April 4, 1864 (Monday)
The Federal brigade under Adolph Engelmann hardly slept. Surrounding them, every forest sound, every twig snapping, every cricket, could have been a Rebel. They bivouacked near Spoonville, Arkansas, having skirmished their way north from the Little Missouri River. They moved away from the main body of Frederick Steele’s Union Army of Arkansas, which was advancing south to eventually aid Nathaniel Banks, now occupying Natchetoches, Louisiana. Engelmann had been detached to see if anything could be discovered about another Federal column under John Thayer moving from Fort Smith. They were to have met Steele’s command at Arkadelphia four days prior, but no word had been heard of them since.
Before dawn they awoke, expecting a battle. But the first slivers of dawn, revealed no enemy before them. Col. Engelmann dispatched several squads of cavalry, but they came up only with straggling Rebels who busied themselves by burning cotton so it might not fall into Federal hands. Another patrol of cavalry was sent to dismantle a nearby steam mill, while still another was sent toward Arkadelphia to see what might have become of General Thayer and his band from Fort Smith.
The Confederates that had been before Engelmann were gone by morning because they had been recalled by General John Marmaduke, commanding his division. With General Steele’s main Federal body at Elkin’s Ferry along the Little Missouri, he established a defense at that crossing, placing two brigades close enough to meet any move by Steele’s Yankees.
To General Marmaduke’s perception, Steele began to cross his entire force at Elkin’s. His line, with Colton Greene’s brigade on the left and William Cabell on the right, with some artillery peppered here and there, could field far fewer than could the Federals. But as the enemy emerged from the ford, Marmaduke ordered an attack.
Behind Union lines the night previous, Col. William McLean, commanding on of Steele’s brigades, believed he was about to be assailed by the Rebels across the Little Missouri. A number of Confederates had been rounded up that day, and he had learned that Marmaduke himself was just across the water. And so he ordered three companies each from the 36th Iowa and the 43rd Indiana to take a position on the main road leading from his camp to the crossing. There, under the command of Lt. Col. Francis Drake, they spent the night as pickets, watching for any movements of the Rebels.
When Lt. Col. Drake arrived at the ferry, from a quick observation, he could tell that the Rebels were spoiling for an attack. Believing it would not come that night, he ordered most of his men to get any sleep they could, while keeping the rest on lookout. At 4am, he ordered them to rise and make breakfast. There would soon, he surmised, be a battle.
“Soon after daylight,” reported Drake, “the enemy engaged the cavalry pickets, and almost simultaneously made a determined effort to turn my left flank.” Drake sent skirmishers to his left, and another company front. Still more Rebels could be seen advancing through a nearby orchard.
“The engagement was now becoming very warm,” Drake continued, “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.” With that, Drake sent word to Col. McLean, telling him that his six companies were tangling with at least 2,000 Confederates. Reinforcements were needed at once.
Their comrades, helmed by Lt. Col. Drake, still clung for life as “a strong effort was now made by the enemy to turn my right flank.” He moved forward a company to protect it, but it was the last of his reserves. “My whole force was now deployed,” Drake wrote, “covering the enemy’s front, and the engagement was general along my entire line.”
Along with Drake’s command came two pieces of artillery under the care of Lt. Peetz. They had been placed to command a wide view of the crossing, but had remained silent thus far. “I now called upon Lieutenant Peetz to open upon them with his battery,” continued Drake, “which he had barely commenced doing when the enemy opened upon us with four field pieces, and for near one hour from this time the engagement on both sides was very severe.”
Drake’s troops were holding their own, 300 men against several times their number. They had lost ground, to be sure, falling back fifty yards in rear of their previous night’s camp. But here a strange lull ensued. “Taking advantage of which,” Drake wrote, “I ordered my line to advance to our old position and take the men’s knapsacks, which had been left on the ground where we encamped, now in possession of the enemy. The men went forward, retook their knapsacks, and Company D, Captain Hale, captured while doing so Lieutenant Fackler, an aide-de-camp of General Marmaduke.”
It was around this time that Col. McLean finally received the call for reinforcements. He then ordered the rest of the 36th Iowa, Col. Charles Kittredge commanding, to join the defense. Col. Kittredge rode forward to speak to Drake, “who was gallantly holding his ground against such immense odds.” As the two spoke, Marmaduke’s captured staff officer was brought forward.
Shortly after, McLean came up in person, as it seemed proof enough that Marmaduke himself was close at hand. And now McLean called upon his immediate commander, for reinforcements. Salomon quickly dispatched two regiments, but it would take time for both to gather themselves and arrive.
As the Rebels, at this point, seemed to be holding back their own advance, McLean ordered Kittredge’s Iowa regiment to lie down. This did not sit well with Kittredge, but he followed the order and waited for the next, allowing them to aid their comrades.
This thrust forward to retrieve their knapsacks actually drove the Rebels back a bit. “We were now in possession of the ground held by us at the commencement of the engagement,” recalled Drake, “and were fully assured from appearances that so far the enemy had received more than he had bargained for.”
But this would not last. Peering around, Drake was certain that the Rebels were about to post artillery on his flanks to enfilade his position with a deadly crossfire. At once, he sent skirmishers in both directions, and both soon found that he was not wrong:
“The enemy had posted a piece of artillery in front of each of my flanks, and with a cross-fire and a direct fire from his four pieces of artillery commenced raking the wood with solid shot, grape, and shell, while his combined forces in one continuous line rushed upon us, firing volleys of musketry and yelling like demons. For some time we held a perfect line, falling back slowly, and contesting every inch of ground, expecting support, until my line on the left of the road, being forced into an open field, gave way entirely, and fell back on their reserves. I now determined to hold my position on the right of the road at all hazards until re-enforced.”
But where were the reinforcements? Twice he had called, and even though he had parlayed with Col. Kittredge, he was as yet unaided. But Kittredge had been ordered to lie down by Col. McLean, and obeyed, though unwillingly so.
“The firing now being brisk and the battery fully occupied,” reported Col. Kittredge, “I advanced my line of battle a few steps, my right resting directly upon the left of the battery, the men lying down as before, being slightly protected by a rise in the ground directly in front.” The fighting became fierce and drew closer.
“I became satisfied,” continued Kittredge, “they were charing upon the battery, and as they made their appearance in the open ground, I ordered my command to stand a fire. Our battery now limbered up and retreated across the creek in our rear. I, however, poured in a few well-directed volleys, which sent the enemy back as rapidly as they had advanced a few moments before. The firing now nearly ceased on both sides.”
To Lt. Col. Drake, Kittredge’s support seemed much less impressive: “About the time my left gave way, Colonel Kittredge took a position with the balance of the Thirty-sixth Iowa in rear of the field, and repulsed the enemy’s charge on my left.” But to Kittredge, Drake was a hero. He concluded his report by stating that “Drake especially deserves honorable mention for the gallant manner in which he performed his duties.” Kittredge was, apparently, not prone to gushing.
By the end of the battle, Drake’s line had fallen back to a position nearly parallel with Kittredge’s line. But they had held without reinforcements, which were just now arriving.
“Immediately after the charge and repulse of the enemy,” reported Col. McLean, “the re-enforcement sent for by me arrived.” Two regiments from General Samuel Rice’s brigade finally wandered onto the field, “but before they were put in position by him [Rice], the enemy withdrew, not, however, until a grape-shot from their battery had inflicted a slight wound upon the general’s head, from the effects of which I am gratified to say he has recovered.”
The casualties were light on both sides, with the Federals tending to only 30 wounded (and apparently none killed), while the attacking Rebels suffered 18 killed and 50 wounded.
Through the afternoon and evening, no word had returned concerning the whereabouts of General Thayer and the column from Fort Smith. General Steele, having been fed reports of the day’s battle, then determined to rest yet another day in wait.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p696, 705-706, 709, 710-711, 721, 823, 831-832, 838. [↩]