Federals Target 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… 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.”  

The main Federal force in Arkansas was at Helena, on the Mississippi River. Its commander, Brigadier-General Benjamin Prentiss, had successfully defended the town from a Confederate assault in July. But by early August, the New York Times was reporting that Prentiss had resigned due to having “taken so much to heart the recent unkind cut of his superiors. Our flag will seem the brighter if this should prove correct.”  

Maj-Gen Frederick Steele | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

On Prentiss’s recommendation, he was replaced by Major-General Frederick Steele. Now that Major-Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Nathaniel P. Banks had opened the Mississippi, Steele was expected 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 August 18 to “break up Price and occupy Little Rock.”  

Price had replaced Lieutenant-General Theophilus Holmes in command of the District of Arkansas when Holmes bowed out due to an unknown illness. 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 Price truly had no more than 7,800 men against Steele’s 20,000.  

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. When Davidson reported that “the ubiquitous Marmaduke” was threatening the Federal movement, Steele wrote to Major-General Stephen A. Hurlbut, commanding Federals at Memphis, to send him reinforcements because Price’s force was “much larger than ours now.”  

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 on Little Rock would resume.


  • Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
  • Faust, Patricia L. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.

Leave a Reply