August 18, 1863 (Tuesday)
General Sterling Price, commanding the Confederate forces at Little Rock, Arkansas, had been tasked with constructing a “San Jacinto defeat for every invading army that pollutes the soil” west of the Mississippi. Over the past couple of weeks, the possibility of this actually happening seemed less and less.
When Price first learned that Federal forces were marching into the state, he ordered a brigade to Little Rock, and a division to Bayou Meto, twelve miles east. Completely convinced that he could not hold the city with the force he had on hand, Price tried to get additional reinforcements, but there were none to be had.
As the Federals came closer and bypassed the Rebel cavalry, Price pulled John Marmaduke’s Cavalry back across the White River to Des Arc, east of Little Rock by fifty miles. When Marmaduke arrived, he was greeted with a note to send one of his brigades to Bayou Meto, where they were to be commanded by Marsh Walker. Marmaduke broiled at this thought.
There had been a feud simmering for months now. In April, Marmaduke had raided into Missouri with the hopes of bringing new recruits into the Southern army. He was, however, whipped and then routed by Federal Cavalry under John Davidson. A culmination of his superiors took the news badly and turned on Marmaduke. His immediate commander, Theophilus Holmes, wrote to Department Commander, Kirby Smith, trying to have Marmaduke replaced. Additionally, Sterling Price added his two cents to both Holmes and Smith, going on about Marmaduke’s “un-Christian” treatment of his beloved Missourians.
In came Marsh Walker, a general of little fame and even less talent. Rather than replacing the despised Marmaduke, Kirby Smith merely split Marmaduke’s command, giving half of it to Walker. This created two fairly small divisions of Cavalry, and one great division between the new officers. Actually, it drove an insurmountable wedge between pretty much everybody and John Marmaduke. In early July, Marsh Walker proved his apparent worthlessness and was accused by not only Marmaduke, but also Theophilus Holmes of dereliction of duty. Ignoring Holmes, his superior, Walker challenged Marmaduke to a duel, which did not at that time come to fruition.
Needless to say, that half of Marmaduke’s already small division was transfered to Marsh Walker’s command was more than infuriating. For the time being, however, he and his one remaining brigade hugged the White River at Des Arc, waiting for the Federals to make some sort of move.
And a move was just what the Federals were about to make. General Frederick Steele had gathered the aforementioned division of cavalry under John Davidson and two divisions of infantry at Clarendon, on the opposite side of the river, thirty miles south of Marmaduke. Marching, as Steele put it, “through a country almost destitute of water” had taken its toll upon Steele’s already small force, striking 1,000 to their sick beds. To care for them, he needed to establish a hospital. Not only did this take time, but it also took a bit of care.
First, he decided that he needed both side of the river to make this possible. But after discovering that the Rebels had pulled back, leaving only a company of pickets near the White River, he decided to cross. About ten miles upriver from his crossing was Devall’s Bluff, which Steele described “a more healthy location.” Besides, the route from Devall’s to Little Rock “possessed many advantages over the other as a line of operations.”
On this date, he send Davidson’s Cavalry across the White to scout in the direction of Devall’s and “to ascertain the position and intention of the enemy.”
While Davidson’s troopers crossed, Steele took stock of the situation as he saw it. Getting information about the Confederates wasn’t easy. From dishonest or ill-informed Rebel deserters, he learned that Kirby Smith and a rather large force had joined Sterling Price at Little Rock. He now believed, though falsely, that he was outnumbered. What he needed was at least another brigade of infantry, and perhaps some more artillery.
While Steele hoped that reinforcements could come quickly by steaming via the White River, he informed his corps commander, General Stephen Hurlbut at Memphis, “I do not intend waiting for them, but they can join us in time to prevent a failure of the expedition, in case we have been correctly informed in regard to the enemy’s strength.”
Though Steele could not know it, Price’s numbered amounted to around 8,000, and there was little hope of Confederate reinforcements. His own force, even though depleted by the sick, was at 10,000. His calls upon Hurlbutt for reinforcements had not been ignored. The following day, an additional brigade was to be loaded into transports, steamed from Memphis to Helena, Arkansas and then marched to Clarenden, where they would eventually meet up with Steele, en route to Little Rock.
Soon the Federals would be on the move, and the Rebels – even Marmaduke – falling back. Sterling Price, with his much smaller force, would have to decide whether to stand, fight and possibly lose his army, or live to fight another day.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, Part 1, p475, 484, 520-521; Part 2, p454-455, 457-458, 459, 461-462; Kirby Smith’s Confederacy by Robert Kerby. [↩]