Catching Up with General Steele in Arkansas

April 1, 1864 (Friday)

By this time, most of Nathaniel Banks’ troops had left Alexandria, Louisiana on their tramp north toward Shreveport. Thus far, the plan was running a bit behind, but two of the columns, the first under A.J. Smith, the second under Banks himself, had united and were pushing forward (more or less) as one. The third column, which was to descend from Little Rock, Arkansas, was a bit slower still.

Slow and (sort of) steady Frederick Steele will win the race!
Slow and (sort of) steady Frederick Steele will win the race!

Under the command of General Frederick Steele, the Army of Arkansas (basically, the Seventh Corps, 13,000-strong) had left Little Rock on the 23rd of March, reaching Arkadelphia, along the Washita River, seventy miles southwest, five days later. General Banks was, by this point, wondering whether Steele was going to show up at all.

“My forces are moving on Shreveport,” he relayed to Steele, “the advance probably now above Natchitoches. The gun-boats are reconnoitering the river below. Please inform me as to your positions and intentions.” Messages sent between Banks and Steele took about a week to arrive, so trying to coordinate any sort of meeting was nearly futile.

After his late start, Steele didn’t have the easiest of times. The rains had churned the roads away from Little Rock to mud, forcing a halt until they could be corduroyed – a detail of Colored Troops hewing trees and placing them across the path. After crossing the Saline River, things got worse.

Wheeler was a fine engineer and writer.
Wheeler was a fine engineer and writer.

“Upon leaving the bottom,” reported Captain Junius Wheeler, Steele’s Chief Engineer, “we met with long and steep hills of a stick red clay, which clung to the wheels with great tenacity, and to overcome it the animals had to exert their utmost strength. So exhausted were the mules that they were unable to make but a short march.”

On the 26th, three days after leaving, having traveled only forty-five miles, they arrived in Rockport, finding it “almost entirely deserted.” But here they found a plateau of “quite high, but gently rolling ground.” After scouting for a place to cross the Washita River, Captain Wheeler discovered a ford a mile and a half below the town. As its deepest depth reached no more than thirty inches, here the whole army could cross.

But the river was rising quickly. The rains that had inundated them soon after leaving Little Rock were finally flowing into the rivers. Wheeler’s discovery was found too late, and by the time Steele’s army was ready to cross, the river was flooding and a bridge had to be laid.

Wheeler placed it just above the ford, which would allow the infantry and artillery to utilize the dry span while the cavalry and wagons slogged and splashed through the deepening water. After all had passed, the entire 217 foot bridge was dismantled and loaded on wagons to be used again.

Before the advance, the Confederates gave little resistance. From time to time, there was skirmishing, but the main column never saw it as they continued toward Arkadelphia.

A very approximate map.
A very approximate map.

The next day, the army reached Bayou Roche (literally meaning Rock River). “We found Bayou Roche well named,” continued Captain Wheeler, “for the ford was quite deep and filled with boulders of considerable size.” Still, they crossed with little trouble. Another creek, the Caddo, was scenic, but the company of pioneers had to cross it in an old ferry boat and quickly constructed another bridge – not even touching the bridge the army was dragging behind them. There, the infantry crossed and finally made it to Arkadelphia on the 29th.

The town of Arkadelphia was situated on a bluff, high above the Washita River. “Everything in and around this place indicated its former prosperity,” wrote a colonel under Steele’s command, “the fine residences a little dilapidated and neglected, perhaps, but still bearing signs of better times; its extensive trade, both by river and land, for the steamboats run on the Washita up to this place during two-thirds of the year, and it was also the great thoroughfare to Texas. The sterile lands and deserted farms which we had met thus far on our march gave way to a fertile country and cultivated lands; the marks of war, although visible, were not so legibly written on this portion of the country as on that through which we had passed.”

Inside Arkadelphia itself, the colonel continued, “had been their principal army depots. Here was a powder mill, different machine-shops, and the valuable saltpeter and salt works, from which a great part of Arkansas was drawing this indispensable article.”

General Thayer is hurrying along (mostly).
General Thayer is hurrying along (mostly).

By this date, General Steele expected to unite with a second column coming from Fort Smith on the western Arkansas border. Steele sent scouts in the direction he expected the addition troops to be coming, but by this date had heard nothing in reply. Though Steele could not know this, General John Milton Thayer had changed from his intended route. This threw off Steele’s messengers and would took the two out of communication for several days to come.

For several days they waited and rested, finally giving up upon Thayer. Deciding to move again on this date, Steele had a choice before him. He was, according to orders, to march from Arkadelphia to Camden, which was nearly due south. There were three roads leading from his present stop to his next, but when he sent scouts to reconnoiter, he found that none suited his needs. The main road was found to be heavily guarded by Confederates at a nearby river crossing.

Steele instead decided to march southwest on Washington, still sending a sizable party down the main road to Camden to throw off Rebel scouts. On this date, they stepped off, encamping twelve miles away at Spoonville.

For several days they waited and rested, finally giving up upon Thayer. Deciding to move again on this date, Steele had a choice before him. He was, according to orders, to march from Arkadelphia to Camden, which was nearly due south. There were three roads leading from his present stop to his next, but when he sent scouts to reconnoiter, he found that none suited his needs. The main road was found to be heavily guarded by Confederates at a nearby river crossing.

Steele instead decided to march southwest on Washington, still sending a sizable party down the main road to Camden to throw off Rebel scouts. On this date, they stepped off.

John Marmaduke - spreading them out and drawing them back.
John Marmaduke – spreading them out and drawing them back.

Though the Confederates might have been thrown off by Steele’s movements, they were not for long. Under General John Marmaduke, several dispersed brigades were closing in, with three to the Federals’ front, and one to their rear. Expecting the Yankees to take the main road, Marmaduke placed a brigade at the Little Missouri River crossing above Camden (which caused Steele to try another route).

After the Federals arrived in Arkadelphia, Marmaduke tried his best to get his brigades into place, but by this date, they realized that Steele was already on the move. Shortly after the Federals vacated the town, an advanced detachment of the Rebels, who were coming in on their rear, entered town, capturing a dozen soldiers straggling behind. Too exhausted to continue on, the Confederates halted.

The other brigades moved in, with one skirmishing in Steele’s front. By nightfall, Steele was in Spoonville, and Marmaduke was completely aware of it. Apart from the Confederate brigade to Steele’s front, Marmaduke had another eight miles to the east. He had already surmised that Steele was headed south to reinforce General Banks, and decided then to moved swiftly upon him.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p657, 659, 661, 665, 673, 731-732, 780, 821, 831, 836; Part 3, p7, 33. []
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Catching Up with General Steele in Arkansas by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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