There’s been some discussion on the Facebook page of my book about the burial of the soldiers at Jenkins’ Ferry following the battle. After the battle, the Confederates were left in command of the field, the Federals having escaped across the Saline River, unceremoniously abandoning their wounded on the battlefield.
The Confederates would have had their hands full, both caring for the wounded and burying the dead. After the hospital corps had combed the battlefield, the area was turned over to the burial crews, who had an absolutely dreadful task before them.
I know of at least three mass graves at Jenkins’ ferry. These were long pits where dozens of soldiers were interred.
The remainder? The hundreds of Confederate and Federal soldiers who died on the battlefield were mostly buried where they lay – both on the battlefield itself and the ridges alongside the river bottom. The graves were shallow, some only deep enough to cover the soldier before the army moved south, leaving Jenkins’ Ferry behind forever.
A former slave (Jane Osbrook) remembered visiting the Jenkins' Ferry battlefield with her father a few days after the battle:
"The next Sunday [after the battle of Jenkins' Ferry], my fathered carried all us children and some of the white folks to see the battlefield. I [re]member the dead were lyin' in graves, just row after another and hadn't even been covered up."
Other eyewitnesses recalled wild hogs were roaming the battlefield and rooting up and feasting on the remains of the soldiers. This might have been what the slave girl observed when she said they "hadn't even been covered up." Others remembered the warm early May days after the battle carrying the smell of rotting flesh throughout the river bottom.
One of the more gruesome stories to emerge over the years had to do with a family selling buttons. You know, shirt and trouser buttons that were in high demand in the late 1800’s. A family living on the high ground near the battlefield began selling bone buttons by the jar full (I spoke with an elderly resident a few years ago who recalled seeing a mason jar full of the buttons). Years after the family ceased the button business, they confided that the source of the bones were ones that were scattered in the wooded area behind their house. As one of the family members was heard to say – there were bones scattered all over that ridge.
You see where I’m going with this. Though there were some horses killed during the battle, those remains were down in the bottom, alongside Cox Creek, where they were shot when the Federals charged the Confederate battery, shooting down the horses initially to prevent the Confederates from moving the guns.
So all of those bones scattered across the ridge behind the button maker’s house? The elderly fellow I spoke with said no one who “knew better” would buy even a single button – they knew the remains of the soldiers were the source.
It sounds almost ghoulish.That’s because it was.
This is the face of war.
It is of a young man with no mother, and a father who was to soon choose duty over fatherhood. That is a tough statement to make, but it speaks volumes as to how the Civil War destroyed families.
Stephen Kearney Parsons died January 24, 1889. At his death, Stephen was buried next to his mother, Mary, in the city cemetery in Jefferson, Missouri. Stephen had survived his mother by almost forty years, his mother dying in 1853. Today, mother and son rest alongside one another forever – but what of Stephen’s father?
Mosby Monroe Parsons was a soldier, and war often took him far from home.
On April 30, 1864, the war had Mosby Parsons in the middle of the Saline River Bottoms, personally leading his division of Confederate troops across an open field that Saturday morning trying to break the Union’s line of defense during the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry. Brigadier General Mosby Parsons didn’t lead from afar – soldiers would remember him at the head of his army moving across Groom’s field in that desperate struggle.
For his actions that day, General E. Kirby Smith promoted Parsons to Major General, a promotion that Confederate President Jefferson Davis did not approve. Some speculate that Davis did not approve the promotion due to his concerns over so many high-ranking officers within the Trans-Mississippi region. It didn’t matter. By September, correspondence with Parsons identified him as a Major General and when he surrendered his forces in Shreveport in May of 1865, he was referred to as a Major General.
At war’s end, Parson’s, like many other high ranking Confederate officers, feared retribution for their role in the war and, rather than return to Missouri, instead turned south and traveled into Mexico. In Mexico, Parsons, along with several others, including his brother-in-law Captain Austin Standish and former Confederate Congressman Aaron Conrow, sought to join the forces of Mexican Emperor Maxmilian.
Parson’s was no stranger to Mexico, having served during the Mexican War, fighting in the Battles of El Brazio and Sacramento attaining the rank of Captain. After returning back from Mexico, Parsons married Mary Wells September 18, 1850. They would have one child, a son, Stephen Kearney, born in 1851 – named for Mexican War General Stephen Watts Kearney. Mary would die when Stephen was three, leaving his father to raise him.
When Stephen was ten, his father was gone – this time to fight in a war much closer to home. This marked the end of the briefest of father and son relationships.
After the war, Stephen Parsons remained in Missouri as his father moved further south into Mexico. The facts become a bit grey here but many agree that Parsons and the others were captured near Camargo, Mexico in August 1865, where they were robbed and murdered with the bodies of Parsons and the others thrown into the San Juan River. Their remains were never recovered.
In 1875, the Mexican government settled a claim made by Stephen Parsons over the death of his father, paying young Stephen $50,000 for the loss of his father.
Stephen Kearney Parsons would die January 24, 1889 at the young age of 38, having never really gotten to know his father but no doubt, in reading of his father’s adventures, was well aware of a place called Jenkins’ Ferry.
Honor and duty were everything during the Civil War. That being said, it must have been mighty hard to ride away and leave this boy behind.
There are some things you never do.
Abandoning your wounded on the battlefield and leaving them behind is one of them.
One of the issues that followed Union General Frederick Steele for the remainder of the war (and perhaps the rest of his life) was his decision to abandon his wounded following the Battle of Jenkins' Ferry. The Federals had established a makeshift field hospital at a farmhouse on the battlefield during the battle, where scores of Union soldiers were being treated. The surgeon in charge of the hospital, Dr. William Nicholson, had shipped the vast majority of his medical supplies across the Saline River the night before, not expecting a battle to occur. As the battle raged, Nicholson was overwhelmed. At the conclusion of the battle, Steele was finally able to get his shattered army across the Saline River using their pontoon bridge. After the last of the soldiers had crossed the bridge, Steele ordered the bridge destroyed, preventing the Confederates from pursuing him. Some of his officers were aghast at the order. Colonel Samuel Crawford, commanding the Second Kansas Colored Infantry, was at the bank of the Saline River when he heard the news. Crawford wrote:
While we were waiting for the men, another staff officer from Steele’s headquarters came splashing back through the mud with his eyes a-glare and nostrils distended (having snuffed the battle from afar) and wanted to know why ‘in hell’ I didn’t hurry up. He further said: ‘if you keep fooling around this way, Price and Kirby Smith will hop on to you in less than fifteen minutes, and we shall lose our pontoon bridge.
Yes, that is exactly what I want. They hopped on me this morning, but didn’t get the bridge. If they come along now, I think I shall turn it over to them and stop this disgraceful retreat.
Hundreds of Union soldiers remained on the west side of the Saline River after the pontoon bridge was sunk. One of the problems was no one seemed to have told Dr. Nicholson he and the wounded soldiers were being left behind. Dr. Nicholson later wrote:
It never struck me even then that the wounded were going to be unceremoniously abandoned. I thought the [withdrawing] troops were merely falling back to some other position or were getting ready for some aggressive movement.
Nicholson, along with all of the Union soldiers left behind, were captured when the Confederates took the field. After some tense moments initially, the Confederates brought medical supplies and surgeons to the Federal field hospital to assist. Later the wounded and captured would travel with the Confederates when they began moving south.
What was General Frederick Steele’s justification for his actions that day? He later wrote:
This necessity I regretted, but thought it of more importance to secure the safe passage of my command across the Saline than to attempt to bring off wounded men for whom I did not have proper transportation. More were brought off than we could have carried away had they been as severely wounded as those who were left behind.
Steele was relieved of command in Arkansas shortly after he returned to Little Rock and transferred to Mobile, Alabama. Some historians have speculated that his abandoning his wounded caused such an outcry that it led to his being relieved.
I’m sure Dr. Nicholson might have had a thing or two to say to Frederick Steele – had he not been a prisoner of war.
One of most horrific moments in the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry was when the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry charged a Confederate artillery battery, executing many of the Confederates after they had attempted to surrender (slicing off ears, cutting throats; all while the soldiers were still alive, begging for mercy). The 2nd Kansas called what they did revenge for what the Confederates had done to members of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry days earlier at the Battle of Poison Springs. If you’ve watched the opening scene from the Steven Spielberg movie “Lincoln,” then you’ll recognize the gruesome battle depicted in the film – this was supposed to represent the charge made by the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry. But did it really happen the way history and Hollywood has described it?
Colonel Thomas Benton commanded the 29th Iowa US Infantry during the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry. He was an eyewitness to the events that occurred in the Saline River bottoms that day. Following the battle, Colonel Benton wrote the following letter to the National Democrat newspaper in Little Rock:
[LITTLE ROCK] NATIONAL DEMOCRAT, May 21, 1864, p. 3, c. 1
We publish the following letter from the Unconditional Union, with a correction added by permission.
Little Rock, Ark., May 11, 1864.
Editor of Unconditional Union:
I observe a slight error in your account of the battle of Jenkins' Ferry, on the 30th of April, 1864, given in your paper of the 10th inst., which justice to my officers and men demands that I should correct. The paragraph to which I allude is as follows:
"The negroes particularly, deserve great credit for their gallantry. They repulsed charge after charge from the enemy and no sooner was a command received than obeyed. They charged a battery and captured three pieces of artillery and two battle flags, which inspired them with confidence, and urged them on to the bloody contest, pouring death and destruction before them."
Now the facts are these: On the right of our line of battle, which rested on the road from Princeton to the Ferry, my regiment was the first that engaged that enemy, and after a severe contest of an hour, was relieved by the 9th Wisconsin and the 9th Wisconsin was subsequently relieved by the 2d Kansas, (colored) infantry. The action had lasted some two hours before the 2d Kansas came up. After the 2d Kansas had been engaged about half an hour, Gen. Rice ordered me to relieve them and charge the batter; (which had taken position in the road about one hundred paces in front of our extreme right) but afterward so modified his order as to have the charge made jointly by the 29th Iowa and 2d Kansas. I ordered my command to advance with a shout, which was promptly done, until we arrived at the line of the 2d Kansas, when the two regiments were blended into one, my own, being the largest, extending beyond the 2d Kansas on either flank. companies "A" and "D," and part of "I" of my right wing, ("F" having been previously posted across the Bayou to our right,) extending across the road, immediately in front of the guns, with their left resting on the right of the 2d Kansas. In this order the two commands moved gallantly forward, and captured the battery; (two guns instead of three,) and eight prisoners, including one Lieutenant, but no battle flags. The prisoners were taken to the rear and across the river in charge of four of my men. There were two or three miniature flags taken from the guns by my men, one of which that I examined, was about five by nine inches, with blue field and three bars, and bearing the inscription, "God and our native land." My command advanced beyond the guns about sixty or seventy paces, and held the ground while the 2d Kansas, whose ammunition was exhausted, withdrew and aided a detail of my men in taking the guns to the rear. I then fell back slowly to our regular line of battle, and was again relieved by the 9th Wisconsin, Col. Salomon, who had held himself in readiness to support us.
In making this statement, I have not desire to detract in the slightest degree from the 2d Kansas, nor to claim any undue credit for my own regiment. My sole object is to do exact and equal justice to all, and hence I cannot silently permit my command to be totally excluded from an act of gallantry in which it suffered so severely, having lost some of my best men, and had two officers wounded: Capt. Mitchell severely, and Lieutenant Johnson slightly. It affords me the greatest pleasure to say that the 2d Kansas, under its gallant leader, fought bravely, and although my men were first at the battery and actually took the prisoners, we cheerfully concede to it an equal share of the glory of the charge. All the regiments engaged fought with a heroism unsurpassed in civilized warfare. It is also worthy of note that the 50th Indiana infantry, and named in your account, was in the thickest of the fight.
I am very resp't'y, your ob't, serv't,
Thomas H. Benton, Jr.
Col. 29th Iowa Inft.
Sometimes….in the heat of battle, facts may be skewed. Perhaps it takes cooler heads after the guns have fallen silent to provide a different perspective. Colonel Benton certainly thought so.
Thousands of soldiers fought during the 1864 Camden Expedition.
These men traveled far from home for two reasons; duty and responsibility.
My friend and retired pastor, Paul McClung, once wrote: “Never structure your life in such a way that if God chooses to change it, it will disturb you.”
By 1860, most families across the country, north and south, knew there was a vast storm approaching. Indeed, by this time, men were already realizing that the time was near where they would have to bid adieu to home and family and take up arms against someone who, months earlier, might have been their friend or neighbor, but they accepted the responsibility, because with maturity comes responsibility.
There are some who believe that we each hold the map that controls our journeys.
Some amongst us today live for the day – “YOLO” it’s called ("You Only Live Once"), where they flick their finger at responsibility and instead choose to live out of whatever suitcase or backpack that might be available, all in the interest in pursuing that “next grand adventure.”
In 1864, we saw boys as young as sixteen fighting at Jenkins’ Ferry. By marching into that swamp that April day in 1864, they knew the possibility was great that they would not emerge from the fight that was coming.
Yet they marched anyway.
Leaving their homes and their farms, they bid adieu to their white picket fences – their wives and their children – and instead did what honorable men do – they accepted the responsibilities of life and accepted their place in it.
Many of these boys never returned home. The weeds grew among the fence rails, the children lived without a father and an empty seat remained at the table forever.
There was no “YOLO” in 1860.
I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been blessed with that white picket fence and a wife and children who are my life – my everything. Heck, we even have the Labrador retriever who greets me when I come home from a hard day at work. It doesn’t get any more “American Dream” than the life I have – and I thank God every day for the life I have been gifted with. It hasn't come easy, and I've had my share of doubts and struggles, but I've emerged from the fire a better person knowing that with the gift comes responsibility – and maturity.
The Apostle Paul once wrote:
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child. I thought like a child. I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things.” (1 Cor 13:11)
When it’s all said and done…when the sunset they’ve chased has finally set. Do they look back upon their many adventures with pride, all the while sitting alone in an empty apartment, their backpack lying next to them – the sunset gone and the loneliness of the night ready to consume them?
Those brave soldiers who watched the sunset on April 28, 1864 knew a battle was coming, but as they lay beside their backpack on the cold ground that night in the Saline River bottoms – their thoughts undoubtedly lingered back to their white picket feces and those smiling faces they left. Then they tightened their hand around their musket and drifted off to sleep – responsibility forever outweighing YOLO.