‘An Almost Impenetrable Thicket’ – Skirmishing Through the Arkansas Hills

April 3, 1864 (Sunday)

Frederick "The Man Of" Steele
Frederick “The Man Of” Steele

General Frederick Steele and his small army weren’t exactly surrounded, though the Confederates under John Marmaduke were doing the best they could. Both forces in southern Arkansas were woefully under staffed and exhausted from well over a week’s worth of hard marching. Steele had descended from Little Rock, while Marmaduke’s three brigades emerged from their winter quarters at Camden.

By the 1st, (as we covered), Steele had made it past Arkadelphia, and Marmaduke was scrambling his dispersed troops to hit him in his front, flank and rear. On the 2nd, the Rebels made their move. General Joseph Shelby, commanding a brigade under Marmaduke, scrambled from Arkadelphia, hitting the Federal rear guard. There was some tough scrapes, but the Confederates were eventually repulsed. Steele’s cavalry, riding well to the front of the southern-moving column, scouted for Marmaduke’s two other brigades under Colton Green and William Cabell.

Steele had his choice of roads, and quickly sent the cavalry around the Rebel flank, seizing Elkin’s Ferry on the Little Missouri River, and later fortifying it with a brigade of infantry. With the road to Washington more or less secure, Steele could once more focus upon his rear, where the Rebels under Shelby were reorganizing for an attack.

Adolph Engelmann
Adolph Engelmann

In some attempt to throw the Confederates off their trail, Steele sent cavalry and infantry under Adolph Engelmann forward on the main road, while the rest of his command headed for Elkin’s Ferry. Engelmann’s Brigade went into camp near Okolono, just upriver from the rest of the army.

“We had but just arrived, at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, at Okolona, a small village of only few houses,” wrote Adolph Dengler of the 43rd Illinois, “when we were attacked by the enemy. Companies E, F, H, and K were deployed as skirmishers, but the enemy quickly retired, Company K alone coming up with his skirmishers, exchanging several hundred shots with him without any casualties on our side.”

With that, the men of Engelmann’s Brigade bedded down for the evening, sleeping little as the Rebels hovered around their lines.

Here's a map. It's as approximate as I could get it.
Here’s a map. It’s as approximate as I could get it.

On the morning of this date, the skirmishing commenced almost immediately. Continuously, Engelmann’s troops were engaged as they marched back towards Spoonville. They had been sent back north by General Steele to find out something – anything – about the column of troops from Fort Smith commanded by General John Thayer.

Thayer’s troops had taken a detour on their way to Arkadelphia, where they were supposed to meet with Steele on the 1st. Thayer had not bothered to tell Steele about it, and so confusion was the rule of the day. It was hoped that since Thayer would be coming down behind the Confederates nipping at Steele’s rear, he might be able to brush them aside.

But first, Engelmann’s Brigade had to brush away the Rebels at Okolona.

“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. About noon the enemy made a strong effort to advance and compelled Captain Campbell [of Company B] to fall back a little toward the foot of the hill in a rather unfavorable position. The enemy poured upon our lines a heavy fire at this time, and Private Samuel S. Roberts, Company B, was wounded – shot in the left side, ball passing through and lodging in his knapsack.”
-Col. John Garrett of the 40th Iowa

Engelmann’s Federals gathered their strength, brought in their reserves, and advanced, driving the enemy before them. Col. Garrett believed that his troops might have shot a Rebel or two, but couldn’t be certain.

Another regiment, the 27th Wisconsin, drove the Confederates to their front as well. “I ordered a forward movement,” wrote Col. Conrad Krez. “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.” Two from that company fell dead before “a heavy thunder-storm broke out and interrupted further operations.”

Adolph Dengler believes that there's more than enough room in the brigade for two Adolphs.
Adolph Dengler believes that there’s more than enough room in the brigade for two Adolphs.

In all, three men were killed and seven were wounded. Engelmann believed that the Rebels loss “was by far more severe than our own.” When the rains let up, and rations were issued, it was around 4pm. Engelmann’s Brigade finally advanced.

The brigade found the roads to be in a horrible condition, and it was dark before they even reached the main road between Washington and Arkadelphia. There, they again encountered the enemy, though only a thin skirmish line. He formed his brigade into a line of battle, but nothing came of it. Almost in their lines, they bivouacked for the night, expecting to be attacked come dawn.

General Marmaduke spent the day with General Cabell at Antoine, on the main road between Washington and Arkadelphia. Until the afternoon, he had little clue as to the location of Steele’s main body. There was skirmishing here and there, all along the Little Missouri, but it provided no assurance. Around 2pm, he learned of the skirmish at Okolona, and for a short time believed that to be where Steele’s forces were concentrated. But shortly after, his pickets that were stationed at Elkin’s Ferry scurried back to his headquarters, telling him that a small force of Yankees where there.

But this only led to his further confusion. By evening, he placed Cabell’s and Greene’s Brigades near Elkin’s Ferry, but spread them out to sufficiently cover any of the river crossings Steele might use the following day.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p674, 720-721, 727, 732, 738, 742, 823. []
Creative Commons License
‘An Almost Impenetrable Thicket’ – Skirmishing Through the Arkansas Hills by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by