Frederick Steele Finally About to Move

March 22, 1864 (Tuesday)

Price: I'd rather be in Missouri.
Price: I’d rather be in Missouri.

Even before the loss of nearly all of his cavalry, Confederate General Richard Taylor was planning on a retreat. This was, more than anything, at the behest of department commander, Kirby Smith. Hoping to swap territory for the time needed to concentrate his forces, Smith wanted Taylor to fall back upon Shreveport. This would hopefully enable troops from Texas and Arkansas to add to Taylors numbers.

Though his headquarters was in Shreveport, Kirby Smith was pretty convinced that Louisiana wasn’t worth saving; that Arkansas was the place to make the stand. “The only field for great results in this,” he had written to Taylor on the 13th, “is the District of Arkansas, and a concentration must be made there this summer for the recovery of the Arkansas Valley.” But that was well into the future. For the time being, Smith had ordered the Arkansas troops to Louisiana.

There had been a bit of recent drama in the command structure under Kirby Smith. Theophilus Holmes had been the district commander, which placed him at the head of the Arkansas troops. Smith had never really cared for him, but kept him around mostly due to lack of anybody else to do the job. Sterling Price, an infantry commander under Holmes, was granted a two-month leave of absence to join his family in Texas, where they had taken refuge with their slaves. While Price was gone, Holmes learned that Smith had asked President Davis to find a replacement for him (Holmes). This was more than enough to set Holmes to boiling, and on February 28th, he tendered his resignation.

Smith accepted, though didn’t really know where to turn, especially since General Price was on leave. Things sort of managed themselves for the next couple of weeks until, on March 16th, Price stepped into Holmes’ vacated position. This was but a temporary arrangement, as Smith though Price was even more unqualified than Holmes. For Price’s part, he didn’t want the job either, wishing instead to make a raid into his home state of Missouri.

Being quickly dragged back to reality, Price understood that his nearest threat was his greatest. While his men were encamped near Washington, Arkansas, in Little Rock, about 120 miles to the northeast was the Union Army of Arkansas, General Frederick Steele commanding. Originally, Price called upon Kirby Smith to call up troops from Texas so that he could launch an attack against Steele. The ultimate objective, after taking Little Rock, was to stab into Missouri, which was always Price’s go-to plan. Smith, whose machinations were more based in reality, explained that such a Texan force simply did not exist.

Here's a very approximate map.
Here’s a very approximate map.

While two Federal columns under Generals Nathaniel Banks and A.J. Smith were in or nearing Alexandria, Louisiana, Steele’s column had remained strangely aloof. This stillness stoked Smith’s desire for an offensive jab into Arkansas all the more difficult to cast away – much to the chagrin of Richard Taylor, who wanted to save Louisiana for the South. Kirby Smith seemed to have frozen. He had drawn already 4,000 troops from Price’s command, but they languished in Shreveport while he tried to figure out whether to send them to Taylor or back to Price.

Finally, on March 20th, Kirby Smith made up his mind, ordering Price’s troops south to Shreveport. He suspected that Steele’s Federals would be slow to move – if they ever did, and that the Yankees in Alexandria would begin their offensive north in short order. In short, Kirby Smith wanted Price to join Richard Taylor at Natchitoches, and if the enemy advanced from Alexandria, “bring matters to an issue, which he hopes will enable him to transfer a sufficient force to your district to regain the Arkansas Valley.” The Federals in Alexandria were the bigger threat, believed Kirby Smith, and wanted to vanquish them before retaking Arkansas.

This was fairly sound logic. While the other two Northern columns were in motion, Steele’s had moved not at all. But that was not for lack of prodding by Federal officers higher than Steele. The original plan, as settled by Nathaniel Banks, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Henry Halleck, very much involved Frederick Steele’s command. The problem was that Frederick Steele didn’t care for it. Steele figured that he simply wasn’t needed, that Banks and A.J. Smith had more than enough troops to best Richard Taylor.

Steele: I'd just rather not.
Steele: I’d just rather not.

Even with urgings from General Halleck in Washington on the 13th, from General Grant on the 14th and 15th. Three days later, Steele wrote to Grant as if he never received any of the communications, proposed “to concentrate my forces at Arkadelphia, about 10,000 strong, move from there on Camden and open communication back to Pine Bluff, and then move on Shreveport in time to co-operate with Banks at that point.” After a bit of complaining over horses and transportation, Steele acquiesced.”

Two days later, on the 20th, General Sherman piped up. “It is now too late to make preparations for the expedition which should have started on the 7th,” he wrote, referring to Steele’s complains over lack of transportation. He refused to give Steele anything until he knew “the cause of this delay.” Sherman was not letting Steele off the hook. On the contrary, Steele still had to follow orders, he just wouldn’t be receiving any help from Sherman.

Nevertheless, things were slowly coming together for Steele’s column. What transportation could be had was gathered, rations were cooks and everything, by this date, was set. The Army of Arkansas would step off the following day.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p684; Part 2, p576, 587, 602, 616, 646, 668, 1059-1060, 1062-1063; A Crisis in Confederate Command by Jeffery S. Prushankin; Kirby Smith’s Confederacy by Robert L. Kerby; General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West by Albert Castel. []
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One thought on “Frederick Steele Finally About to Move

  1. I can’t believe how many Union commanders suffered from “a case of the slows” – McClellan, Rosecrans, Thomas, Sooy Smith, and now Steele. My goodness. It makes me wonder if this was common to other wars too or if it was just particular to the Civil War.

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