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Chapter 17:

  • Marmaduke and Greene's brigade on the Mississippi river
  • -- the battle of Ditch Bayoushelby Goes to North Arkansas -- Rids the country of the robber bands -- Captures a gunboat -- an engagement with Carr -- capture of an Illinois regiment -- fights at Big Cypress -- Price Crosses the Arkansas at Dardanelle.

After the battle of Jenkins' Ferry on Saline river, General Price encamped the infantry of his district around Camden; detached Shelby's brigade from Marmaduke's division and ordered it to operate around Arkadelphia and watch Steele at Little Rock, and sent Marmaduke with Greene's brigade to Chicot county—the extreme southeastern county of the State—to interfere with the navigation of the Mississippi river and prevent the transportation of men and supplies over it. At Saline river Marmaduke received the order of General Smith announcing his promotion to the rank of major-general, which entitled him of right to the command of a division; but, strangely enough, one of his brigades was taken from him and he was left with a single brigade.

The service in Chicot county was the lightest and most agreeable the Missouri cavalry had ever been ordered to perform. It was a rich county, and its inhabitants were wealthy, intelligent and hospitable. They were somewhat given to trading with the Federals, but their houses were always open to the Confederates, and they showed their kindly feeling toward them in numberless social ways. Marmaduke established his headquarters at Lake Village, a pleasant little town, and from there directed [170] operations against boats navigating the river. Lake Village nestles cosily on the outer edge of Lake Chicot. The lake was no doubt at one time the bed of the river, and is crescentic in form. It is probably fifteen miles in length, and on an average half a mile in width. Its two ends approach nearly to the river. But Lake Village is situated on its outer edge and is seven or eight miles from the river. From this point of vantage the batteries —Harris' and Hynson's—were sent with a regiment every day to fire on boats passing up and down, with the remainder of the brigade in easy supporting distance if they were threatened by a land force. It was splendid practice for the artillerymen and they liked it. They could see the effect of nearly every shot they fired, and they soon became so expert that they could riddle a transport in short order, and were more than a match for the light-armored, and lightly armed gunboats that patrolled the river. The command became, in fact, a great nuisance to the Federals, but it was hard to get at and dislodge.

At last the Federal authorities at Vicksburg decided to drive it away at all hazards, and began organizing a force for that purpose. Marmaduke learned of it, and asked for Cabell's brigade, which was sent to him, but the Federals delayed their movements and the brigade was ordered back to Fagan, leaving Marmaduke with only his old brigade under command of Col. Colton Greene. At length the Federals came, about 5,000 strong, under Gen. A. J. Smith. They landed at the lower point of the lake and were met by Burbridge and his regiment, who stubbornly contested their advance around the lake and gave Marmaduke time to get ready to receive them. The brigade moved down and met them about half way at Ditch Bayou—a low, sluggish stream, with steep banks and a miry bottom, that entered the lake at a rightangle. Here Marmaduke formed his command with the advantage of position in his favor. He was in heavy [171] timber which afforded protection to his sharpshooters, while the enemy had to approach for a quarter of a mile over open ground. He had the bayou in his front while the foe had to cross it, and besides he had two batteries in perfect condition and training. His artillery was posted in sections along his line.

Burbridge crossed the bridge over the bayou and destroyed it. General Smith deployed two regiments when he came to the open ground, but did not even succeed in driving the skirmishers in. Then he brought his artillery and most of his infantry force into action and attempted to cross it again. Marmaduke's artillerymen showed the good effect of their practice on the river, and made one battery after another withdraw from the field in a damaged condition. The infantry did not get half way across the open space. Again Smith reformed his line and made a desperate attempt to force his way, but with no better success than before. Then he massed his artillery and threw out a heavy line of skirmishers and, under cover of the fire of these, sent a brigade to cross the bayou a mile above Marmaduke's position. As Marmaduke's line was not much more than a heavy skirmish line at best, he could not meet this flank movement, and withdrew. Passing up the lake to Lake Village, and there leaving it and making a detour, he crossed Ditch Bayou a mile above where Smith had crossed it, and next morning recrossed it and appeared on his rear instead of in front of him. He followed close upon him to his boats at the upper end of the lake, and fired on him as he embarked his men and returned to Vicksburg to claim a great victory. This was June 6, 1864.

That evening Marmaduke reoccupied his old camp at Lake Village. Marmaduke's loss in killed and wounded was 44. Maj. C. C. Rainwater, of his staff, was so severely wounded as to be disabled during the rest of the war. The enemy's loss, according to the statements of prisoners, was about 250 killed and wounded. Shortly [172] after this Marmaduke obtained an extended leave of absence to visit headquarters at Shreveport, and Col. Colton Greene, in command of the brigade, continued operations in Chicot county until he was ordered to obstruct the navigation of the Arkansas, which he effectually did.

Watching Steele from the vicinity of Arkadelphia was wearisome work for Shelby, and he soon applied for permission to cross the Arkansas river and keep Steele employed defending his line of communication with Devall's Bluff, to prevent his army being isolated at Little Rock. After some delay and difficulty he got permission to go with almost unlimited liberty to act after he arrived there. All the outfit he needed was twenty-five wagon loads of ammunition. He passed through Caddo mountains and took Dardanelle at a dash, capturing the garrison and a large amount of army stores. In the neighborhood of Dardanelle he met Colonel Jackman, who had authority from Gen. Kirby Smith to recruit a brigade, and at once invited his co-operation. Jackman was a splendid soldier, and just the man Shelby wanted to put in command of the troops he intended to organize.

North Arkansas at this time was filled with deserters, murderers and marauders from both armies, who had organized themselves into bands and tortured and plundered the people indiscriminately. One of Shelby's duties was to break up these bands, and kill or drive into the service the men who composed them. He issued a proclamation ordering them to join one army or the other, and warning them of the wrath if they did not. They had been threatened in that way before and paid no attention to his proclamation. Then his best scouts were called into requisition, and the outlaws were hunted down and shot like wild animals. They soon learned that the proclamation meant what it said, and that there was a man behind it who would enforce it to the letter. That was enough. The robber bands ceased to exist and those who had belonged to them fled the [173] country—went to the Federals or joined some Confederate command being organized.

Having pacified the country in a rough but effective way, and got the business of recruiting fairly started, Shelby looked around for something to do—some enemy to fight—some daring exploit to accomplish—that would attract Steele's attention to the north side of the river and induce him to let the south side alone. White river was the base of Federal operations in North Arkansas. It was alive with gunboats, and a railroad, which supplied Steele's army, connected Little Rock with Devall's Bluff. Without disturbing the recruiting officers in their work or taking a recruit with him, Shelby moved the brigade quietly but swiftly down to Clarendon, on White river, fourteen miles below Devall's Bluff. At Clarendon, his scouts informed him, was an ironclad gunboat. anchored in midstream—the Queen City. After night he approached the town, surrounded it with his scouts, with orders to arrest every person coming and going and at midnight, with artillery muffled, crept stealthily into the town, masked his battery where he could sweep the deck of the boat, deployed the brigade as skirmishers all around it, and waited for morning. Just at daylight the order to fire was given, and four Parrott guns and a thousand rifles opened fire simultaneously on the boat, and shot down every man who appeared on deck or tried to fire a cannon. The boat was hard hit, the crew panic stricken, officers demoralized, and as volley after volley was poured into her, she struck her flag. The boat was armed with thirteen 32-pound guns, and had as good a crew as any Federal boat. Shelby paroled the officers and crew and burned the boat, taking two of her guns with which he extemporized a battery on shore, and waited to see what the other gunboats would do about it

He did not have long to wait, for in an hour three gunboats appeared, and as soon as they discovered the command [174] opened fire on it Collins' battery and the guns of the improvised battery replied, and for more than an hour it was an even fight between the six guns of these batteries and the thirty-odd guns of the ironclads. In the end it was a drawn fight. The guns of the improvised battery were dismounted by a chance shot, and a leading gunboat, the Tyler, was so roughly handled that it had to be towed out of range by the other boats. But Shelby remained in possession of the field and was entitled to claim the victory. This fighting at Clarendon could not fail to attract the attention of the troops at Devall's Bluff, fourteen miles distant, and Gen. Eugene Carr was sent out with 4,000 men of all arms to capture Shelby and his command or drive them out of the district. Shelby knew Carr, and it no doubt amused him when he learned who was to be pitted against him. He drew back out of range of the gunboats, which were a part of Carr's command, and waited. It took Carr some time to drive Shelby's skirmishers back on the main line, but having done it his infantry charged and were driven back by Gordon's regiment. After that Carr contented himself with skirmishing and long-range artillery firing, until Shelby, learning that a strong force was moving from St. Charles to get in his rear, made a rush at Carr and drove him back nearly to the river, and then withdrew to avoid being hemmed in by two superior forces. Carr followed at a respectful distance, never coming to close quarters, until the critical point for Shelby had been passed, when he precipitately withdrew and sought the protection of his gunboats. Shelby crossed Bayou de View and went into camp at Jacksonport, where he had constructed a sort of pontoon bridge across White river.

While Shelby had been engaged on his Clarendon expedition he had not been unmindful of the condition of things farther west in the district. He had sent Capt. Maurice Langhorne and his company on a scouting foray in the direction of Searcy to learn the situation [175] there and along the line of the railroad between Devall's Bluff and Little Rock. Langhorne was an experienced soldier and scout, and took nothing for granted, but went inside the enemy's lines to see for himself, confident of his ability to fight his way out in an emergency. He did some fighting and returned with full information of the strength and dispositions of the enemy. A few days at Jacksonport sufficed to give the men and horses all the rest they needed, and Shelby moved on Searcy. The first force he struck was the Tenth Illinois cavalry, which had given notice, in the form of a challenge a short time before, of its readiness to meet the best regiment Shelby had. Shelby assigned to Gordon's regiment the order of maintaining the reputation of the brigade. The Tenth Illinois was at Searcy. Gordon made a night march and fell upon it unawares. The Illinoisians were willing enough to fight, but did not know how. They were comparatively new to the business. Taken by surprise they made but little resistance, and were captured almost to a man.

While Shelby was in the vicinity of Searcy the Federals at Des Arc organized an expedition to pass up the east side of White river, cross the river at Jacksonport, scatter his recruits, break up his recruiting stations and destroy his reserve supply of ammunition, thus at one stroke undoing all he had done and crippling him as far as future operations were concerned. Shelby learned of the movement, however, in time, turned back on his track, met the enemy at Augusta, repulsed them and drove them back empty handed. But he took care to put his ammunition out of reach of any sudden movement of the enemy.

His next foray was in the vicinity of Helena, where the plantations of Southern men had been seized by the Federal government, the owners dispossessed, their families driven away, and their property held and operated as government plantations. The houses were filled with [176] all sorts of stolen property, and had become plague spots of immorality. They were nominally the property of the government, but were used for the personal benefit of individuals; and being beyond the reach of law or any kind of moral influence, were the rendezvous of abandoned men and women of all conditions and colors, and the scene of almost perpetual orgies of licentiousness. Gordon's regiment was sent to abate the nuisance, which its commander did by holding some of the revelers as prisoners, banishing others under pain of death, burning the stolen property where there were no owners to claim it, and destroying the settlement root and branch.

In the meantime General Shelby had received information from General Price that he was organizing an expedition into Missouri; that he would cross the Little Rock & Devall's railroad some time in the latter part of July, and that he must destroy as much of the road as possible and keep the enemy as busy as possible in order that the ammunition train might cross the road in safety. Shelby entered eagerly on the work assigned him. With his own and Jackman's, McRae's and Dobbins' brigades—the second and third of which he had organized since he went to North Arkansas—he moved down and captured, after a hard fight, the forts at the crossing of Big Cypress, a treacherous, miry stream. There were four forts so arranged as to protect each other, and they were defended by an Illinois and a Nebraska regiment, and every one of them was in Shelby's possession within half an hour.

He then began destroying the railroad, having first sent a scouting party southward to ascertain whether General Price had crossed the Arkansas river as agreed. The scouting party heard nothing of Price, and Shelby concluded he had changed his plan and would cross the river above instead of below Little Rock. But he tore up the railroad track for twenty miles, in constant expectation of an attack from Little Rock or Devall's Bluff, or [177] possibly from both. It came from both and simultaneously. Shelby gathered his scattered command together and stood his ground. He intended to retreat, but not until he had struck the enemy a blow. Hunter and McRae formed on the left and Jackman and some detached regiments on the right of the old brigade. Twice he received the attack of the Federals and drove them back, and twice they reformed and renewed the attack. He was fighting to get McRae's undisciplined brigade and the wagons and artillery out of his way. As soon as these disappeared in the timber that skirted the prairie, he charged with his and Jackman's brigades, and before the enemy had recovered from the shock, turned and galloped off.

But the Federals were not disposed to permit him to escape so easily. They followed hard after him, and whenever opportunity offered attempted to crush his rear. Colonel Dobbins had been left to guard the bridge across the Big Cypress, and if he had been captured or driven away the command would be in a close place, for there was not another bridge across the stream within thirty miles. Shelby, with some doubt in his mind, reached it at eleven o'clock at night, and was rejoiced to find the bridge and its defenders all right. Before daylight the officer on outpost sent in word that the enemy were approaching in force. Gordon was ordered to hold the bridge; made his dispositions for that purpose and waited. Shortly there were shots in front, and then the sound of the rush of charging horsemen. Gordon told his men to let the men of the outpost cross the bridge, but stand prepared to receive the enemy. Not a gun was fired until the head of the charging column reached the center of the bridge. Then 500 riflemen simultaneously poured their fire into the mass of men and horses. The charge failed disastrously, and in a spirit of bravado the enemy drew off and shelled the position for half an hour, but did not again attempt to charge it. In this [178] expedition General Shelby's loss was 211 killed and wounded.

The command returned to its old camp at Jacksonport. and waited for further information from General Price. At length intelligence was received that he had crossed the Arkansas at Dardanelle, with Fagan's division and Clark's brigade of Marmaduke's division, and that he would pass through Batesville, and Shelby was ordered to join him at Pocahontas. [179]

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