Scouting, Crossing and Shotguns – Confederates Resist Federal Probes toward Little Rock

August 30, 1863 (Sunday)

General Frederick Steele, at your service.
General Frederick Steele, at your service.

The campaign in Arkansas had devolved into almost constant skirmishing as Union General Frederick Steele pushed towards Sterling Price’s Confederates near Little Rock. The standoff at Bayou Meto, three days since, had ended in a Rebel victory, in that Reed’s Bridge, which crossed the waterway was burned, and the Federals could not pass.

Leading the Northern van was the cavalry of General John Davidson, who had tangled with John Marmaduke’s and Marsh Walker’s Southerners at the bridge on the 27th. The day after, both sides seemed to take a step back, but on the 29th, it was business as usual, with all involved sending patrols and skirmishers in every direction. Miraculously, few, if any, of the foes met by chance. That, they saved for this date.

There were two main roads into Little Rock from the northeast. The more northerly, upon which the burned bridge once laid, had been tried by the Federals and found to be not much to their liking. The more southerly road was not a road at all, but the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad. The bridge spanning Bayou Meto, several miles downriver from the burned bridge, was itself out of commission. However, a road crossed nearby and provided a ford, named either Shoal (or Shallow) Ford. This road, appropriately named Shoal Ford Road, led west to the Arkansas River, seven miles away. There, it crossed at Terry’s Ferry, several miles downriver from Little Rock. Should the Federals push their way upon this path, Sterling Price’s Rebels might be outflanked and forced to abandon the city.

Today's big overview map of approximation.
Today’s big overview map of approximation.

It was up to John Marmaduke and Marsh Walker’s Cavalry to make this this didn’t happen. Since nobody had much of an idea which road Davidson’s Federals might take, patrols were sent again in all suspected directions. Specifically, this fell upon Col. Robert Newton of the 5th Arkansas Cavalry, who had taken part in the fighting at Reed’s Bridge on the 27th. General Walker had moved Newton’s regiment of 180 troopers to Shoal Ford Road following the skirmish. They encamped near Ashley’s Mill, four miles from the Arkansas River, and about that many miles from Bayou Meto, before advancing east toward Shoal Ford. On the morning of this date, Newton advanced, hold his eyes wide through the dawn.

Before reaching the ford, he encountered a Federal patrol, and dispatched a small party of his own to test their strenth. The Union troops hurried back, but were swiftly pursued by their Rebel counterparts. Retreating in a northerly direction, the Federals hastened to the railroad embankment, leaping over it for cover. Col. Newton and his Rebels followed, but shortly discovered a much larger force. How much larger, was anyone’s guess.

Newton could see that from the direction of Shoal’s Ford, the Federals were being reinforced with artillery and more cavalry. This was the brigade of Col. John Ritter, dispatched by General Davidson to probe the road leading from Shoal Ford to Terry’s Ferry. With nearly his entire brigade at hand, Col. Ritter advanced, crossing the tracks, moving south towards Shoal Ford Road before Col. Newton was able to assemble his entire regiment.

The action today takes place south of the railroad.
The action today takes place south of the railroad.

Ritter pushed back the Confederate skirmishers, who “resisted his advance almost at every step.” Seeing this very real retreat, though it may have been handled “with admirable courage and steadiness,” Col. Newton ordered forward all of the men under his command who were wielding long-range rifles. In the meantime, he got ready to retire, but resolved “to fight him as I fell back.”

Col. Ritter “now commenced using his artillery upon me very freely,” reported Newton, “and, although I had none to reply with, I continued the fight with my small-arms at every available point.” He also dispatched a courier to General Marsh Walker, requesting reinforcements.

This whole affair somehow lasted five hours. Newton had been pushed back to within a mile of Ashley’s Mills. Things were now dire, but thus far the Federals had merely skirmished. If Ritter decided to launch his entire brigade against this single Confederate regiment, there was little hope of holding Terry’s Ferry on the Arkansas River.

Col. Robert Newton
Col. Robert Newton

There had been a slight lull across the ground, and Col. Newton made the best of it. He hid two companies armed with shotguns to the edge of a woodlot, telling them to wait until the enemy got close to fire. The rest of his troops were in plain sight, and it was upon these that Ritter’s Brigade advanced.

Just as the Federals were upon them, the two hidden companies sprang up and raked their unsuspecting enemies. This was a smart bite, and Ritter had little desire to feel it again. Rather than approach from the front, he decided to slide two regiments on either of Col. Newton’s flanks. See this and knowing there was nothing he could do to prevent it, Newton ordered his men to withdraw to the area of Ashley’s Mill. He established another defensive line, and hoped that the Federals would not advance.

He and his 180 troopers were fortunate – Ritter’s Brigade was happy to come no farther. Nearer to dark, the Federals fell back to the other side of Bayou Meto, leaving a strong picket at Shoal Ford. It was then that reinforcements arrived from General Marmaduke. Newton used them the best he could, pushing them up to the Federal pickets, but with the light went the fighting.

The next few days would be spent in much the same way, each side testing the other.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, Part 1, p476, 485, 521-522, 536-537. []
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Scouting, Crossing and Shotguns – Confederates Resist Federal Probes toward Little Rock by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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