Author revisits Civil War battle at Jenkins Ferry

By Wayne Bryan Published May 4, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Nick Hillemann

Joe Walker, a Civil War enthusiast, amateur historian and author, poses with several of the artifacts recently found at the Jenkins Ferry site where Confederate and Union forces waged a battle roughly 150 years ago during thunderstorms and heavy rain.

At about 11:30 Wednesday morning, Jenkins Ferry State Park was cool and quiet. The only sounds were those of the occasional vehicle passing along Arkansas 46 and birds singing in the woods across the muddy and swift Saline River.

But standing with Joe Walker, a Civil War enthusiast, amateur historian and author, one could almost hear the sounds he was hearing as he looked northward into the woods.

“At this time 150 years ago, the Battle of Jenkins Ferry was underway,” he said. “It was pouring rain. Right here where we stand in the park, the horses and wagons that had crossed the river with the Federal Army were being organized to evacuate north toward Little Rock.

“Out there, a Confederate Army of almost 10,000 men was advancing. The air would have been filled with smoke from musket and rifle fire. The roar of the gunfire and the shouts of men fighting could have been heard, but over their sounds would have been the screams of the wounded on the field and in the Union hospital in the Taylor House over the river.”

Walker stood gazing for a bit longer, as if he would see and hear the battle, then cleared his throat and walked to one of the picnic tables in the small park 12 miles from Sheridan.

He picked up a bullet that had been fired during the battle, one of many that have been recovered over the years.

“This is a .58 caliber bullet, more than a half-inch wide,” he said. “It could hit with such a force. They have figures that more than 1 million of these were fired during the battle.”

This was the site of the biggest battle of the Camden Expedition, a move by the Union Army to go from Little Rock down into Texas to capture what was said to be vast supplies of cotton, as the textile mills of the North were running out of the “white gold” that fed their industry.

While the order for the mission had come directly from President Abraham Lincoln, Gen. Fredrick Steele had found every opportunity not to go into what he considered a journey to suicide. However, on March 14, 1864, he moved 6,800 soldiers out of Little Rock headed to Shreveport, Louisiana. The troops got as far as Camden, where they planned to defeat the Rebel Army and take its supplies. But they found no Confederate Army and no food.

The soldiers found a supply of corn and were taking it to Camden when the wagons were attacked by Southern forces at Poison Springs, and scores of Federal soldiers were killed by Confederate soldiers.

Steel sent men to Pine Bluff for supplies, but the unit was attacked by Confederate cavalry at Marks Mill, and more than 1,300 of the 2,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. A few days later, Steele ordered his men to turn back to Little Rock.

They got as far as Jenkins Ferry and the swollen Saline River by the evening of April 28 in a heavy rain. As night fell, a pontoon bridge was placed over the river.

The location of the bridge can still be seen. Walker pointed out a section of the river bank that seems to sink into the water on the east side of the river.

“Imagine: it was night, and the Federal troops were trying to get more than a hundred wagons and horses — and thousands of men — across the river,” Walker said. “No one knows how many might have stepped off the bridge and into the water. The wagons stopped where we are now.”

Steele left some of his troops on some high ground as a rear guard, with several cannons pointed across open fields. The Southern soldiers would have to cross the open fields to get to the bridge. With a rain-swollen Cox Creek — perhaps as deep as 10 feet — on one side of the battlefield and swampland on the other, the Union troops knew the opposing force would have to come to them over open ground.

By 11 a.m., the battle was on. One Confederate unit after another moved over the fields as some 2,000 Union troops fired across the 200 yards of open fields.

At one point, three Texas regiments made their move. One went over the fields, and two headed through the swamp to hit the Union line from the side. But the soldiers got lost in the swamp.

When they finally made their way out of the swamp to aid their fellow Texans, they found themselves in the middle of the open ground (which at that time was known as Groom’s Field). Hundreds were killed, including three generals — two Union and one Confederate — within 10 minutes, Walker said.

At the end of the battle, when the Union Army had left and the Confederate Army held the field,” Walker said, “an officer said you could walk from one end of the battlefield to the other, stepping from body to body.”

When the bridge was built the evening before the battle, some of the first wagons across it carried medical supplies. When the battle started, the wounded were taken to the army surgeon at the Taylor house, who had no drugs and few instruments, except knives and his bone saw.

“A wound to the body meant death,” Walker said. “There was almost nothing the doctors could do. If the soldiers were hit on an arm or a leg, quick amputation might save their limb. By the end of the battle, a Confederate officer said the pile of arms and legs outside the house was as high as the window sill.”

The Union force of less than 2,000 men could not hold back the 8,000 Southern attackers, and by afternoon, Gen. Steele decided to move out, leaving some of his own soldiers, along with the wounded, behind.

“Even that day, he was called a coward by some of his officers,” Walker said. “He returned to Little Rock triumphantly with a parade, but as Union leaders heard what had happened, he was reassigned and did not command troops again.”

Even the wagons and military supplies that had been carried over the river were set ablaze and abandoned in order to quicken the escape, although Steele had lost hundreds of men defending the escape of the wagons.

“The ‘leaving ground,’ where the army left the wagons and tried to burn supplies, was found by treasure hunters in the 1970s,” Walker said. “I’ve heard stories about how they found swords still in their scabbards and boxes of shot and bullets. One guy told me they collected so much one day, it weighted down their truck, and they had to dump some of it to get home.”

“Most of the battlefield remains in private hands today, including some of the same families that farmed there 150 years ago. But no one ever returned to farm the lands where the soldiers died. Some were buried in mass graves, and some were interred where they fell,” Walker said.

“I talked with an old man who said he rode a road-scraping wagon with his father when the road from Leola to Sheridan was built,” Walker said. “He said they often found bodies and equipment from the battle 60 or 70 years after the war.”

Last weekend, about 500 people gathered in Sheridan to see a re-enactment of the battle featuring more than 50 soldiers and more cannons than were actually used in the battle.

Walker was at the Grant County Museum in Sheridan signing a new edition of his book, Harvest of Death: The Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry, Arkansas. The museum also displayed a Confederate flag captured during the battle by the 9th Infantry Regiment from Wisconsin. The flag has been given to the Arkansas National Guard in North Little Rock and was on loan for the anniversary of the battle, said Lindsey Stanton, director of the museum.

“We have had about 1,800 people come by in the last month,” Stanton said. “That is a much larger crowd than usual.”

Walker said the battle is still thought of as a small part of the long Civil War.

“Most people, even some in Grant County, don’t understand the size and scope of this battle,” he said. “There were 13,000 fighting men, and almost 2,000 were killed or wounded.”

Walker said a Union victory would have secured control of Arkansas by the Yankee Army and might have ended the war in the state. If Gen. James Fagan of Saline County had arrived when he was supposed to, most of the Federal Army in the state would have been captured. Gen. Sherman’s troops would then have had to come west to hold the area for the Union and would not have headed to Atlanta and his march to the sea.

Walker, a native of Tull in Grant County, said the site of the battle has always been a gathering place for people in the area.

“When I was a child, we would come here and swim over there,” Walker said, pointing to an area noted on the parks map as the Swimming Hole. My father would tell me stories about the battle they had here. This was a place with grass and trees. I had seen movies about World War II. There was no way there had been a battle here.”

When Walker was 9 years old, he read a book produced for the Grant County Chamber of Commerce and written in 1966, after the centennial commemoration of the war.

“It was Steele’s Retreat From Camden and the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry, written by Edwin Bearss, who was at the re-enactment on Saturday,” Walker said. “From then on, I was hooked.”

While Walker walked through the park, one of the re-enactors from the weekend drove up and said he was meeting a state archaeologist about a dig near the site where the house used as a hospital during the battle once stood.

So the interest in the battle goes on.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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