Category Archives: Arkansas

The Red River: Federal Disaster Looms

May 2, 1864 – Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas began returning to Little Rock, while Federal naval forces on the Red River in Louisiana were in grave danger of being stranded in shallow water.

Rear Adm D.D. Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

By the beginning of May, the Federal mission to capture the vital cotton-producing city of Shreveport via the Red River and Arkansas had failed. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf was back where it started at Alexandria and Steele, who had been expected to meet Banks at Shreveport, was retreating from Camden to Little Rock. These two forces retreated intact, but Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Federal naval flotilla on the Red River faced potential destruction.

The river had been falling for weeks, and the vessels that had moved upstream now did not have deep enough water to get back down. In late April, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey had put Federals to work building dams that would raise the water and, when burst, create a current large enough for the vessels to float over the jagged rocks in the riverbed and steam to safety.

The Federals working to get the squadron downstream were under constant attack from Confederates on shore. The Confederates destroyed the Federal transport Emma at David’s Ferry, 30 miles below Alexandria, taking the captain and crew prisoner. A few days later, they captured the Federal transport City Belle at the same spot and took over a third of the 700 troops aboard prisoner (the rest jumped overboard to escape). Meanwhile, guerrillas clashed with Federals around the plantation of Louisiana Governor Thomas O. Moore.

At Dunn’s Bayou below Alexandria, Confederate infantry and shore batteries attacked the Federal transport Warner and her gunboat escorts, the U.S.S. Covington and Signal, as they rounded a bend. The Warner carried Ohio troops going home on furlough as a reward for reenlisting. She was immediately disabled and grounded in a bend near Pierce’s Landing.

The Confederates then disabled the Signal, forcing her to surrender when the Covington lost most of her crew and ran out of ammunition. In the first five days of May, Confederates had inflicted nearly 600 casualties while destroying two gunboats and three transports.

Maj Gen Frederick Steele | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

During this time, Steele’s demoralized Federals straggled back to Little Rock from Camden. In his mission to advance to Shreveport, Steele never even got out of Arkansas due to lack of supplies and Banks’s failure in Louisiana. Steele’s army sustained 2,750 casualties while losing nine guns and nearly 700 supply wagons. In his report, Steele called his campaign the “Camden expedition” without acknowledging that it was supposed to have been the “Shreveport expedition.”

Steele’s retreat allowed General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, to shift his primary focus from Arkansas to Louisiana. Smith issued orders for his Confederates at Camden to move “by the most direct route to Louisiana” to confront both Banks’s dispirited army and Porter’s vulnerable flotilla.

Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, commanding the Louisiana district under Smith, notified him that the Confederate victory at Dunn’s Bayou had turned the lower Red River into “a mare clausum. Forage and subsistence of every kind have been removed beyond the enemy’s reach. Rigid orders are given to destroy everything useful that can fall into his hands. We will play the game the Russians played in the retreat from Moscow.”

As Confederate troops hurried from Arkansas back to Louisiana, Bailey’s Federals continued working to dam the 758-foot-wide Red River. By the 8th, the dam had been built on either side of the river, leaving a 150-foot gap in the center. This raised the water level high enough for three of the lighter-draft gunboats (the U.S.S. Fort Hindman, Neosho, and Osage) to go through the upper falls, just before the dam.

On each dam wing, Bailey directed the sinking of two stone barges to raise the water even higher. However, two of the barges broke loose under the pressure, allowing a massive flood of water to surge through the chute in the center. Porter quickly ordered the three gunboats, along with the U.S.S. Lexington, to try passing on this wave. The Lexington tried first.

According to Porter, the timberclad “steered directly for the opening in the dam, through which the water was rushing so furiously that it seemed as if nothing but destruction awaited her. Thousands of beating hearts looked on anxious for the result; the silence was so great as the Lexington approached the dam that a pin might almost be heard to fall.”

The Lexington, “with a full head of steam on, pitched down the roaring torrent, made two or three spasmodic rolls, hung for a moment on the rocks below, was then swept into deep water by the current and rounded to, safely, into the bank. Thirty thousand voices rose in one deafening roar.” The next three gunboats also passed safely, after which Bailey’s Federals began working to shore up the dam for the rest of the flotilla to pass.

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References

Davis, William C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 106-07; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 619-20; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 399-400; 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 1609-29, 1658-717; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 427, 429; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 65, 68; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 490-91, 493; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 195

Arkansas: The Jenkins’ Ferry Engagement

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.

Confederate General E.K. Smith | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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.”

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References

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

Arkansas: The Marks’ Mills Engagement

April 25, 1864 – Confederates tried to intercept a force searching for supplies to feed the hungry Federal troops isolated at Camden.

Major General Frederick Steele, commanding the Federal Army of Arkansas, had been ordered to move south and join forces with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf at Shreveport. However, Steele was holed up at Camden after being defeated at Poison Spring, and he was still unaware that Banks had ended his drive on Shreveport and retreated back down the Red River.

General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, reacted to Banks’s retreat by transferring three divisions from Lieutenant General Richard Taylor’s Confederate army in Louisiana to Major General Sterling Price’s force in Arkansas to increase the pressure on Steele. The arrival of Confederate reinforcements, which were positioned between Camden and Little Rock, indicated to Steele that Banks’s campaign had failed.

On the 20th, Steele’s Federals received much-needed supplies from Pine Bluff, which would keep the army going another 10 days. This convinced Steele that he could get even more supplies from Pine Bluff if he sent a wagon train to collect them. He dispatched 240 empty wagons, guarded by nearly 1,600 infantry and cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel Francis M. Drake.

Three days later, Steele received a message from Banks written from Grand Ecore, urging Steele to join him there: “If you can join us on this line, I am confident we can move to Shreveport without material delay, and that we shall have an opportunity of destroying the only organized rebel army west of the Mississippi.” To Steele, this officially confirmed that Banks’s drive on Shreveport had failed.

Gen J.F. Fagan | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Steele replied, “Owing to contingencies, it is impossible for me to say definitely that I will join you at any point on the Red River within a given time.” As Confederates from Louisiana continued moving into Arkansas, Confederate Brigadier General James F. Fagan learned that Steele had sent out a wagon train, and, “I made quick preparations for a move against it.”

On the morning of the 25th, Fagan’s 4,000 cavalry under Brigadier Generals William L. Cabell and Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby moved out. They took positions along the Saline River, overlooking a clearing called Marks’ Mill. Drake’s Federals entered this clearing at 8 a.m., and Fagan’s dismounted troopers attacked their front.

The Federals repelled the attack, but then Cabell’s Confederates hit their right flank. This sent the Federals reeling back toward their wagons, with both sides trading artillery fire in the process. Suddenly, Shelby’s troopers appeared and struck the Federal left, and Drake now faced assaults from three sides. After holding out for about four hours, the Federals surrendered. According to Fagan:

“The enemy’s lines could not sustain the combined attack. They wavered and showed signs of giving way. Our brave troops moved upon them with terrible and crushing effect. It was not long before the enemy’s forces broke in disarray and confusion, completely routed. Our victory was decided and complete.”

Fagan estimated that his men captured about 1,300 Federals, “their entire train of 300 wagons, a large number of ambulances, very many small-arms, and 150 negroes.” The remaining Federals were either killed, wounded, or escaped back to Camden. Many Federals accused Drake of “leading them straight into ambush by his dithering indecisiveness.”

Colonel Powell Clayton reported to Steele: “At that time our force, acting as escort for the train, was surrounded and over a hundred of the wagons in the hands of the enemy. The rebel forces were under Shelby and Fagan, and at least 5,000 strong. He thinks the entire train and artillery is captured, and the escort… are probably captured.”

This became known as “the slaughter at Marks’ Mills,” and it left Steele even more dangerously isolated. Ironically, had Fagan followed Smith’s orders and simply isolated the Federals at Camden, he might have starved Steele into surrendering his entire force. But instead he merely captured a detachment and left the bulk of Steele’s army intact.

Steele held a council of war that night, where he explained that without the Pine Bluff wagon train, supplies would soon run out. It was therefore decided to end efforts to get to Shreveport and turn back to Little Rock. As Steele’s chief engineer wrote:

“Our scouting parties in the front had succeeded in capturing prisoners who claimed to belong to infantry divisions of the enemy. Our spies, deserters coming into our lines, and stories told us by the residents of the country, all coincide that General Kirby Smith in person, with re-enforcements of infantry, had joined Price. Our position was by no means a safe one. It was evident that a crisis was at hand.”

The Federals began moving their remaining supply wagons and guns across the Ouachita on the 26th, and the troops began crossing that night. By next morning, they were marching through Princeton and crossing the Saline River at Jenkins’ Ferry, farther upstream from Marks’ Mills. Confederates quickly reclaimed Camden, and the “Camden expedition” of the Federal Red River campaign was over.

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References

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; 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 1465-84; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 422-24; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-65; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 488-89; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 252

Red River: The Poison Spring Engagement

April 17, 1864 – Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas ran into trouble trying to collect supplies outside Camden, Arkansas.

Maj Gen Frederick Steele | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Steele’s Federals, now holed up at Camden, were originally supposed to go to Washington, and then to the Red River to link with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf at Shreveport. Steele explained to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck why he went to Camden instead: “Our supplies were nearly exhausted, and so was the country. We were obliged to forage from five to 15 miles on either side of the road to keep our stock alive.”

Situated on the Ouachita River, Camden had a port where Federal steamers could deliver supplies to Steele’s exhausted, hungry troops. However, an accident had occurred between two steamers, delaying the arrival of the much-needed provisions. This threatened to starve both the soldiers and civilians in the town.

Steele responded by directing Colonel James M. Williams to seize corn stored on White Oak Creek, about 20 miles up the Prairie d’Ane-Camden road. Williams led 695 Federals, including 438 men of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers, with two guns and 198 wagons they hoped to fill. After traveling 14 miles down the road, Williams directed his men to bivouac for the night while a detachment continued the last six miles to seize the corn.

The detachment returned around midnight with full wagons. At dawn on the 18th, Williams and his men began their return to Camden. They were joined by about 500 reinforcements and two more guns, giving Williams a total of about 1,170 men and four guns.

When Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke learned of Williams’s expedition, he mobilized his 1,700 Confederate cavalry to stop him. Brigadier General Samuel Maxey’s infantry division reinforced Marmaduke, increasing the force to about 3,335 men. The Confederates left Lee Plantation and took positions on either side of the road near Poison Spring, about 10 miles from Camden. Maxey took up positions to the left of the road, while Marmaduke’s men held the right.

At 10 a.m., skirmishing began about a mile east of Williams’s main column heading back to Camden. Williams ordered his men to form a defense line, with the 1st Kansas in the center and cavalry on both flanks. The Federals opened with their artillery, but the Confederates did not respond to avoid revealing their strength.

Maxey’s Confederates advanced around 10:45 a.m., but the Federals pushed part of his line back. Marmaduke’s men rushed forward to fill the void, and both sides traded fire for nearly an hour. During this time, Williams did his best to guard the wagon train, but he was greatly outnumbered.

Suddenly, six Confederate guns opened on Williams’s rear, catching the Federals in a murderous crossfire. The survivors of the 1st Kansas fled, with some finding protection in a nearby marsh before eventually fleeing back to Camden. Fighting ended around 2 p.m. Marmaduke wanted to pursue and destroy the Federals, but Maxey, the ranking officer on the field, overruled him.

The Confederates seized all 198 wagons which, according to a soldier, were “laden with corn, bacon, stolen bed quilts, women’s and children’s clothing, hogs, geese, and all the et ceteras of unscrupulous plunder.” This enraged the Confederates and led to witnesses accusing them of killing Federal troops, particularly the black men of the 1st Kansas, after they surrendered.

Some alleged that the Choctaw Indians under Maxey’s command had taken the scalps of their victims. According to Colonel Tandy Walker, commanding the Choctaw brigade in Maxey’s division:

“… the train fell into our hands, and soon a portion of his artillery, which my troops found concealed in a thicket near the train. I feared here that the train and its contents would prove a temptation too strong for these hungry, half-clothed Choctaws, but had no trouble in pressing them forward, for there was that in front and to the left more inviting to them than food or clothing–the blood of their despised enemy. They had met and routed… the despoilers of their homes, and the murderers of their women and children.”

The Confederates asserted that the 1st Kansas suffered a large casualty percentage because they bore the brunt of most of the fighting, and many of the soldiers had refused to surrender upon demand. The Federals sustained 301 casualties, or about 26 percent of Williams’s command, as well as all four guns. The 1st Kansas suffered a 42 percent casualty rate, with 117 blacks killed and 65 wounded. The Confederates lost 114.

This was the first Confederate victory since Steele’s Federals had begun this campaign last month. It greatly boosted Confederate morale, which had been crippled by all the past defeats in Arkansas. It also prevented much-needed supplies from reaching the Federals, who remained hungry in Camden. Steele learned soon after this disaster that Banks had abandoned his drive on Shreveport, leaving him isolated in the hostile territory of southern Arkansas.

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References

Davis, William C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 106-07; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 394; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 588-90; 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 1445-75; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420-21; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 486-87

Arkansas: The Prairie d’Ane Engagement

April 10, 1864 – Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas clashed with Confederates while trying to move south and join forces with the Federals at Shreveport.

Maj Gen Frederick Steele | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Steele’s 8,500 Federals had left Little Rock to support the Red River campaign, but Confederates in Arkansas tried to stop them. After failing to prevent the Federals from crossing the Little Missouri River, Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke’s Confederate cavalry fell back to the rugged wilderness of Prairie d’Ane. The troopers were joined by Major General Sterling Price, commanding the District of Arkansas, and two infantry brigades.

Following the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Price had decided to send no more troops to Louisiana and instead turn his full attention to the Federals in Arkansas. Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, commanding the Confederates in Louisiana, deeply resented this move because he wanted to pursue and destroy Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf and reclaim his home state.

Price reported that the Confederates were “drawn up in line of battle at the west end of the prairie, where some rude and imperfect entrenchments had been thrown up.” Brigadier General Jo Shelby’s brigade patrolled the Confederate front for several days; Shelby wrote that the time “was spent in desultory skirmishing, with now and then an alarm, in which I formed my command in battle line.”

Steele had been waiting for reinforcements from Fort Smith, led by Brigadier General John M. Thayer, and he finally received word that they had been sighted. Steele opted to wait for Thayer and fortify his position before advancing against the Confederates.

Rain washed the Federal defenses away on the 7th, as Steele’s chief engineer wrote, “Corduroying and bridges were afloat, the whole bottom nearly was under water, and the Little Missouri was no longer fordable, having risen three feet.” With no forage in this unforgiving region of Arkansas, Steele’s men and animals went from half to quarter-rations.

The Federals built a pontoon bridge that Thayer used to join Steele on the 9th. However, the arrival of Thayer’s men only added to Steele’s supply shortages and did nothing to relieve him from the constant harassment by nearby Confederate troopers. Steele therefore decided to push through the Confederates in his front to get to Camden, where he could receive supplies via the Ouachita River.

Steele’s men clashed with Shelby’s pickets that night, and Shelby reported, “For three hours more the fight went on, the whole heaven lit up with bursting bombs and the falling flames of muskets.” The Confederates fell back toward Washington, and by the morning of the 10th, the Federals held the road from Washington to Camden.

Steele could not turn east toward Camden without risking being attacked from the Confederates in his rear to the west. Thus, he directed Brigadier General Frederick Salomon’s division to confront the enemy on the western edge of Prairie d’Ane. Salomon reported at 1 p.m., “I commenced to move forward and advanced some four miles or more to the prairie, closing the day with a severe skirmish…”

The Confederates fell back, but as they did they drew the Federals further into the forbidding wilderness of the prairie and away from their potential supply base at Camden. Skirmishing continued for the next several days that cost Steele valuable time, men, and materiel.

The Federals finally disengaged and turned east toward Camden on the 12th. Price’s Confederates advanced into Prairie d’Ane the next day and clashed with the Federal rear guard under Thayer. Steele feinted toward Washington while continuing toward Camden; Price had pulled his troops out of Camden because he believed that Steele would target Washington.

Camden had been a strong Confederate base in Arkansas, and when Price realized that Steele was heading there, he scrambled to get his troops back to the town first. Price dispatched Marmaduke’s cavalry and Brigadier General Thomas Dockery’s infantry brigade to race the Federals to Camden. Steele reported:

“When they found we had turned this way, they tried to beat us here. Marmaduke got in our front and Dockery in our rear, by the middle and north roads, and endeavored to hold us until Price could get into the fortifications by the south road with his infantry and artillery.”

The Federals hurried east, “driving Marmaduke before us from position to position.” Price was receiving reinforcements from the Indian Territory, and three divisions from Taylor in Louisiana were on their way. However, the Federals won the race, with the vanguard reaching Camden on the 14th and the rest of the army getting there the next day.

According to Steele, “There are nine forts on eminences, and they seem to be well located. Strategically and commercially, I regard this as the first town in Arkansas.” Steele acknowledged that he was still expected to continue south and capture Shreveport, but he stated that it was “all important to hold this place.”

Steele became even more hesitant to leave Camden when he learned that Banks had retreated after the Battle of Pleasant Hill. However, Price was gathering his Confederates to either force Steele out or cut off his supply line.

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References

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; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 391; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 588-90; 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 1109-19, 1416-46; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 416-17, 420; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 63-64; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 485

Arkansas: The Elkins’ Ferry Engagement

April 4, 1864 – Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas encountered resistance while trying to cross the Little Missouri River en route to their rendezvous point at Shreveport, Louisiana.

Maj Gen Frederick Steele | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Steele had left Little Rock in March to link with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Red River expeditionary force. Steele had resisted joining with Banks due to a large Confederate cavalry presence and a lack of adequate forage in southern Arkansas. But he complied with orders nonetheless, advancing to Arkadelphia unopposed.

Steele expected to link with Brigadier General John M. Thayer’s cavalry force heading east from Fort Smith. But when there was no sign of Taylor after three days, Steele’s Federals resumed their southwestern movement toward Washington. The supply shortage began taking its toll, just as Steele had feared, and his men and animals went on half-rations. From Washington, Steele hoped to move east to Camden to collect more supplies via the Ouachita River.

Part of Steele’s mission was to keep the Confederates in Arkansas from moving south to oppose Banks. Steele seemed to succeed when Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke brought his Confederates out of winter quarters at Camden to confront the Federals. Marmaduke had been ordered by Major General Sterling Price, commanding the Confederate District of Arkansas, to prevent the Federals from crossing the Little Missouri River on their way to Washington.

General John S. Marmaduke | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Marmaduke moved out with three cavalry brigades under Brigadier Generals Jo Shelby and William L. Cabell, and Colonel Colton Greene. Marmaduke planned a three-pronged assault on Steele’s front, flank, and rear. On the 2nd, Shelby’s Confederates attacked the Federal rear guard but were repulsed.

While Marmaduke’s other two brigades tried getting into position, Steele fortified his flank by securing Elkins’ Ferry on the Little Missouri. The bulk of Steele’s army advanced via Elkins’, and a detachment under Colonel Adolph Engelmann moved down the road to Washington before halting for the night at Okolona.

The next morning, a Federal brigade moved north from Okolona toward Spoonville to try finding Thayer’s lost cavalry. The Federals ran into Confederate horsemen, and fierce skirmishing ensued. Colonel John Garrett of the 40th Iowa reported:

“At 9 a.m., as the brigade was about ready to start back to Spoonville, a sharp fight was opened on our picket-line. My regiment was ordered into line by direction of Colonel Engelmann, commanding brigade… Advancing a short distance they met the enemy in the brush and behind logs, and by a few well-directed shots drove them back, following cautiously and firing as opportunity offered.”

Colonel Conrad Krez of the 27th Wisconsin wrote:

“We cleared the rise of the ground, which was covered with an almost impenetrable thicket of hawthorn. The enemy fell back to the other side of a clearing on high ground, and the ravine dividing that clearing from another hill running parallel with the road, where they maintained a heavy fire immediately in front of the three companies deployed by me, and at that time opened with artillery and threw grape and canister to the right of Company G… a heavy thunder-storm broke out and interrupted further operations.”

The fight ended with the Confederates falling back in the rain and the Federals holding their ground. Other skirmishing occurred along the Little Missouri, as Marmaduke traveled with Cabell in an effort to get between Steele’s main force and Washington.

Marmaduke’s Confederates tried stopping the Federals from crossing the Little Missouri at Elkins’ Ferry on the 4th. Lieutenant Colonel Francis Drake was assigned to lead several companies from the 36th Iowa and the 43rd Indiana in guarding the road from the ferry crossing to the Federal camp. Drake reported:

“Soon after daylight, the enemy engaged the cavalry pickets, and almost simultaneously made a determined effort to turn my left flank. The engagement was now becoming very warm, and my men were falling wounded on my right and left, but by a very determined effort we finally succeeded in driving back the rebel column into the woods in front of the orchard.”

Drake’s six companies of 300 men were heavily outnumbered by about 2,000 Confederates closing in on him. The rest of the 36th Iowa came forward, and the Federals made a brave stand that finally drove the Confederates off, despite still being outnumbered. More Federal reinforcements arrived after the Confederates had fallen back. Colonel Charles Kittredge of the 36th Iowa reported, “Drake especially deserves honorable mention for the gallant manner in which he performed his duties.”

This engagement enabled the rest of Steele’s forces to cross the Little Missouri. The Federals sustained about 30 casualties, while the Confederates lost 68 (18 killed and 50 wounded). When Steele received news of the fighting, he opted to hold his positions while continuing to wait for Thayer.

General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, expressed dismay that Steele had been allowed to cross the Little Missouri. Steele’s Federals were now more than halfway to their goal of reaching Shreveport. Smith had originally planned to defeat Banks and then turn to defeat Steele, but this compelled him to focus on Steele first.

The Confederates fell back to defensive works between Washington and Elkins’ Ferry, on the western fringe of Prairie d’Ane.

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References

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; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 389, 391; 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 773-83, 1367-77; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 414, 416; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 63-64; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 480

Red River: The Federal Two-Pronged Advance Finally Begins

March 24, 1864 – Major General Frederick Steele’s Federals finally began moving out of Little Rock, and Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federals finally reached Alexandria.

Maj Gen Frederick Steele | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Steele reported that his Army of Arkansas (officially the 3rd Division of VII Corps) numbered about 7,000 men, and that it was inadequate to support the Red River campaign as ordered. Steele argued that Banks’s Army of the Gulf, which numbered about 27,000 men, was strong enough to take care of itself, and moving through southern Arkansas would be treacherous due to lack of forage.

Finally, after repeated orders from his superiors, Steele agreed to move south. He told Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant on the 18th that he planned “to concentrate my forces at Arkadelphia, about 10,000 strong, move from there on Camden and open communication back to Pine Bluff, and then move on Shreveport in time to co-operate with Banks at that point.”

When Steele requested more horses for transportation, Major General William T. Sherman, commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, replied, “It is now too late to make preparations for the expedition which should have started on the 7th.” Sherman would not provide Steele with any horses until he explained “the cause of this delay.”

Finally, Steele assembled his army and prepared to move out of Little Rock on the 23rd, a week and a half after being ordered to move by Grant. He planned to link with Federals from Fort Smith under Brigadier General John M. Thayer at Arkadelphia, which would increase the force to about 10,400 men. Steele continued complaining that he lacked food for his men and horses, and Confederate cavalry regularly assailed his flanks.

In Louisiana, Banks arrived at Alexandria on the 24th, a week behind schedule. Banks learned that water levels on the Red River were lowering, which could potentially hamper naval operations. Meanwhile, Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal naval squadron, reported that his vessels had seized over 2,000 bales of cotton, along with vast amounts of molasses and wool, since entering the Red. All goods had been sent to Federals downriver or destroyed.

Confederate General E.K. Smith | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, did not believe that Louisiana could be held. He therefore ordered Major General Richard Taylor to withdraw his Louisiana forces to Shreveport and await reinforcements from Texas and Arkansas. These forces would then move north and join with Major General Sterling Price’s troops opposing Steele in Arkansas. Smith had previously told Taylor, “The only field for great results in this is the District of Arkansas, and a concentration must be made there this summer for the recovery of the Arkansas Valley.”

Price’s Confederates were stationed near Washington, Arkansas, about 120 miles southwest of Steele’s Federals at Little Rock. Price urged Smith to send him all troops from Texas and Louisiana so he could move north, defeat Steele, and then continue north to regain his home state of Missouri. Smith explained to Price that the numbers needed for such a campaign were not available.

As more intelligence was received, Smith came to believe that Steele posed no major threat, and Taylor’s assertion that Louisiana could be saved was correct. Smith therefore pulled 5,000 Confederates from Price’s army under Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill to reinforce Taylor. Smith then began arranging for the rest of Price’s men to join Taylor at Natchitoches, and if the Federals moved north from Alexandria to confront them, “bring matters to an issue.”

Smith resolved to defend Shreveport, the military, political, and economic center of his Trans-Mississippi Department. This would involve defeating the strong Federal force coming up the Red River first, and then turning north to defeat Steele’s weaker force in Arkansas.

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References

Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 473-74; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20604-13; Davis, William C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 106-07; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 619-20; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 387-88; 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 609-19, 1348-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 411; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 51, 54, 63; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 476-77