Major-General Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas was closing in on Major-General Sterling Price’s Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi northeast of the Arkansas capital of Little Rock. The forces clashed over control of the Shoal Ford Road, which the Confederates needed to avoid being flanked and thereby forced to abandon the city.
Steele spent the first week of September slowly preparing his 12,000 men to launch a full-scale attack. Four gunboats on the White River at Devall’s Bluff supported Steele’s operation. Price, who took command of the district when Lieutenant-General Theophilus H. Holmes fell ill in July, defended Little Rock with 8,000 men entrenched on the north bank of the Arkansas River.
Meanwhile, the Federal Army of the Frontier under Brigadier-General James G. Blunt captured Fort Smith, 125 miles west of Little Rock near the border of the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Brigadier-General William L. Cabell, commanding the Confederates in the fort, evacuated without a fight.
Cabell’s men withdrew to the southeast, and the Federals caught up to him at Devil’s Backbone. According to Cabell, “The enemy came dashing up, yelling and shouting, confident of success.” But the Confederates held their ground and the Federals fell back to Fort Smith. Blunt reported that “the entire Indian Territory and Western Arkansas are in my possession and under my control.” This section of the South was forever lost to the Confederacy.
Back outside Little Rock, Price’s Confederates strengthened their defenses and awaited the impending Federal assault. Lieutenant-General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, urged Price to commandeer local slaves to build fortifications:
“The urgency is immediate. The temper of the people is now favorable for such a step; there is a feeling of distrust in the loyalty of their slaves, and an anxiety to have the able-bodied males in the service of the Government; especially is this the case in the exposed portions of the country, and I think… large numbers could be obtained without difficulty.”
Smith maintained that “a large number of men would by this measure be added to the effective force in your district.” But many worried that impressing local slaves to build defenses still might not be enough to keep the Federals out of Little Rock.
After several reconnaissance missions, Steele determined that the Confederate right flank, anchored on the Arkansas River, could be bypassed. On September 6, Brigadier-General John Davidson led his 6,000 Federal cavalrymen south to access the Arkansas below Price’s Confederates. Davidson hoped to outflank the Confederates by crossing the river, but he struggled to find a suitable crossing point.
Meanwhile, an internal feud within the Confederate cavalry threatened to undermine the defense effort. Price’s top two cavalry commanders, Brigadier-Generals Lucius M. “Marsh” Walker and John S. Marmaduke, had had intense animosity toward each other ever since the Battle of Helena. Marmaduke had accused Walker of cowardice and resented his superiors for seemingly favoring Walker.
Marmaduke demanded to be transferred or relieved, but while Price was trying to accommodate him, Walker wrote him demanding that he withdraw his accusation. Marmaduke repeated his charge that Walker “avoided all positions of danger.” The two men resolved to settle their differences in a duel on the nearby Le Fevre Plantation on the 6th.
When Price heard about the duel on the night of the 5th, he ordered both generals to stay at their respective headquarters under arrest. But Walker headed to the dueling site before the order arrived, and Marmaduke simply ignored it. At dawn on the 6th, the men “met in personal encounter, by appointment, attended by friends.” Walker and Marmaduke each took 15 paces and fired their Colt revolvers. Neither man hit their mark on the first shot, but Marmaduke quickly fired a second and hit Walker in the abdomen.
Walker’s aides were allowed to load their general into one of Marmaduke’s wagons and take him to Little Rock for medical care. For this generosity, Walker instructed, “See General Marmaduke and tell him that before taking the sacrament, I forgive him with all my heart, and I want my friends to forgive him and neither prosecute nor persecute him.” Walker died the next day.
Price initially ordered Marmaduke arrested but then, according to his report:
“Feeling, however, the great inconvenience and danger of an entire change of cavalry commanders in the very presence of the enemy, and when a general engagement was imminent, I yielded to the urgent and almost unanimous request of the officers of General Marmaduke’s division and his own appeal, and suspended his sentence, and ordered him to resume his command during the pending operations. I did this in spite of the apprehension that such leniency toward General Marmaduke might intensify the bitter feelings which had been already aroused in General Walker’s division by the result of the duel.”
Marmaduke took over Walker’s troops and was never disciplined for killing his fellow officer.
Steele, unaware that he outnumbered Price, continued to rely on Davidson’s cavalry to find a way around the Confederate flank while spending the next few days trying to lay a pontoon bridge across the Arkansas River. Confederate cavalry under Colonel Archibald Dobbin, Walker’s replacement, tried to contest the bridge-building, but it was completed nonetheless by the end of the 9th. Steele’s infantry would demonstrate against the Confederate defenses north of the river while Davidson’s cavalry would cross the river and attack Little Rock from the south.
The Federals feigned a crossing farther downriver, prompting Dobbin to cover that area and leave his force too small to contest the actual crossing. Davidson slowly pushed the Confederates back until they made a stand at Bayou Fourche, five miles below Little Rock. Marmaduke’s men arrived to reinforce Dobbin, but they could only temporarily halt the Federal momentum. Price ordered his remaining forces to abandon the north bank of the Arkansas.
The Confederates stubbornly tried to hold the south bank, but they were slowly forced to fall back. According to Davidson, “Every advantageous foot of ground from this point onward was warmly contested by them, my cavalry dismounting and taking it afoot in the timber and cornfields.” Steele’s infantry and artillery on the other side of the Arkansas fired on the Confederates as they passed. Steele reported that “the rebels held their position obstinately, until our artillery on the opposite side of the river was opened upon their flank and rear.”
Realizing that Davidson had flanked him, Price ordered Little Rock evacuated at 5 p.m. Two squadrons of the 2nd Iowa Cavalry charged through the Confederates and entered the city, which was formally surrendered at 7 p.m. Little Rock joined Nashville, Baton Rouge, and Jackson as captured Confederate state capitals.
Governor Harris Flanigan fled to Washington, Arkansas, to avoid capture. Steele planned to pursue Price the next day, but the Confederates had already gotten a big head start on their way toward Rockport and Arkadelphia, 60 miles southwest.
Major-General John G. Walker, serving under Price, criticized the commander for abandoning Little Rock and contended that “a resolute and enterprising General with a river in his front which his enemy must cross to attack him would have contested the crossing.” But E.K. Smith supported Price’s decision to withdraw as opposed to possibly losing his entire army.
With the captures of Little Rock and Fort Smith, three-fourths of Arkansas, including the vital Arkansas River, fell into Federal hands. This put the Federals in position to capture the remaining quarter of southwestern Arkansas, and then advance down to the Red River, which led into western Louisiana and eastern Texas.
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