April 10, 1864 (Sunday)
When last we visited with the Federal Army of Arkansas, Frederick Steele commanding, the Northern troops had just bested their Rebel counterparts along the Little Missouri River. Since then, however, much had changed.
The day following the battle, rumors held that the Confederates had retreated some, but were felling trees across the road and fortifying defensive positions on the bluff overlooking the river. General Steele had been waiting for an addition column to arrived from Fort Smith, under the command of John Thayer, but they were days overdue. Waiting much longer would only allow the Southerners to better their defenses and gather reinforcements. And so on the 6th, Steele made his move, and the Confederates manning the breastworks fell back to where no one could yet say.
Perhaps, however, it was already too late. Confederate General Sterling Price had taken command of the Rebel army, which was helmed by John Marmaduke. Arriving at their encampment at Prairie D’Ane on the 7th with two additional brigades, Price found the army “drawn up in line of battle at the west end of the prairie, where some rude and imperfect entrenchments had been thrown up.” To their front, a brigade of cavalry under General Joseph Shelby did their best to keep an eye on the Yankees.
From the 5th to the 8th, Shelby recalled that time “was spent in desultory skirmishing, with now and then an alarm, in which I formed my command in battle line.” Through the afternoon of the 9th, such was life along the Rebel picket lines. But even that was about to change.
On April 6th, a messenger came into Union General Steele’s headquarters, telling him that he had seen General Thayer’s Fort Smith column at Rockport, nearly fifty miles to the north. Rather than go forward with his attack, Steele decided to wait. The next day, as his skirmishers exchanged shots with Shelby’s Rebels, work parties were sent north to improve the road so that the Thayer’s column might have an easier go.
But their work was washed away by rain storms on the 7th. “Corduroying and bridges were afloat,” wrote Junius Wheeler, Steele’s Chief Engineer, “the whole bottom nearly was under water, and the Little Missouri was no longer fordable, having risen 3 feet.” Despite myriad muddy obstacles, a pontoon bridge was secured across the river and Thayer’s troops joined those under Steele on the 9th. And that night, they made their move.
Steele’s troops at first drove in the Rebels and overran Shelby’s encampment. The Rebel brigade formed a line of battle across the roads leading to Washington and Camden and received the Northern enemy. But there were too many of them. The Federal line overlapped Shelby’s, and tore into his ranks with fifteen pieces of artillery. But they did not retreat until it was dark, and the Union troops advanced only a half mile.
Figuring that the Confederates had slipped away into the dark, Steele ordered an advance, but found them drawn up once more. “For three hours more the fight went on,” recorded Shelby, “the whole heaven lit up with bursting bombs and the falling flames of muskets.” At the last minute, General Marmaduke recalled them, and they rejoined the main body, now much closer to the town of Washington.
By the dawn of this date, Steele’s army rested upon the road linking Washington with Camden. He had wished to invest Camden, but couldn’t risk leaving such a force as the one before him in what would become his rear if he moved in that direction.
He wanted to make a strike against them, and spent most of the day getting his troops into line. Around 1pm, General Frederick Salomon’s Division advanced. “I commenced to move forward and advanced some 4 miles or more to the prairie,” he wrote, “closing the day with a severe skirmish….”
Lt. Col. Adolph Dengler, whose exploits we have encountered before, continues the narrative, his regiment, the 43rd Illinois, at the front. “Dengler deployed a company as skirmishers and they “soon opened a brisk fire on the skirmishers of the enemy.” After about thirty minutes of exchanging fire, Dengler received orders from Salomon to advance his regiment toward the hill about a half mile before him. At some point, he fixed bayonets, and moved slowly, crossing a creek and maneuvering through the woods. Once across and in the open, Dengler “went in double-quick up the hill, the rebel skirmishers retreating rapidly.”
Now, with the support of the artillery, Dengler’s regiment took the hill, beating back the company or two of enemy skirmishers remaining. That night, the 43rd Illinois encamped upon that hill, and the Rebel artillery did its best to make them pay. Salomon ordered his own artillery not to return fire, and so eventually the Confederate lines, like the Federals’, fell silent.
The next few days would be spent by Steele preparing to attack Price, and trying to decide if he should just fall back to Camden. Price, however, might grow weary of the wait.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p674-675, 687, 695, 707, 729, 780, 824, 838. [↩]