Civil War Battles
State War Records
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The loss of the forage train and the military embarrassment at the Battle of Poison Spring hit hard at Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele and his men. A supply train from Pine Bluff did arrive on April 20, but it carried only 10 days' worth of provisions. By this time, also, the Louisiana prong of the Red River Campaign had been thoroughly blunted by Union defeats at the Battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill.
Steele received notice that Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks was retreating; he heard rumors that 8,000 Confederates, led by Maj. Gen. E. Kirby Smith, had arrived in Arkansas to join the attack against him. Tensions had developed between his men and the citizens of Camden who, while adjusting to life with white occupation troops, resented Steele's black soldiers.
Finally, the Confederates were closing in and artillery had been moved up for an apparent bombardment of the town. He had to decide what was to be done before his command was immobilized by a breakdown in transportation and the consumption of his few remaining supplies. His only alternative to starvation and capture of his force was an immediate retreat to Little Rock.
On April 22, Steele had returned to Pine Bluff the convoy of wagons that had delivered his supplies in hopes of acquiring additional provisions. The 240 wagons were accompanied by approximately 1,400 men, mostly infantry regiments led by Lt. Col. Francis M. Drake. Maj. Gen. James E. Fagan, commanding 4,000 Confederate cavalry, learned of the wagon train's departure from Camden on April 24. He moved swiftly to go around the wagon train and to place his men between the train and Little Rock. The position he selected was at Marks' Mills, near the junction of the Camden-Pine Bluff Road and the Warren Road.
As the Union advance guard moved into view some 2 miles ahead of the train, Fagan's 2 divisions, led by Brig. Gen. Jo Shelby on the right and Brig. Gen. ?? Cabell on the left, launched an ill-coordinated assault at 8:00 A.M. Cabell, whose men spread out parallel to the Camden-Pine Bluff Road, moved too quickly, and the center of his division lagged behind his two wings. His initial advance successfully pushed the Union lines back beyond the wagons, but this exposed the center of his own lines to a deadly Union fire on his left flank. Consequently, the Union advance, joined by reinforcements, swarmed all over Cabell's men in fighting that lasted an hour and a half.
The Union reaction, while powerful, was equally ill-coordinated. Union regiments became separated and fought as single units rather than together. Cabell did his best to exploit the resulting Confederate advantage. The late arrival of Shelby's cavalry made the difference. Shelby's men had ridden in a wide semi-circle of nearly 10 miles around the Union left flank in order to position themselves between the Federals and the Saline River. They drove down the Camden Road to strike the flank and rear of the unsuspecting Federals. This charge sent the outnumbered Federals fleeing. In 5 hours, Drake surrendered. By that time, Fagan had 293 casualties (41 killed, 108 wounded, 144 missing), but the Federals had nearly 1,500, only about 100 killed.
The Confederates did not find any supplies in the wagons, but they gained materially from the fight.
On April 26, Steele slipped out of Camden toward Little Rock in the early morning hours. He chose to follow the Camden Trail, one of the 5 main roads in Arkansas, which crossed the Saline River at Jenkins' Ferry. Rain, muddy roads, and annoying encounters by Confederate skirmishers hampered them every step of the way. Steele had covered his retreat well and it caught the Confederates off guard.
On April 27, by 9:00 A.M., upon learning that Steele had left Camden, the Confederate Army, under Smith and Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, occupied the city and headed north after the Union column. If a Confederate force could get ahead of Steele and cut him off before he reached the Jenkin's Ferry on the Saline River, perhaps the entire army could be destroyed.
On April 29, after 3 days of forced marching through heavy rains, Steele arrived in Sandy Springs. Here he found formidable opposition, not from the approaching Confederates, but from the flooded river which lay in his path. The river was rising rapidly and Cox Creek was bank full. On either side of the swamp, ridges of high ground provided a sense of security before plunging onto the muddy road below. It was into this swamp that Steele's ill-fated wagon train was forced to enter. An India rubber pontoon bridge was set up at the ferry site and the army began to cross, 1 wagon at a time. Because of the heavy weight of the wagons and the poor condition of the road, the train bogged down in the mire stretching all the way from Sandy Springs to the river.
On May 30, Steele managed to get his cavalry, artillery, and most of his wagons across the Saline River by 8:00 A.M. The Saline River at Jenkins' Ferry was a little more than halfway between Camden and Little Rock. Shortly afterwards, the Confederates arrived. Steele immediately sent his men back down the Camden Trail to the rear of the slowly moving train to engage the Confederates. The Battle of Jenkins' Ferry had begun.
Steele's rear guard collided with Smith's Confederates in the Jiles' Field. The Confederates launched a series of violent but piecemeal attacks along the entire Union line. As the train slowly moved across the pontoon bridge at Jenkins' Ferry, the battle moved from field to field along the Camden Trail toward the Saline River. As Smith's Confederates continued to push down the Camden Trail through the muddy woods, they met stubborn resistance.
It was in the Jiles, Cooper and Kelley fields that both sides sustained most of their casualties. Generals as well as privates fell on both sides. Brig. Gen. William R. Scurry fell on the field. Col, and acting brigade commander, Horace Randal, Col. Hiram Lane Grinstead of the 33rd Arkansas Infantry, and Gen. Samuel A. Rice were mortally wounded.
The Union army, by this time, had managed to cross the river at Jenkins' Ferry. Steele destroyed his India rubber pontoon bridge and floated it down the river. Unfortunately, the bottom on the north side of the river was worse and the train promptly bogged down again. The Confederates were unable to immediately cross the river giving Steele needed time for his retreat.
By abandoning those wagons stuck in the mud, the train managed to reach the security of the high ground north of the river. Moving hurriedly from the high ground toward Little Rock, Steele ordered all unnecessary baggage destroyed. Wagons, ammunition, clothing and other supplies were dumped along the road. Whenever a wagon was fired or struck, most all of its contents were thrown into the water and mud. Smith had missed an excellent opportunity to crush Steele, and the Federals took advantage of Confederate errors and continue their retreat.
On May 3, despite Confederate resistance and the poor conditions of the road, the Union Army arrived in Little Rock. Steele was now out of danger, but he had paid a high price for the consolation.
The Arkansas and Louisiana phases of the Red River Expedition had been failures. Banks was pushed back into Louisiana and Steele was driven back in Arkansas. The southwest region of Arkansas remained in Confederate hands until the end of the Civil War.