April 30, 1864 – Confederates attacked Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas as it tried crossing the Saline River to get back to the safety of Little Rock.
Steele, whose 10,000 Federals had been holed up in Camden, decided to abandon that town and return to Little Rock because his supply train had been destroyed and he was now 70 miles deep in enemy territory. This ended Steele’s efforts to reach Shreveport, his original objective. The Federals left Camden and marched north through Princeton, slowed by heavy rain and mud.
General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the 10,000 Confederate troops outside Camden, did not know that the Federals had left until mid-morning on the 27th. The Confederates quickly entered the town and began repairing the pontoon bridges over the Ouachita River so they could pursue. According to Smith’s aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Edward Cunningham:
“It took us all day and all night to construct a bridge over which the infantry could pass. At sunrise on the morning of the 28th, the troops commenced crossing. The enemy had 26 hours’ start of us. On the night of the 29th, the head of our infantry was at Tulip, 14 miles from the Saline, at Jenkins’ Ferry, and 40 miles from Camden… The rear of the enemy’s column had passed Tulip at 8 o’clock that morning. The Saline Bottom was, however, a quagmire five miles wide, and it was possible his trains had not been gotten over. We had but little expectation of getting a fight. Our pontoon train had not yet come up, and even with it we could not cross the river in face of the enemy.”
Smith hoped that Brigadier General James F. Fagan’s cavalry might catch up to the Federals, but Fagan informed him that the cavalry had gone to Arkadelphia for supplies. On the Federal side, Captain Charles Henry, Steele’s chief quartermaster, reported, “The command reached the Saline River on the 29th,” and since they had left Camden, “a large number of animals had broken down on account of having no forage.”
The Federals were to cross the Saline at Jenkins’ Ferry, but Steele wrote that the river was “continually rising from the rain which continued to fall. From the same cause the bottom, being cut up by our artillery and baggage trains, was becoming almost impassable and required corduroying.”
Federals worked all night to build a pontoon bridge so the men could cross. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Samuel Rice and about 4,000 troops set up a line of breastworks and abatis about two miles from the crossing to face the oncoming Confederates.
Henry wrote, “The pontoon bridge was laid and the crossing commenced, which continued through the night and the next day, over four miles of the worst swamps in Arkansas. Our rear guard was attacked before the bridge was laid…” Smith had directed Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill’s Confederates to stop the Federal crossing. Henry continued:
“At 1 o’clock (a.m.) the column moved forward through deep mud, rain coming down in torrents. At daylight the two divisions were up with the cavalry advance, having marched 52 miles in 46 hours. We could hardly believe there was any large force of the enemy on our side of the river. The firing became more general, Churchill’s Division was thrown forward.”
Churchill ordered Brigadier General James Tappan to send one of his three regiments forward. Tappan reported:
“We had hardly finished building fires before we were ordered to advance. The enemy’s skirmishers were posted on a line about the center of the field, their line of battle being in the woods at the end of the same. My command drove in their skirmishers and became heavily and hotly engaged with their main line.”
Tappan sent the rest of his brigade forward and called for reinforcements. Churchill reported, “Like veterans they moved steadily forward across an open field, undaunted by a most destructive fire, with which the enemy met their advance.” He directed Brigadier General Alexander Hawthorn’s brigade to move up–
“… and gallantly did he come to the rescue. The firing, now incessant, was terrific, and the struggle was desperate beyond description. Still our brave and fearless troops maintained their ground and drove the enemy before them; but he was again heavily re-enforced, and being overpowered we slowly and stubbornly yielded the ground, inch by inch, after two hours of severest fighting I ever witnessed.”
Brigadier General Mosby Parsons’s division came up on Churchill’s right, and as Churchill recalled:
“The battle raged with the greatest fury along our entire line, and the roar of musketry was almost deafening. Nothing could surpass the valor and courage of our troops. They dashed forward with an impetuosity and fearlessness unsurpassed in this war, and it was not until their ammunition was exhausted that they were withdrawn.”
The Confederates actually made little progress due to the swamps and the strong Federal defenses in their front. Also, Smith committed his troops piecemeal rather than in one all-out assault that might have penetrated the Federal line. The fog and smoke of gunfire obstructed the Confederates’ vision more than the Federals, who mostly stayed crouched behind their fortifications. And the marshy ground rendered cavalry and artillery virtually useless.
Smith directed Major General John G. Walker’s Texas division to relieve Churchill, but Walker also committed his men a brigade at a time, which weakened the attack. All three of Walker’s brigade commanders were wounded, and Rice was mortally wounded on the Federal side. As the Confederates fell back to regroup, the Federals got across their pontoon bridge to safety. The fighting ended around 3 p.m.
The Federals sustained 521 casualties (63 killed, 413 wounded, and 45 missing), while the Confederates lost 443 (86 killed, 356 wounded, and one missing). Walker did not submit an official report, and thus his losses were not counted. The Federals claimed a tactical victory by holding Smith off and escaping to Little Rock as planned. Smith claimed victory because he drove the Federals from the field, even though they were trying to leave anyway; he also permanently prevented Steele from joining forces with the Federals in Louisiana.
Steele reported, “The enemy having disappeared from the field, our troops were withdrawn and passed over the bridge without interruption from the enemy.” Smith’s opinion differed: “The complete success of the campaign was determined by the overthrow of Steele at Jenkin’s Ferry.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 106-07; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 65; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 1305-15, 1533-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 425-26; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 176; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 395