigadier General Francis Herron, now commanding the two Federal Missouri Divisions with Schofield on sick leave in St. Louis, marched his men across southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas.  These foot sore soldiers had quite a journey: Cassville, Missouri, Pea Ridge Arkansas, Huntsville, Arkansas, Bentonville, Arkansas, Cross Hollows, Arkansas (near Pea Ridge), Osage Springs, Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas and finally, on December 1, they arrived at Camp Lyon, near Springfield, Missouri.  Unfortunately, their stay would be quite short.  During the same period of time James Blunt had pushed his Kansas Division to the very entrance of the Boston Mountains, in northwest Arkansas.  After forcing the Confederate cavalry from the area of Cane Hill, Arkansas, Blunt bivouacked his men there.  This drastically changed the strategic situation for Confederate theater commander Major General Thomas Hindman.  With Blunt’s forces gathered at Cane Hill, they could easily flank his position, south of the Boston Mountains, by using any of five major roads in the area.  Hindman determined that the best action was offensive and would set his Trans-Mississippi Army in motion.  With Blunt in overall command of the three Federal divisions, he ordered Herron to bring the two Missouri Divisions to his aid with celerity.  They moved out of December 3, 1862.

Meanwhile, changes had occurred within the 37th Illinois.  Colonel Myron Barnes had retired.  Taking his place in command of the regiment was Lieutenant Colonel John Charles Black.  Black’s intrepid foot soldiers had earned the moniker “The Illinois Greyhounds” for their quick mobility.  They would get to prove it again during their forced march to Blunt’s relief.  As Shea describes in his book, “Fields of Blood,” Herron’s Missouri Divisions would be marching within six hours of receiving Blunt’s dispatch – “What followed was an epic of human endurance.”(iv)  Herron’s soldiers would endure a march of nearly 120 miles to reach Blunt.

On December 5 Hindman had his army on the move early.  They had been camped at Lee Creek, in the Boston Mountains.  Hindman believed that Blunt would expect the main assault to be on his position at Cane Hill.  Pushing north on Cove Creek Road, Hindman changed his mind.  Upon reaching the junction of Cove Creek and Van Buren roads, he decided to push the majority of his army north while sending only a small detachment northwest on the Van Buren Road, from Morrow’s.  His plan was to place the majority of his Trans-Mississippi Army between Blunt and Herron, and defeat the two wings separately.  To make his feint against Blunt he sent Lieutenant Colonel James C. Monroe’s Arkansas Cavalry and Brigadier General Mosby Parsons’ Missouri infantry brigade towards Reed’s Mountain.  Parsons was to remain in reserve as Monroe’s troopers pushed across Reed’s Mountain.  Facing them was US Lieutenant Colonel Owen Bassett’s 2d Kansas Cavalry.  Holding the high ground, the Kansans were able to repel the first Rebel attack, at which point Parsons’ infantrymen joined the fray.  With his cavalry in a rough position, Blunt ordered US Colonel Thomas Ewing, Jr.’s 11th Kansas Infantry to their support.  These troops were able to hold Reed’s Mountain and the two opposing forces held their positions throughout the day until Parsons pulled his infantry back to Cove Creek Road to rejoin the army.

Meanwhile, the rest of Hindman’s forces continued their march north on Cove Creek Road.  Hindman planned on pushing to the Fayetteville Road where his army would approach Prairie Grove on two parallel roads.  Once at Prairie Grove, he intended on pushing north, to the Illinois River, to attack Herron’s strung out Missouri Divisions.  Unfortunately, all did not go according to plan.  Upon reaching Prairie Grove, CSA Brigadier General Francis Shoup’s Division formed a defensive line on the north facing slopes of the hill that Prairie Grove occupied.  Instead of pushing north towards the Illinois River, in an offensive move to hammer Herron, he instead settled into a defensive position.  The stage was rapidly being set for a major confrontation.

After Herron’s two Missouri Divisions crossed the Illinois River, they entered Crawford’s Prairie.  Here they established a heavy artillery presence while the infantry began to assemble.  This made any Confederate offensive operations a very difficult proposition.  While Hindman’s forces commanded Crawford’s Prairie from the heights of Prairie Grove, the superiority of the Federal artillery would make an assault on their position very difficult.  Additionally, Hindman had received no significant information on any movement Blunt was making with his Kansas Division.  Instead of being the pursuer, Hindman suddenly found himself the pursued – two Federal divisions in his front and one lurking somewhere in his rear. 

While Herron’s two divisions were preparing in Crawford’s Prairie, there was a noticeable lack of preparation taken place on the slopes of Prairie Grove.  Perhaps it was due to a feeling of superiority that the heights provided or perhaps it was complacency amongst the Confederate high command.  Regardless, as 1:30 p.m. approached, General Shoup ordered Captain William D. Blocher to “stir things up.”  Blocher quickly ordered a howitzer fired which caused no damage to the enemy.  Captain David Murphy’s Battery F, 1st Missouri Light Artillery, responded to the single howitzer shot with a heavy barrage from his six guns.  These guns found there mark as described by a Confederate officer, “The enemy greatly outnumbered us and outranked us in the character of cannon, having the most improved rifle guns, and handled them with remarkable skill.”(v)

With the artillery duel continuing, Herron pushed his first wave of infantry towards the Rebel position along the hill.  This consisted of Major Henry Starr’s 20th Wisconsin, Lieutenant Colonel John McNulta’s 94th Illinois and Lieutenant Colonel Samuel McFarland’s 19th Iowa.  As these three regiments pushed through the cornfields, in front of the ridge, John Black’s 37th Illinois tensely waited on Crawford’s Hill supporting the Federal artillery posted there.  Posted to his left were Colonel John Clark’s 26th Indiana and Lieutenant Colonel Joseph B. Leake’s 20th Iowa.  As they watched, from across the open prairie, the 19th Iowa and 20th Wisconsin pushed towards the Rebel line held by CSA Brigadier General James F. Fagan’s Arkansas Brigade.  McNulta’s 94th Illinois inexplicably broke off from the rest of the Third Division’s infantry, pushing further east towards the Rebel’s right flank, held by CSA Colonel Joseph Shelby’s Missouri Cavalry Brigade.  This would cause two things to happen.  First Shoup would pull Colonel Emmett MacDonald’s Cavalry Brigade from the bench in front of the ridge, sending it to reinforce Shelby’s dismounted troopers.  Secondly, he directed CSA Colonel Dandridge McRae to send three of his brigade’s five Arkansas regiments to reinforce the left flank of Fagan’s brigade.  These regiments would extend the Confederate left flank past the Fayetteville Road.  With Black’s Illinoisans watching from Crawford’s Prairie, the 19th Iowa and 20th Wisconsin slammed into Fagan’s Brigade.  After a severe fight, some of which was hand-to-hand, the two regiments would be forced back to their jump off point in the prairie.  An Iowan from the 19th regiment described the situation as the Rebels “raised up on three sides of us and poured an incessant fire into our ranks.  They were on one side of the fence and we were on the other.”(vi)  This fight at the Borden Orchard decimated the ranks of both the Federal regiments.  The fate of McNulta’s 94th Illinois was much different.  Described as remaining in the background, they suffered 34 casualties, only one of which was killed.  As described by William L. Shea, each of the companies of the 19th Iowa and 20th Wisconsin, that scaled the hill, suffered more casualties than the entire 94th Illinois suffered.

With the remnants of the Federal regiments retreating, several of Fagan’s Arkansas regiments quickly pursued them and were greeted by tremendous artillery fire, quickly forcing them to retrace their steps.  Brigadier General Herron would succinctly describe the Confederate counterattack, “The fighting was desperate beyond description.”(vii)

Around 3:00 p.m., General Herron ordered US Colonel Daniel Huston to make his division ready - including John Black’s 37th Illinois.  By this time, the division had been in reserve near Crawford Hill for several hours.  Many of the men had been lying on the ground for several hours and were quite cold.  With the the Third Division pulled back to Crawford’s Prairie and the Rebels back in line on the hillside, the tactical situation was similar to what the sides faced when the battle had started – with the exception of hundreds of wounded and dead soldiers between the lines!  Huston, having witnessed the repulse of the Federal Third Division, and the failed Confederate counterattack, had ordered Black’s 37th Illinois and the 26th Indiana forward to the Fayetteville Road.  After pulling down the fences that ran along the road, the path for attack was open.  However, from their position they would be marching across open ground and subject to enfilade fire from McRae’s Arkansans.  With the arrival of Huston’s Division in his front, Shoup pleaded for reinforcements.  His division had suffered severely in its morning battle with the Federal Third Division and may not withstand another attack.  Hindman quickly sent Colonel Robert Shaver’s Arkansas Brigade to his support.  Shaver was part of Brigadier General Daniel Frost’s Division and this would be the first of his troops sent to the north section of the battlefield.  This represented a significant change in Hindman’s mindset as he had kept all of Frost’s soldiers in reserve where they could be used to prevent a surprise attack from Blunt’s Kansas Division at Cane Hill.  Was this an act of desperation or was Hindman certain that his feint against Cane Hill had totally fooled Blunt?

At the time of the Battle of Prairie Grove, Lieutenant Colonel John Charles Black was 23 years old.  Well educated and ambitious, Black had been rapidly promoted in the volunteer army after his strong performance at the Battle of Pea Ridge.  Waving his sword and shouting out orders, Black’s presence on the battlefield was not lost on his soldiers, one of which remarked that his long hair “gave him rather a peculiarly grand appearance.”(viii)  On this early December afternoon, in 1862, Black would provide his most valuable service to his country.  Pushing his regiment southeast towards the Borden House, nearly parallel with the bench, the 37th Illinois would be closest to the Rebel line.  With the 26th Indiana on their left, the Illinoisans would receive enfilade fire from the Confederate position.  Upon reaching the Borden house, Black gave his men time to break ranks before dressing their lines on the other side of the structure.  Unfortunately the time expended reforming their lines caused them to be become separated from the Hoosiers.  Reaching the orchard, the men from Illinois were greeted with the horrible site of the day’s festival of death – soldiers from both sides sprawled out in every conceivable way – some dead, some dying and some severely wounded.  The 26th Indiana had briefly fought in the wooded thicket to their east, but were quickly repulsed with the men streaming to the rear.  Black formed his regiment along a fence line on the north side of the orchard.  With smoke from the guns reducing visibility, the Illinoisans peered towards the hill, while shadows were lengthening with the rapidly gathering blanket of dusk.  The men inevitably heard commands being yelled out along the hillside and watched as Fagan’s Arkansas Brigade “rose like a wall before us.”  Letting loose a volley of musketry, the Rebels advanced towards Black’s men along the fence.  Black’s soldiers, now veterans, held their line and returned fire, opening gaps in Fagan’s line that would quickly close.  Black noted that, “The enemy were in immense force immediately in my front, advancing and firing as rapidly as they came….(the hail of bullets) did not seem to check them at all in their advance.”  Another Federal officer described their return fire, “The leaden hail came in one continuous stream of fire, not unlike a severe hail storm.”(ix)  One of these hissing missiles found its mark slamming into the humerus bone of Black’s uninjured left arm.  The severely wounded officer did not move to the rear but remained in the saddle, providing a calming influence over his severely pressed troops.

Facing Lieutenant Colonel Black’s 37th Illinois, in the orchard, was Charles Adams’ Arkansas Infantry regiment.  Part of Shaver’s Brigade, most of his Arkansans had never been in battle.  With a continuous storm of musketry, most of Adams’ regiment quickly made their way to the rear, not stopping until they reached the Buchanan house, nearly a mile in the rear.  Unfortunately, the retreat of Adams’ regiment did little to ease the pressure Black’s Illinoisans were receiving from three sides.  Fearing his regiment would be captured, Black ordered his men to retreat with few wasting any time making their way to the foot of the hill.  From there they would need to cross an expanse of open ground to reach the main Federal line.  With musketry and the occasional artillery ordnance chasing them along, Black’s 37th Illinois finally made it back to the Federal lines.  Unfortunately they would return with nearly 20% less men than they had started the day with.  Fortunately for the Federal goal – securing Missouri – General Blunt would arrive from the west with his Kansas Division.  While they would attack the Confederates and be repulsed, they would survive a counterattack on their position.  The next day, Blunt would meet with Hindman and agree to a truce to remove the dead and wounded. Hindman would use the truce to retreat from Prairie Grove.  His Trans-Mississippi Army would spend the winter at Fort Smith, while Blunt would continue to press his Army of the Frontier, marching back and forth across southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas.  The total butcher’s bill for the fight at Prairie Grove would be nearly 2,600 casualties evenly spread across the two armies.

With the advent of spring the campaign season of 1863 opened.  The 37th Illinois would take part in the Battle of Chalk Bluffs, near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on May 2, 1863.  From southeast Missouri, Black would be sent, as part of Herron’s division, to Vicksburg where his regiment would be placed in the siege lines on June 13.  The proud 37th Illinois would take a prominent role in the Siege of Vicksburg and would march in to the town on July 4, 1863.  Over the coming months Black would lead his regiment during engagements in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.  By this time Black had been promoted to colonel and was commanding a brigade that included the 26th Indiana, 20th Iowa and 37th Illinois.  In February 1864 the men of the 37th would re-enlisted for three years, or the duration of the war.  Mustering back into service on February 28 they would receive a 30 day furlough before heading for Memphis.  From here they were ordered to pursue CSA Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry into central Tennessee.  Over the coming months they would again see service in Arkansas and Louisiana.  In January 1865 the brigade would be sent to Pensacola, Florida from New Orleans.  On March 13, Colonel Black received brevet promotion to brigadier general of volunteers.  In April the brigade would participate in the siege and storming of Fort Blakely and would enter Mobile, Alabama.  After returning Texas the brigade would slowly be mustered out of service, with the 37th Illinois mustering out on May 15, 1865, the 20th Iowa on July 8, 1865 and the 26th Indiana on January 15, 1866.  All told, the 37th Illinois, Black’s original regiment, would travel 17,800 miles during the war (14,600 miles by steamer and 3,300 miles by foot) while suffering 233 casualties from all causes.

After the war, General Black would practice law and would become U.S. District Attorney of Chicago.  He would be elected to the U.S. Congress, as a Democrat, and would serve Illinois in that capacity for six terms.  He would be elected president of the Grand Army of the Republic and serve in that capacity from 1903–1904.  From 1904 through 1913 he would serve as president of the United States Civil Service Commission.  Having received severe wounds to both of his arms, he was significantly disabled after the war.  He was recognized for his brave and gallant service by being awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery at the Battle of Prairie Grove.  His citation follows:

Gallantly charged the position of the enemy at the head of his regiment, after 2 other regiments had been repulsed and driven down the hill, and captured a battery; was severely wounded.”(x)

General Black would marry Adaline Livona Griggs in 1867.  Together they would have three children: Gracia Mildred (1870), John B. (1872) and Helene (1883).  He would die suddenly on August 17, 1915 in Chicago, Illinois.  He is buried at Spring Hill Cemetery in Danville, Illinois.  General John Charles Black is a true American HERO.

(i) John Charles Black, on Ancestry.com, was used to research this article.
(ii) See John Charles Black at the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States and the Illinois Civil War Regiment and Unit Histories.
(iii) Shea, William L., Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign, published by UNC Press in 2009, Pg. 28.
(iv) Shea, William L., Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign, published by UNC Press in 2009, Pg. 128.
(v) Shea, William L., Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign, published by UNC Press in 2009, Pg. 160.
(vi) Shea, William L., Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign, published by UNC Press in 2009, Pg. 176.
(vii) Shea, William L., Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign, published by UNC Press in 2009, Pg. 180.
(viii) Shea, William L., Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign, published by UNC Press in 2009, Pg. 189.
(ix) Shea, William L., Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign, published by UNC Press in 2009, Pgs. 190–191.
(x) Proft, R.J. (Bob), United States of America’s Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients and Their Official Citations, published by Highland House II in 2006, Pg. 809.

About Michael Noirot

I grew up in the Central Illinois farming community, of Dunlap. Growing up, I played sports, tinkered with cars and enjoyed photography. While I did well in school, I did not become passionate about history until my early 30's. I have built a large library, of books on early America, politics and the Civil War. I am an avid reader. Fortunately, I have had plenty of opportunities to travel, over the years, and have been to most of the Civil War battlefields. I work while I travel, so more often than not, I am up, in the middle of the night, to get sunrise pictures, or I will be out until well after dark, exploring Civil War battlefields. I have other hobbies, and passions, that I really enjoy. Number one on the list would be guitar. I play my guitars on a regular basis, and enjoy the Bluegrass, and Contemporary Christian (CCM) genres. I play a style of guitar, called FLATPICKING, where using a flat pick, you play lead solos, similar to the way a fiddle would have been played during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Laura, my wife, and I also enjoy scuba diving, travel and spending time at our property, in the country. Lastly, we spend as much time with our families, as possible. Thanks for stopping by.
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