August 13, 1863 (Thursday)
Though things in the Confederate West were going poorly, things in the Confederate far West were even worse. Since the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, the General Kirby Smith’s Department of the Trans-Mississippi, consisting of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri, was essentially lopped off from the rest of the country.
This caused the governors of the four states (which included Missouri’s exiled Thomas Reynolds) to issue an address to people, hoping to convince them that all was not lost.
The governors concluded that the loss of the Mississippi River interrupted communication between the two sections and forced each to rely “mainly on its own resources.” Though things seemed dark, the governors were at least outwardly convinced that it was not so.
“We now are self-dependent, but also self-sustaining,” they insisted. They had indeed opened factories to cast artillery, make arms, powder and more. Cotton was plentiful, as was food. They were, claimed the governors “able to conduct a vigorous defense, and seize occasions for offensive operations against the enemy.”
This might not have been exactly true – since the fall of Vicksburg, Confederate currency deflated, while prices for flour, boots, horses, and everything from essentials to buttons soured out of control. Even the price for substitute conscripts had risen to $3,000.
Nevertheless, the governors insisted that “there is everything thing to incite us to renewed efforts, nothing to justify despondency.” This, they accredited mostly to Kirby Smith, deemed “active, intelligent, and with the prestige of uniform success in his undertakings.” They were certain that he would receive “the zealous support of every patriot.”
This wasn’t exactly true, either. Desertions were taking a much larger toll on Confederate units than was either bullets or disease. It reduced brigades to the size of small regiments, as the success of initial deserters convinced others to join the flight. In late July, Arkansas’ Governor Harris Flannagan authorized the enlistment of any able bodied white man between the ages of sixteen and sixty. Almost nobody showed up. Union female spies in Little Rock reported that there were countless deserters from Sterling Price’s Confederate army “fleeing like rats from a falling house; they give the rebellion up, and express a determination to return to their homes.”
The governors continued, allowing that the foe was “powerful and haughty,” and wanted not only to “coerce us into submission, but to despoil us of our whole property, and subject us to every species of ignominy.” They admitted that everyone had to do their part. Every man had to fight, even woman had to plow the fields, every boy had to defend his home while his father was at war. “Western skill and valor will prepare a San Jacinto defeat for every invading army that pollutes the soil of this department.”
Military operations, thus far, were limited to small affairs, such as raids into Kansas and trying to keep the Natives true Gray. There was, however, a brewing Federal plan to take the Arkansas capital at Little Rock. It had been in the planning since July, and did not, by this point, escape General Kirby Smith’s “active, intelligent” eyes.
Left to defend the state was Sterling Price, as Theophilus Holmes, once department commander, was home sick. Even Price could tell that something strange was happening. At Little Rock, he ordered defenses to be built and for his cavalry to patrol. Mostly, however, he just made speeches as his men left like “rats from a falling house.”
The increased Federal activity caused plantation owners to drive their slaves away from whatever path the Federals might take. Little Rock wasn’t quite abandoned, but most things of value soon were slipped away to safety, as cotton was burned and the telegraph dismantled.
Price, as he was always trying to do, originally planned to storming north into Missouri and recapturing the state for the Confederacy. On paper, he claimed to have 19,000 troops, and was convinced that he could pull it off. Word, however, was leaked in mid-July and soon every Federal in the far West not specifically tied to General Grant’s Army at Vicksburg, was set in motion.
This led to the creation of the Union Army of Arkansas, commanded by Frederick Steele. This army, along with support from Stephen Hurlbut’s Corps out of Memphis, and three brigades of cavalry under John Davidson, was to destroy Price’s army and campaign. The plan was a simple one. Davidson’s Cavalry (maybe 6,000 troopers) was to slow Price’s advance, while Steele’s Army of Arkansas (only about 7,000 men) marched from Helena towards Little Rock.
After Davidson’s Cavalry was mostly in place, and right before Steele’s Army was to step off, it finally dawned on the Federals that maybe Sterling Price was boasting. The Federal cavalry scouts reported that there was little, if any movement. The Rebel cavalry was still in their camps, and the infantry was digging trenches northeast of Little Rock. This was hardly the behavior of 19,000 men on a campaign to retake an entire state. In truth, General Price had less than half the number he claimed, and almost none of the will to make good on his boast to wrest Missouri from Northern clutches.
Soon, news reached Price that the Federals were probably planning an invasion. General J.S. Marmaduke’s Rebel cavalry was sent to guard Jacksonport, nearly 100 miles northeast, while a brigade of infantry was set to defend Clarendon, seventy miles to the east. Little Rock, however, was the point to where all would fall back.
Over the first two weeks of August, Davidson’s Federal cavalry simply bypassed Marmaduke’s Rebels at Jacksonport, causing the loss of not only that town, but of Clarendon as well. In this bloodless defeat, the Confederates north of Little Rock fell back to Bayou Meto, twelve miles east of the capital. Soon, Davidson would occupy Clarendon and Steele’s Army would join them. Only time would tell if Sterling Price truly could indeed “prepare a San Jacinto defeat” for the invading Federals.
The Confederate governors were left with little choice but to turn to God:
“In the darkest hours of our history, the protection extended to us by Almighty God has been so manifest, as even to be acknowledged by candid foes. Their victories have been to them as fruit turning to ashes on their lips; our defeats have been chastenings to improve us and arouse our energies. On His help and our own right arms we steadfastly rely; counting on aid neither from the policy of neutral nations, nor from the distractions in the midst of our enemies, we look confidently forward to the day when thirteen confederate States will in peace and safety occupy their right position among the great powers of the earth.”
- Sources: Address of the Rebel Governor, August 13, 1863, as printed in The Rebellion Record, 1863, Document 121; Kirby Smith’s Confederacy, The Trans-Mississippi South, 1863-1865 by Robert L. Kerby. [↩]