August 27, 1863 (Thursday)
When last we left off, the Federal campaign to capture Little Rock, Arkansas was coming along well, aside from the fact that General Frederick Steele believed he and his Army of Arkansas, was greatly outnumbered. In truth, he outweighed the 8,000 Rebels under Sterling Price to the tune of over 3,000 bodies.
By August 18th, General Steele had advanced west from Helena, and had just begun to cross the White River at Clarendon with just over half his force. The other column, commanded by the cavalry’s John Davidson, moved north from the crossing and occupied Devall’s Bluff.
General Steele had selected Devall’s Bluff as the spot for his hospital. The march through the sweltering heat with sparse water had taken a ghastly toll upon his troops, sundering nearly 1,000 unfit for duty. Four days later, Steele, his troops having hardly recovered, ordered Davidson’s cavalry to advance upon Brownsville, where the Confederate cavalry was in force. All along the way, however, General John Marmaduke and his Rebels harassed and nipped Davidson’s ranks.
Sterling Price’s Confederates had already been pulled back. Most were either in Little Rock itself, or manning the makeshift defenses at Brownsville, twenty-five miles closer to the approaching Federals. As soon as Price received word that Davidson’s Federals were coming, he sent word to Marmaduke to forget any plans of his own and report to General Marsh Walker at Brownsville. For Marmaduke, this was a bitter cut.
General Walker was seen by many to be unfit for his position. Yet John Marmaduke, who had commanded more or less successful independent raids on his own was ranked below him. Walker, who had shown up on the scene this past spring, was highly unwelcome. Half of Marmaduke’s original force was given to him, leaving him but two brigades. More recently, one of those brigades was ordered to Walker at Brownsville. This left Marmaduke with a single brigade. The only upshot was that he was still mostly independent. With Price’s orders of the 23rd, however, that cherished independence was dashed away.
The next day, he was with Walker at Brownsville, commanding again his two brigades, but still rankled. Walker moved off with his troops, taking a position roughly ten miles south. On the 25th, Davidson and Marmaduke finally clashed.
It was anything but a fair fight. The Federals, with 5,000 troopers, attacked Marmaduke’s 1,100. Before the full weight of Davidson’s assault came upon them, Marmaduke abandoned the Brownsville defenses. It wasn’t a route or even a retreat, but a well-managed withdrawal, keeping the Union troops at bay and making them think twice about pursuit.
This bought time enough for Marsh Walker to meet up with Marmaduke and create a new line of battle four miles closer to Little Rock. The new defense was upon a crucial intersection. From the south, Walker’s troops and supplies would be arriving. It was necessary for Marmaduke to hold the road until they were safe.
“The enemy came upon me,” reported Marmaduke, “and were handsomely repulsed.” The reprieve was short, but still long enough to save Walker’s trains. When Davidson’s Federals hit them again, overlapping both their right and left flanks, Maramaduke could do nothing more than retreat. A brigade took up the chase, but with the fall of night, the Federals returned to Brownsville, while Walker and Marmaduke established yet another new line at Bayou Meto, twelve miles east of Little Rock.
On the morning of this date, following a day of preparation and rest, Generals Walker and Marmaduke had established their main lines on the south side of Bayou Meto. With the sun, they threw a couple of regiments across Reed’s Bridge to meet the coming Federals.
The Confederate resistance was stiff, and the ground was poor for an attack. Davidson could field only one brigade, with the others falling in behind as reserves. The Federal cavalry advanced both mounted and dismounted, firing as they could. Marmaduke’s troops were ousted from their most forward position and then from the next. Before the bridge, they had scraped out some impromptu works, and put up a solid fight.
When the Rebel infantry and artillery caught sight of the Union troops, they let loose a fire that threw the attackers back, and allowed the outnumbered advance troops to scurry quick over the bridge, which was ignited after their passing. With the bridge “handsomely burning,” as Marmaduke put it, the Federals formed their lines.
“A dash of the First Iowa Cavalry,” wrote General Davidson after the fray, “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.”
With the setting of the sun, the skirmish was ended. The Federals, as Marmaduke recorded, “failing to occupy the river, returned after a heavy loss, leaving a number of their dead on the ground.”
If true, that number was seven killed. Thirty-eight others were wounded in the affair, including twenty-five from the 1st Iowa Cavalry – who also lost two killed in the dash. The Confederates failed to record their losses, but it’s probable that the Federal attackers suffered greater.
That night, Marmaduke and Walker were ordered to retire to the outskirts of Little Rock, where Sterling Price’s infantry were waiting for the inevitable.1