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.
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.
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