August 12, 1863 – A Federal force led by Major General Frederick Steele advanced westward from Helena, Arkansas, to capture the state capital of Little Rock.
After the Federals gained control of the entire Mississippi River, the pro-Confederate governors of Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas issued a joint proclamation to the people of their states. They declared that although each separated section of the Confederacy would now have to rely “mainly on its own resources… We now are self-dependent, but also self-sustaining.”
The governors further asserted that they were “able to conduct a vigorous defense, and seize occasions for offensive operations against the enemy… there is everything to incite us to renewed efforts, nothing to justify despondency.” This was largely due to the efforts of Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, who had proven “active, intelligent, and with the prestige of uniform success in his undertakings.” Smith deserved “the zealous support of every patriot.”
The Federals were “powerful and haughty,” and determined not just to “coerce us into submission, but to despoil us of our whole property, and subject us to every species of ignominy.” To stop them, every man, woman, and child had to do their part. The governors announced, “Western skill and valor will prepare a San Jacinto defeat for every invading army that pollutes the soil of this department.” They concluded:
“In the darkest hours of our history, the protection extended to us by Almighty God has been so manifest, as even to be acknowledged by candid foes. Their victories have been to them as fruit turning to ashes on their lips; our defeats have been chastenings to improve us and arouse our energies. On His help and our own right arms we steadfastly rely; counting on aid neither from the policy of neutral nations, nor from the distractions in the midst of our enemies, we look confidently forward to the day when thirteen confederate States will in peace and safety occupy their right position among the great powers of the earth.”
The proclamation failed to acknowledge that soldiers were deserting the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi, largely stationed at Little Rock under Major General Sterling Price (within Smith’s department), in droves. Federal spies in Little Rock reported that the troops were “fleeing like rats from a falling house; they give the rebellion up, and express a determination to return to their homes.”
In early August, Steele took command of the Federal forces at Helena. Now that Major Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Nathaniel P. Banks had opened the Mississippi, Steele was able to take the offensive in Arkansas. His “Army of Arkansas” consisted of about 7,000 infantry and Brigadier General John W. Davidson’s 6,000 cavalry troopers. The force began moving out of Helena on a mission to “break up Price and occupy Little Rock.”
Price reported that he had 19,000 troops ready to not only defend the city, but to take the offensive and achieve his ultimate goal of regaining Missouri for the Confederacy. This news reached Steele, who responded by advancing cautiously, even though scouts assured him that Price did not have half the number of men he claimed.
As the main Confederate force built defenses outside Little Rock, Price dispatched some infantry to Clarendon and Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke’s cavalry division 100 miles northeast to Jacksonport. Davidson’s Federal troopers bypassed Marmaduke, forcing the Confederates to give up both Jacksonport and Clarendon and fall back toward Little Rock. Steele joined Davidson at Clarendon, where the Federal advance would resume.
Price called for reinforcements, but none were available. He pulled Marmaduke back to Des Arc, on the White River about 50 miles east of Little Rock. Marmaduke then received orders to send one of his brigades to the other cavalry division in the department, led by Brigadier General Lucius M. Walker. Marmaduke and Walker despised each other, and even though Marmaduke had proven a more able cavalry leader in the department, most of his superiors favored Walker. Marmaduke complied with orders while staying with his lone remaining brigade at Des Arc.
Meanwhile, Steele’s Federals continued advancing “through a country almost destitute of water,” which caused nearly 1,000 men to drop from the ranks. When Steele learned that just one Confederate cavalry brigade guarded the White River, he directed his men to set up a field hospital at Devall’s Bluff, “a more healthy location” about 10 miles upstream. According to Steele, the path from Devall’s to Little Rock “possessed many advantages over the other as a line of operations.”
Steele sent Davidson’s cavalry “to ascertain the position and intention of the enemy” around Devall’s on the 19th. Confederate deserters falsely claimed that Smith and Price were gathering reinforcements at Little Rock. This prompted Steele to ask his corps commander, Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut at Memphis, to send him more men. Hurlbut responded by sending a brigade to Helena, and then on to join Steele’s main force.
After a respite to allow his men to hydrate, Steele continued the advance toward Brownsville, 25 miles from Little Rock. On the 23rd, Price ordered Marmaduke to join forces with Walker, with Walker the ranking officer, at Brownsville. This enraged Marmaduke, who prided himself on having an independent command, but he complied.
Davidson’s 5,000 troopers confronted Marmaduke’s 1,100 horsemen within the Brownsville defenses on the 25th. Before the Federals could launch a full-scale attack, Marmaduke pulled back and formed a new line at a crossroads needed for Walker’s supply train, about four miles closer to Little Rock. Marmaduke reported, “The enemy came upon me, and were handsomely repulsed.”
The Federals reformed and attacked again, this time enveloping both of Marmaduke’s flanks. He pulled back to Bayou Meto, about 12 miles from Little Rock. As night fell, the Federals returned to Brownsville, and Marmaduke and Walker put up defenses south of Bayou Meto.
Both sides prepared on the 26th, and when Davidson’s Federals resumed their advance the next day, the Confederates came out across Reed’s Bridge to meet them. The Confederates put up a stiff fight, then fell back, burning the bridge to keep the Federals from pursuing. Davidson reported:
“A dash of the First Iowa Cavalry, under fire of the enemy’s battery and sharpshooters lining the opposite bank, failed to save the bridge, which had been set on fire by the enemy, everything having been prepared beforehand for that purpose. Our batteries engaged those of the enemy, and the skirmishers on both sides were busy for about an hour and a half.”
According to Marmaduke, the Federals, “failing to occupy the river, returned after a heavy loss, leaving a number of their dead on the ground.” Davidson reported losing 45 (seven killed and 38 wounded); Confederate losses were not reported. Price ordered Marmaduke and Walker to fall back toward Little Rock that night.
Farther west in Arkansas, Brigadier General William L. Cabell withdrew his Confederates from Fort Smith after receiving intelligence that advancing Federals outnumbered him and he could expect no reinforcements from Brigadier General William Steele (no relation to Frederick Steele) in the Indian Territory.
After another day of preparation, Davidson’s Federals resumed their patrol and pursuit on the 29th. Price dispatched his cavalry to block all possible approaches to Little Rock from the northeast. The most important was the Shoal Ford Road, which led to Terry’s Ferry, several miles down the Arkansas River from Little Rock. If the Federals gained control of this road, they could flank Price and force him to abandon the capital.
Federals and Confederates clashed on this road on the 30th, trading fire for about five hours. The Confederates finally fell back to another defensive position, which the Federals did not want to attack due to the approaching nightfall. As the Federals fell back, Marmaduke brought up reinforcements. Both sides continued probing each other’s lines into September as Little Rock tentatively remained in Confederate hands.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 278-79; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 337, 339; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 702; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 396