‘Undaunted by a Most Destructive Fire’ – Victory Along the Saline

April 30, 1864 (Saturday)

Frederick Steele
Frederick Steele

“The command reached the Saline River on the 29th,” recorded Capt. Charles Henry, the Chief Quartermaster for Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas. Following their aborted attempt to join Nathaniel Banks along the Red River in Louisiana, Steele’s army had become holed up in Camden, Arkansas. When reports that Confederate reinforcements, fresh from the defeat of Banks, were now before them, and under the command of Kirby Smith, Steele decided to retreat. They left Camden by the morning of the 27th, stealing a march on the Rebels, and burning a bridge behind them. Following their egress, “a large number of animals had broken down on account of having no forage,” and the men were fairing little better.

The Saline River at Jenkins’ Ferry, where General Steele’s men were crossing was running high, and was, as Steele put it, “continually rising from the rain which continued to fall. From the same cause the bottom, being cut up by our artillery and baggage trains, was becoming almost impassable and required corduroying.”

While the artillery and wagons forded the stream, a pontoon bridge was laid for the cavalry and infantry, the former being the first to cross. “The pontoon bridge was laid and the crossing commenced,” continued Capt. Henry, “which continued through the night and the next day, over 4 miles of the worst swamps in Arkansas. Our rear guard was attacked before the bridge was laid….”

Troops advancing through the rain toward Jenkins' Ferry.
Troops advancing through the rain toward Jenkins’ Ferry.

Kirby Smith’s advanced troops entered Camden at 7am on the 27th, and lingered a day. “It took us all day and all night to construct a bridge over which the infantry could pass,” wrote Lt. Edward Cunningham, Smith’s aide-de-camp, in a captured letter to his uncle detailing the entire campaign. “At sunrise on the morning of the 28th,” continued Lt. Cunningham, “the troops commenced crossing. The enemy had twenty-six hours’ start of us. On the night of the 29th, the head of our infantry was at Tulip, 14 miles from the Saline, at Jenkins’ Ferry, and 40 miles from Camden. […] The rear of the enemy’s column had passed Tulip at 8 o’clock that morning. The Saline Bottom was, however, a quagmire 5 miles wide, and it was possible his trains had not been gotten over. We had but little expectation of getting a fight. Our pontoon train had not yet come up, and even with it we could not cross the river in face of the enemy.”

And so it seemed that the Federals had gotten away. The only hope was in the cavalry under General James Fagan, who had captured the empty Federal wagons on their trip to refill, and had thus convinced Frederick Steele that he could not last in Camden. But Fagan had not been heard from in days. Still, there was a chance that he had caught wind of the direction of Steele’s retreat, and was himself coming to fall upon the column.

Today's approximate map.
Today’s approximate map.

But soon, even that was given up. A message had arrived from General Fagan, in which he stated that he had tried to cross the Saline, but was now moving toward Arkadelphia for forage. He made no mention of Steele’s retreat.

From the dark of the 29th, until 1am on this date, Kirby Smith’s troops rested, though they were spread out over eight miles of road churned to small swamps. “At 1 o’clock the column moved forward through deep mud, rain coming down in torrents,” continued Lt. Henry. “At daylight the two divisions were up with the cavalry advance, having marched 52 miles in forty-six hours.”

No Confederate was surprised that the enemy’s skirmishers were waiting before the river. It made much sense to defend it. A few shots through the late morning were exchanged and the skirmishing drove the Union pickets back. “We could hardly believe there was any large force of the enemy on our side of the river,” admitted Lt. Henry. “The firing became more general, Churchill’s Division was thrown forward.”

But it was not nearly that simple. General Thomas J. Churchill received in quick succession three orders from Kirby Smith. First he was told to deploy a brigade as skirmishers, then ordered to send only two regiments forward, and lastly to throw out only one regiment. “It give me pleasure to say that the above orders were all promptly executed,” Churchill grinned in his report.

However many were deployed, they were soon hotly engaged. Churchill, following the last of the three orders, ordered General James Tappan to keep two regiments in reserve, while sending out a third as the main infantry skirmish line. “We had hardly finished building fires before we were ordered to advance,” recalled General Tappan, who also fell victim to Kirby Smith’s thrice-changed orders.

General Churchill
General Churchill

“The enemy’s skirmishers were posted on a line about the center of the field, their line of battle being in the woods at the end of the same. My command drove in their skirmishers and became heavily and hotly engaged with their main line.” General Tappan here discovered the Federals in numbers too great for his small brigade. He ordered his reserves forward and called for reinforcements from General Churchill.

But Churchill was watching. “Like veterans they moved steadily forward across an open field,” he remembered, “undaunted by a most destructive fire, with which the enemy met their advance.” He saw that he was outnumbered, and ordered the brigade under Alexander Hawthorn forward, “and gallantly did he come to the rescue. The firing, now incessant, was terrific, and the struggle was desperate beyond description. Still our brave and fearless troops maintained their ground and drove the enemy before them; but he was again heavily re-enforced, and being overpowered we slowly and stubbornly yielded the ground, inch by inch, after two hours of severest fight I ever witnessed.”

Map of the battle
Map of the battle

Churchill’s two brigades, having been pushed back, were now joined by a full division under General Mosby Parsons, who had been directed by Sterling Price to fall in on Churchill’s right. Passing by Churchill, Parsons was hailed and warned that it was not his right that was in danger, but his center and left. If not there supported, he would have to order a general retreat. Caring not to discuss this with Price, Parsons and Churchill decided on their own to do the needful.

Together they went forward. “The battle raged with the greatest fury along our entire line,” wrote Churchill, “and the roar of musketry was almost deafening. Nothing could surpass the valor and courage of our troops. They dashed forward with an impetuosity and fearlessness unsurpassed in this war, and it was not until their ammunition was exhausted that they were withdrawn.”

Churhill’s command, now out of ammunition, was replaced by a brigade under General Thomas Waul. Under orders from Kirby Smith, Waul’s Brigade advanced, falling upon the Federals. From the musketry to his right, Waul understood that he was not alone, that comrades from his own division were near. But two generals quickly fell, and there was confusion and hesitation on the battlefield. It was in this confusion that the Federals made good their escape. Waul’s Brigade advanced across the field to protect their wounded, but the enemy was gone.

Apparent sketch of William Elisha Stoker of Texas, dying on the battlefield at Jenkins' Ferry.
Apparent sketch of William Elisha Stoker of Texas, dying on the battlefield at Jenkins’ Ferry.

Each side claimed the victory, and both were in their way, not wrong. General Steele said little more than: “The enemy having disappeared from the field, our troops were withdrawn and passed over the bridge without interruption from the enemy.”

Kirby Smith, on the other hand, saw things a bit differently: “The complete success of the campaign [meaning the entire Red River Campaign] was determined by the overthrow of Steele at Jenkin’s Ferry.”

Following the battle, Kirby Smith and Richard Taylor, who had saw to Nathaniel Banks’ retreat along the Red River in Louisiana, began a heated brawl, each more or less accusing the other of ruining the other’s chances at glory. Taylor, who had by the beginning of June, surveyed the official Union reports, as well as Smith’s own, took great issue, and summarized not only the battle at Jenkins’ Ferry, but of the entire Red River Campaign:

“At Jenkins’ Ferry you attacked with your infantry alone. Nearly 8.000 men were not used at all, either in the fight or after it. This surplus of troops might well have enabled you to leave Walker with me. At Jenkins’ Ferry you lost more heavily in killed and wounded than the enemy. This appears from the official report of Steele, confirmed by our officers who were present. You lost two pieces of artillery, which the enemy did not carry off because ho had previously been deprived of means of transportation by Maxey and Fagan. He burned his pontoon for the same reason, and because after crossing the Saline he had no further use for it. He marched to Little Rock after the fight entirely unmolested. He would unquestionably have gone there had the fight never occurred. We do not to-day hold one foot more of Arkansas than if Jenkins’ Ferry had never been, and we have a jaded army and 1.000 less soldiers. How, then, was the ‘complete success of the campaign determined by Steele’s overthrow at Jenkins’ Ferry?’ In truth, the campaign as a whole has been a hideous failure.”

The Federals under Steele would return to Little Rock, just as those under Banks would return to New Orleans and Vicksburg.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, vol. 546, 547, 556, 669, 670, 680, 800-802, 806, 809, 816-817. []
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‘Undaunted by a Most Destructive Fire’ – Victory Along the Saline by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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