September 10, 1863 (Thursday)
In the several days that had passed since Confederate General John Marmaduke killed fellow cavalry commander Marsh Walker in a mutually agreed upon duel, Sterling Price did what he could to ready his 7,000 men at Little Rock, Arkansas for the coming Federal assault. Through the 8th and the 9th, Frederick Steele’s Union forces searched for a spot to lay a pontoon bridge across the Arkansas River a few miles downstream of the city. This was contested by the Rebel Cavalry and the going was slow, but by nightfall on the 9th, it was pretty clear that come morning, there would be a new span across the river somewhere.
In preparation, Union Generals Steele and John Davidson (who commanded the cavalry, which comprised almost half of Steele’s force of 12,000), met to discuss their options. It was decided that while Steele moved on the Rebel works opposite Little Rock on the north side of the river, Davidson would cross his troopers and storm up the south bank to assail the city itself.
Through the long night, Davidson made certain his men were ready to move at early dawn. Steele had given him a brigade of infantry, which he placed above the crossing to offer a covering fire. In addition to the muskets, two batteries of artillery were also arrayed against the Rebels on the other side.
The Rebels on the other side were under the command of Col. Archibald Dobbin, who had taken the reigns from the fallen Marsh Walker. Dobbin had precious little time to prepare. He had spent the past few days skirmishing with the advancing Yankees, who eventually pushed him to the south side of the Arkansas.
While Davidson and Steele spent the night of the 9th planning their attack, Dobbin continued the skirmishing with the Federal lead elements. Word came in that the Federals were at Terry’s Ferry and seemed about to build a bridge. He also received word that the enemy was at Buck’s Ford, two miles farther downriver. There, myriad campfires were set, and there, Dobbin moved his artillery, believing that the Federals would certainly cross in the morning.
Dobbin left his camp before light and rode upriver, passing Terry’s Ferry, to a point two miles above it. There, he found the actual Federal pontoon bridge. The sun was just rising, and exposed the work, which was being constructed in horseshoe bend on the river. Immediately, he called upon a section of artillery to make hot for the Yankees. But the twelve gun reply was much hotter and the Federals swept the field.
Four miles downriver, at Buck’s ford, Davidson’s troopers were feigning a crossing. The campfires were real enough, but all part of the deception. Still, this pinned down another of Dobbin’s batteries, and he was left with only one cannon to contest the bridge crossing. The lone piece of artillery, however, lasted two hours under strafing enemy fire before it had to leave. While he withdrew his guns, he recalled his men from Buck’s Ford below, bringing his number to 1,200.
As soon as the Rebel artillery was removed, Davidson’s Federals crossed the completed bridge. The advance regiment of cavalry was followed by the infantry and then artillery. The rest of the Federal cavalry crossed soon after. Dobbin fell back fighting five miles upriver and closer to Little Rock, coming to a stand along Bayou Fourche. The Federals were following closely, but had still not fully come up.
Around 2pm, John Marmaduke arrived with orders from Price to assume command. His men, along with Price’s infantry, had been manning the defenses opposite Little Rock, on the north side of the river. Marmaduke was to hold the Federals in check below the city, while Price evacuated the defenses and abandoned the north bank.
When Marmaduke arrived, he found the Yankees drawn up in line of battle, their right flank secure upon the Arkansas. Before long, the Federals tried to turn the Confederate left, also along the river. The vicious fighting lasted about thirty minutes, but the Rebels held, even counterattacking to take two pieces of Union artillery. The victory, however sweet, was short lived, and soon the Federals rebounded and began to slowly push the Rebels back toward Little Rock.
“Every advantageous foot of ground from this point onward was warmly contested by them,” wrote Davidson, “my cavalry dismounting and taking it afoot in the timber and cornfields.” As they advanced, General Steele’s artillery, from across the river, followed the retreating Confederates, who were receiving hell from both ends.
Davidson soon received word that Price had withdrew his Rebels from the defenses across the river. Steele’s men had advanced, but it wasn’t enough to keep them in place. Now necessarily cautious, Davidson advanced slowly, never knowing when Price’s entire force would be thrown at him.
As the day drew on, and his men pressed farther, Davidson became almost sure that Price wasn’t about to launch a strike. Emboldened, he ordered one of his brigades to make “vigorous advance.” They did and knocked the Rebels back to within two miles of Little Rock. To finish the deal, he sent another brigade forward, which finally threw Marmaduke’s men to the bounds of the city. With a last dash, two squadrons of Iowa Cavalry, swords drawn and screaming, galloped into the streets.
Sterling Price had ordered his men out of the city at 5pm, soon before Davidson’s final push. The city of Little Rock was formally surrendered at 7pm. Shortly after, Steele’s infantry column joined with Davidson’s Cavalry. Together, they planned a pursuit for the next morning.
However dogged the pursuit would be, it would be quite a while before they caught up with Price’s Rebels, who would reach Arkadelphia, sixty miles southwest on the 14th.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, Part 1, p486-488, 522, 524-525, 534. [↩]