Major-General Frederick Steele’s 20,000-man Federal “Army of Arkansas” headed west out of Helena on a mission to capture the Arkansas capital of Little Rock. In Steele’s path was a Confederate army of less than 8,000 men under Major-General Sterling Price. Price called for reinforcements, but none were available. He dispatched one of his cavalry divisions, led by Brigadier-General John S. Marmaduke, to harass the Federal cavalry under Brigadier-General John W. Davidson.
Price then pulled Marmaduke back to Des Arc, on the White River about 50 miles east of Little Rock. Marmaduke was ordered 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 nonetheless and stayed 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 August 19. Confederate deserters falsely claimed that Price was gathering reinforcements at Little Rock. Steele had been asking Major-General Stephen A. Hurlbut, commanding the Federals at Memphis, to send him reinforcements, and this news prompted Steele to send him another panicked message: “If you do not send reenforcements I shall very likely meet with a disaster.” 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. Price’s troops hurried to build defenses and guard the Arkansas River to prevent Steele’s Federals from crossing.
Davidson’s 5,000 Federal 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. In this “sharp fight,” 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 as 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.
On the afternoon of the 28th, Steele’s Federals began crossing Bayou Meto, thereby turning Walker’s right flank. Walker fell back, leaving Marmaduke’s Confederates to hold the line. Marmaduke held firm until nightfall, when Price ordered him to fall back even closer to Little Rock. Marmaduke delayed the Federals long enough for Price to maintain his defenses below the city, but he transferred his supply base to Arkadelphia just in case. 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.
At the same time, Price learned that Federal forces now occupied Monroe, Louisiana, which an important point on both Price’s supply line and his line of retreat. He was also informed that William Steele’s Confederates were retreating toward the Red River, and Cabell’s force had evacuated Fort Smith. Despite all this, Price boasted that his men were “in excellent condition, full of enthusiasm, and eager to meet the enemy.”
Federals and Confederates clashed on the vital Shoal Ford 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.
- 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.