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OPINION | REX NELSON: The Camden Expedition

by Rex Nelson | February 10, 2021 at 4:09 a.m.

In two cover stories for this newspaper's Sunday Perspective section last month, I detailed a trip I took on U.S. 67 from Benton to Texarkana. Because I've long been fascinated by this state's Civil War history, I took two brief detours off the route to see where engagements took place at Elkin's Ferry and Prairie D'Ane.

These aren't heavily interpreted sites like one might find in northwest Arkansas at Pea Ridge National Military Park or Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park. I suggest printing off the history of the engagements in advance (the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas is an excellent source) and bringing that history with you. The two southwest Arkansas sites, though, still look much like they did in 1864.

Before reaching Prescott as I drove toward Texas, I turned off the highway and took a county road to the banks of the Little Missouri River. It was here that Confederate troops attacked a Union column during what was known as the Camden Expedition. The site is called Elkin's Ferry because that's how the name was printed in official records during the Civil War. Since the Elkins family owned the ferry, it should be Elkins' Ferry. We'll stick with the Civil War-era spelling.

"After capturing Little Rock and Fort Smith in September 1863, Union forces were in control of much of the state," writes historian David Sesser of Henderson State University at Arkadelphia. "From these two occupied cities, federal troops could launch an attack into southern Arkansas, northern Louisiana and eastern Texas. In March 1864, an attack on northwest Louisiana and eastern Texas was launched from both Arkansas and New Orleans, La. Leaving Little Rock on March 23, Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele set out to help the Union column from New Orleans capture Shreveport, then the headquarters for the Confederate Trans-Mississippi.

"Arriving in Arkadelphia on March 29, Steele remained for three days, waiting for reinforcements from Fort Smith under the command of Brig. Gen. John Thayer. Thayer's Frontier Division's progress was hampered by bad roads and a lack of provisions. After three days, Steele was forced to continue his mission without the extra men."

Steele reached the Little Missouri River on April 3. He was running short on supplies and decided that the best strategy would be to capture Camden and get supplies there. He left a brigade of infantry on the north bank of the river near Okolona to act as a rear guard and wait for Thayer.

The main body of the Confederate Army, led by Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, was in Camden. Steele decided to move toward Washington in Hempstead County in order to draw Price's army from Camden, leaving that town open. To advance toward Washington, Steele needed to cross the Little Missouri.

Price dispatched Brig. Gen. Joseph Shelby to harass the Union column from the rear and Brig. Gen. John Marmaduke to stop the advance. While Shelby was launching his attack on the Union rear guard near Okolona, Marmaduke went after the head of the column on the south bank of the Little Missouri. He was driven back, but Marmaduke's forces resumed the attack at 6 a.m. the next day.

"As more Union troops crossed the river, it became harder and harder for the Confederates to continue their attack," Sesser writes. "They fell back to their original positions by 11 a.m. The rest of the Union Army crossed the river on April 4, and the next day, Steele resumed his march. He halted his army again only six miles from the Little Missouri when word reached him of Thayer's approach. Marmaduke and Shelby, meanwhile, had withdrawn 16 miles to Prairie D'Ane, where they went into camp and awaited the Union forces."

Sesser calls Elkin's Ferry "the Confederates' best chance of containing the Union advance into southwest Arkansas, but the lack of infantry units and the piecemeal use of the available cavalry units hindered their efforts. The lack of commitment exhibited by the Confederate forces let the Union advance continue."

At Prescott, the Prairie D'Ane battlefield is now within sight of Interstate 30. Fighting took place April 10-11, 1864.

"Confederates had been building earthworks for six days, and Union troops immediately began building their own defensive positions about a mile away," Sesser writes. "Prairie D'Ane consists of ... open, rolling land surrounded by forests. For the next two days, Union and Confederate armies exchanged an occasional artillery shell and engaged in limited skirmishing. Neither side wished to force a major engagement, and the bulk of the two armies received a short respite from the war. The men were able to relax and do everything from hunt rabbits to write letters home."

Steele formed his army into a battle line stretching more than two miles. When he moved on Confederate positions the next day, he discovered that Price had withdrawn under the cover of darkness to positions near Washington. That left Camden undefended. Steele marched his troops to Camden and entered the city on April 15.

"Little loss of life resulted from the skirmish, but it was the turning point of the Camden Expedition," Sesser writes. "Without provisions, the Union advance into southwest Arkansas had been stopped and turned away. There was little hope of Steele reaching his ultimate objective of Shreveport and east Texas."

On Feb. 23, 2018, an acquisition ceremony was held to present the deed for 808 acres at Prairie D'Ane to the Nevada County Depot & Museum. The museum, founded in 1976, is a good place to learn about the Camden Expedition. The museum is in a 1912 depot in downtown Prescott.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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