‘Our Position Was By No Means a Safe One’ – Steele Prepares to Retreat in Arkansas

April 26, 1864 (Tuesday)

“At that time our force, acting as escort for the train, was surrounded and over a hundred of the wagons in the hands of the enemy. The rebel forces were under Shelby and Fagan. and at least 5,000 strong. He thinks the entire train and artillery is captured, and the escort, consisting of Colonel McLean’s brigade, are probably captured.” – Col. Powell Clayton to General Frederick Steele

Frederick Steele’s Army had its fair share of setbacks. After moving south from Little Rock, Arkansas, they had met scant resistance until nearing the Little Missouri River. After that, it was a running battle, with Steele’s forces gaining ground, and even capturing the former Confederate town of Camden, along the Ouachita River. But now, they found themselves unable to move forward. It wasn’t quite a siege, but their supplies had to be delivered by wagon trains coming from Pine Bluff, to the east.

James Fagan aka, the Rebel Monkeywrench
James Fagan aka, the Rebel Monkeywrench

On the 20th, his small army had received enough supplies to last ten more days. The wagons had arrived, unloaded, and were sent back to Pine Bluff to start the process all over again. Two days later, Confederate commander Kirby Smith, now personally overseeing the campaign, ordered his cavalry to play hell with the Union supply lines. On the 24th, they caught wind of the returning Union wagon train. “I made quick preparations for a move against it,” reported General James Fagan, leading the Southern troopers. They waited along the Saline River, near Mark’s Mill for the Federals to arrive, and when they did, Fagan attacked their camp, throwing two divisions at it from different sides.

“The enemy’s lines could not sustain the combined attack,” Fagan recalled. “They wavered and showed signs of giving way. Our brave troops moved upon them with terrible and crushing effect. It was not long before the enemy’s forces broke in disay and confusion, completely routed. Our victory was decided and complete.”

Fagan tallied the Union dead and wounded at 500, with over 1,300 captured. Along with them came “their entire train of 300 wagons, a large number of ambulances, very many small-arms, and 150 negroes.”

General Steele learned of this complete and decided Confederate victory on the evening of the 25th. That night, Steele called a council of war. No longer were there wagons to bring him supplies, and there was no way that his entire army could live off the land. What choice was before them but to retreat?

And so it was decided. They would vacate Camden, retreating through the town of Princeton, crossing the Saline at Jenkins’ Ferry, upriver from the site of the previous battle, and then back to Little Rock.

This decision was made all the easier by the news coming in from the Confederate camp. “Our scouting parties in the front,” wrote Captain Junius Wheeler, Steele’s Chief Engineer, “had succeeded in capturing prisoners who claimed to belong to infantry divisions of the enemy. Our spies, desertes coming into our lines, and stories told us by the residents of the country, all coincide that General Kirby Smith in person, with re-enforcements of infantry, had joined [Sterling] Price. Our position was by no means a safe one.”

Today's vague and approximate map.
Today’s vague and approximate map.

Previous to Kirby Smith’s arrival, the enemy consisted of mostly cavalry. Now, with infantry on the scene, it freed up nearly all the mounted Rebels, allowing them to play upon the Federal lines of communication. “It was evident that a crisis was at hand,” concluded Wheeler.

All throughout this date, Steele moved what supply wagons remained and much of his artillery east across the Ouachita River, hoping that the residents of Camden might not pay too close of attention.

“At nightfall,” continued Wheeler, “pickets were doubled, vigilance exercised, tattoo beaten and sounded at the usual time and in the same places, and the whole army commenced to move across the river. At daylight [the 27th] the whole army was safe and the bridge taken up and all on the road to Princeton.”

It was only then that the Confederates took notice, occupied the town, but could not give immediate chase, as Kirby Smith had left his two pontoon bridges back in Shreveport.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1, p665, 676-677, 680, 788-789. []
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‘Our Position Was By No Means a Safe One’ – Steele Prepares to Retreat in Arkansas by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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