Absolute Madness…

152 years ago today…May 1, 1864…the armies had moved on from Jenkins’ Ferry. Today, the sightseers began descending upon the river bottom and what the discovered horrified them beyond measure. 

A former slave, Jane Osbrook, recalled as a child that visit to the battlefield that day 152 years ago:

“The next Sunday [after the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry], my father 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.”

Others reported a more grisly scene. Many of the soldiers had been buried in very shallow graves where they had fallen. This led to other eyewitnesses describing how the wild hogs had dug up and were “feasting on the remains” of the dead soldiers.

Absolute madness.

Jenkins’ Ferry…

152 years ago today, April 30, 1864, 13,000 men waged war in the Saline River bottoms for causes they believed it. About 1,000 of them never left and remain there today, scattered across that mournful swamp in unmarked graves. 
Let us today remember all the brave men of Jenkins’ Ferry, especially the ones who forever sleep beneath the starry skies of Southern Arkansas. 

A Yearly Pilgrimage…

PicsArt (7)

I’ll be driving to Jenkins’ Ferry shortly.

For as long I can remember I’ve traveled down to Jenkins’ Ferry on April 29th, the day the Federal army arrived at the Saline River. They would spend the remainder of the day getting their pontoon bridge in place, desperately pushing to get across the swollen Saline River as thousands of Confederates were converging upon them.

There’s something about being in this place on the anniversary. Over the years, I’ve helped organized events with hundreds in attendance to trips where it is only me standing in the midst of the quiet of the park – the peace broken only by the passing log trucks.

It is a special place to me – probably the most special place on earth. It conjures up so many wonderful childhood memories, of time spent with my family swimming and picnicking and of my father first explaining the battle to me, sharing his love of that place as well.

Nowadays, I share this with my children. It is important to me to pass this special place on to them. One day I will be gone, passed over the river to rest under the shade of the trees. I hope when that day comes they will set aside a time to celebrate my love of Jenkins’ Ferry.

But make no mistake about it – as much as it brings wonderful memories to me – I am mindful of the absolute horror that occurred there. It was a nightmarish two days, as two armies struggled to kill one another in wholesale slaughter. The sounds of the pontoon bridge being constructed would soon be replaced by the sounds of over ten thousand muskets firing hundreds of thousands of rounds. And sadly, that sound would be replaced as well with the screams of the wounded that sounded throughout the river bottom.

So many families were left fatherless that day at Jenkins’ Ferry.

I am forever respectful of that place and its significant to Arkansas history.

It was a dreadful place now at peace.



Bravery at Jenkins’ Ferry…


On April 30, 1864, as they led their troops into battle at Jenkins’ Ferry, Confederate General’s William Scurry and Horace Randal were shot down by opposing Federal troops under command of Colonel Samuel Rice (who, within minutes of Scurry and Randal going down, would fall himself, mortally wounded).

In the chaos that swept through the ranks as the two rebel generals fell, command had to be quickly reestablished if the Texans were to make it out of the Saline River bottoms alive.

Colonel Richard Waterhouse took command of Scurry’s Brigade with Colonel Wilburn King taking command of Randal’s Brigade.

For his actions during the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry, Richard Waterhouse received a battlefield promotion to the rank of Brigadier General. I’ve commented before that I believed that Waterhouse should be remembered as a Brigadier General, for his actions on April 30, 1864.

But what of Colonel Wilburn King – was he left behind on the “bravery promotion” list that Waterhouse received that day? Did he not equally deserve a promotion for, along with Waterhouse, helping hold Walker’s Texas Division together, preventing even more bloodshed during the chaos as the troops watched in horror as Scurry and Randal went down into the mud of the Saline River swamp?

Well, it seems that based up on newly discovered material I’ve acquired, Colonel Wilburn King may have actually ridden into the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry already a Brigadier General. It seems that the overall Confederate commander, General E. Kirby Smith, had promoted King to Brigadier General on April 16, 1864, retroactive to April 8, 1864. From what I’ve discovered, King was severely wounded during the Battle of Mansfield, Louisiana on April 8th (Mansfield was yet another battle in the Red River Campaign). For his actions at Mansfield, Kirby Smith issued the battlefield promotion.

After the war, King would move to Central America where he owned and operated an enormous sugar plantation before returning back to his native Texas. He served in the Texas House of Representatives as well as the Texas Rangers. Shortly before his death in 1910, King wrote a book, “A History of the Texas Rangers,” about the organization he served in after the war.

After I’ve thought of the situation Waterhouse, I felt a little sorry for Wilburn King, having not received the same battlefield promotion at Jenkins’ Ferry that Waterhouse had received. Little did I realize at the time, that King’s bravery in battle was evident – long before he rode into immortality at a place called Jenkins’ Ferry.

Well done, sir.

I’d Like Your Assistance…

HHW Cover

As some of you know, several months ago I released my fourth book, “Hail & High Water: The Battle of Elkins’ Ferry, Arkansas.” The book detailed the first of the battles of the 1864 Camden Expedition.

It was important to write a book on this battle, as it is undeniably neglected in most books on the Red River Campaign. That’s not to take away from those authors; it was simply not a large scale battle. That being said, it is important to note that there just isn’t a lot of source material out there, so the resulting book I wrote was, though extensively covering the battle, below a hundred pages in length. To some, the quantity of pages somehow determines a books worth. I’ve never agreed with that assumption.

Much of the reason why there is limited source material is that many of the soldiers may not have looked upon this as a large scale battle they had been accustomed to seeing by the spring of 1864. That would all change three weeks later at Jenkins’ Ferry when many of them would write in their letters and diaries about how thankful they were to be alive.

I will confess I published the book before it was ready.

That’s hard to admit but it had to be said. There were some editorial issues that were missed on the final run through. Issues that should not have been missed and I take full responsibility for that. If I were to offer an explanation, it would be my desire to further tell the story of those soldiers – blue and gray – who left their homes and all they knew to fight for causes they believed in

After the errors were found, I recalled the book. Since then I have gone back through it, page by page to insure the errors were corrected. In it you’ll find photographs of the commanders, maps of the battlefield, and the area as it looks today.

Now….I’d like your help.

I would like to send out a few proofs of the book to get some peer reviews. If you’re interested, then I would be honored if you would take some time to read the manuscript and email me your thoughts – good and bad – about the work. I’ll then take your comments and put the polish on the book.

If you’re interested – email me at 1864arkansas@gmail.com and I will forward you a PDF file of the book. And please, I would appreciate you not distributing nor forwarding the file. I would rather have the finished work out there for the public to read, not the work in progress.

Thank you

New Markers at Jenkins’ Ferry…

JF New Marker

Things are looking up at Jenkins’ Ferry.

Through the efforts of  the Friends of Jenkins’ Ferry Battlefield and the Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission, the landscape of the Jenkins’ Ferry State Park has been transformed.

Two markers, each with different descriptive panels on either side, depict a particular aspect of the battle.

It’s good to see the markers inside the park. Perhaps the remark I’ve heard most often by visitors I would encounter while spending a quiet afternoon there would be the lack of information about what actually occurred during the battle. I’ve always kept a few extra copies of “Harvest of Death” in my vehicle, offering one to them in hopes of keeping their interest alive in that place.

Those markers will be standing long after you and I are gone. Perhaps as time goes by, additional interpretive markers might be placed, adding even more to the story of one of the most overlooked battles of the Trans-Mississippi.

Spring is upon us. I can think of no better day trip then to load up the kids and make the short drive to Jenkins’ Ferry State Park. There you will find picnic tables, outdoor grills, a river with its own boat ramp, fishing possibilities and one of the most popular swimming holes in the area. Raining? Not a problem, there’s a large covered pavilion right inside the park. It’s a great way to spent an afternoon.

…Except when it floods.

Then you’ll have to rethink your plans and picnic on the side of the highway. The same river that caused so much chaos in April of 1864 continues to do so during times of heavy rain so always check out the weather forecast before venturing down.

So take some time and make the short trek and see for yourself the results of the hard work those groups made in adding a piece of history to an already historical place.



Placing Blame at Poison Spring…


Camden, Arkansas is located only about fifteen miles or so from the outskirts of the Poison Spring Battlefield. In past reenactments on the battlefield, the sounds of cannon fire was easily heard in the streets of Camden. To the citizens today, it may sound like thunder or sonic booms but to the Federal troops occupying the city in April of 1864 there was no mistake what was occurring just a few miles to the west – a portion of their army was under attack.

If you’ve studied the Battle of Poison Spring, then you’ll recall the Federals were desperate for food, their army starving in Camden. The wagon train dispatched west of the city was in search of reported barns filled with corn. You’ll also remember the Federals found the corn, loaded their wagons full (along with household furniture, dresses, toys, etc. from area farms) and were moving east toward Camden then they were attacked in mass by the Confederates.

The resulting battle raged for hours as the Confederates showed no mercy and soundly defeated the Federals. The controversy about the battle has always surrounded the treatment of the First Kansas Colored Infantry soldiers during and especially following the battle. The Federals described it as a massacre. The Confederates described it as an act of war. Who was to blame for Poison Spring?

Now today, I’d like for you to step back just a few steps and look at the larger picture. As the Confederates swarmed the Federal line – with the sounds of hundreds of muskets and round after round of cannon fire, where was General Frederick Steele?

The commanding general of the Seventh Corps was sitting in Camden, within earshot of the battle just a few miles to his west. Colonel James Williams, the commander of the First Kansas Colored Infantry, who was this day commanding the forage expedition kept looking to his east, knowing that Frederick Steele would hear the sounds of battle and send help marching his way. But help never came.

Instead, Williams watched while his small army was taken apart by the Confederates.

I’m not for a moment justifying the actions of a few Confederate soldiers in their post-battle treatment of some of the African-American soldiers of the First Kansas.

However, had Frederick Steele marched an army in support of the forage train at the first sounds of battle, I do believe the outcome may have been different. Even some of Steele’s own commanders were at a loss to explain why Steele didn’t order a detachment of his army to move toward the sound of the guns.

Frederick Steele has been accused by some who served alongside him during the 1864 Camden Expedition of hesitancy, even cowardliness.

I’ve tinkered with the idea of writing a biography of Steele. And unfortunately, I don’t see it as flattering when considering his documented performance during the Arkansas Campaign.

Bad things occurred 152 years ago near Camden. Men died who should not have died.

So instead of the post-battle discussions centering around the treatment of a few soldiers who were obviously mistreated outside the rules of war, why has the focus never been on how the forage train was abandoned by it’s commanding general?







A Congressman…A Friend….and Jenkins’ Ferry


Jenkins’ Ferry lost an advocate this week.

Former United States Congressman Ray Thornton died yesterday in Little Rock.

He served in the Congress from Arkansas on two separate occasions (1973-1979 and 1991-1997). In 1974, as a member of House Judiciary Committee, he helped draft the Articles of Impeachment against President Richard Nixon.

Following his time in Congress, He served as president of two universities in Arkansas; Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

From 1997-2005, he served as a Justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court.

And….he grew up just a few miles from the Jenkins Ferry battlefield.

He was raised just a few miles north of the battlefield with his family history intertwined with the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry. On September 20, 2011, he was interviewed as part of the Arkansas Supreme Court Historical Society’s “Supreme Court Project” where he was asked several biographical related questions about his life and career. Among his responses were some geared toward his upbringing near the Jenkins’ Ferry:

RT: We had a centennial of the state of Arkansas’ admission into the Union in 1936. We had it at Jenkins’ Ferry, which is the site of a a Civil War battle in which the Union Army retreated from Camden and was savagely beaten at the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry. They were able to make an escape across the Saline River at Jenkins’ Ferry with the loss….Well, the historical papers of the time put the dead and wounded (and many of them did not survive) at Jenkins’ Ferry at two thousand people.

SL: Oh my gosh.

RT: Now that’s a battle that, in light of three thousand people being killed at the World Trade Center….it’s remarkable that you had that kind of terrible battle in Arkansas, and near Prattsville. My great-grandfather, Levin Pumphrey, sat on the porch of his house in Prattsville. He was too young to fight. But he listened to the savage booms of cannons, screams from Jenkins’ Ferry, which were only a couple of miles away from his home. The Civil War was a terrible war for Arkansas and its people.

Ray Thornton died yesterday at the age of 87. He was a friend to those who knew him and most importantly never forgot his roots.


The Lincoln Movie…at Jenkins’ Ferry

Lincoln Scene

One of most horrific moments in the battle 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’ve 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 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. 

I recall after the movie came out, there were several internet threads. Among the most common were the ones asking (1) What/Where is Jenkins’ Ferry and (2) Why, with all of the “big” battles, would Stephen Spielberg choose such an “obscure” battle as Jenkins’ Ferry? The writers of the movie obviously utilized the Official Records of the battle where they read the reports of those who participated in the charge.  Some of the eyewitnesses may have seen the battle from a different perspective from what is depicted in the film, among them Colonel Benton.

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.

Regardless, it was a horrific moment in our history.

Missing the Fight…at Jenkins’ Ferry

Zimri Bates

Zimri Bates missed out on the big fight.

And looking back on it all, I’m sure that was fine with Captain Bates.

On the afternoon of April 29, 1864, Captain Zimri Bates set atop his horse on the west bank of the Saline River as he watched the Federal engineers construct their pontoon bridge. He had heard the gunfire behind him. He, along with the other members of the 10th Illinois Cavalry, knew the Confederates were closing in on them. They also knew unless the pontooners got that damned bridge built, they were going to be trapped in that godforsaken swamp.

Zimri Barber Bates was a native of New York before moving to Illinois where he worked as a farmer. Joining Company G of the 10th Illinois Cavalry, he was initially commissioned a Lieutenant before being promoted in Captain in 1862.

That spring of 1864, the 10th Illinois was assigned to the Third Brigade of Brigadier General Eugene Carr’s Cavalry Division. The Division saw extensive service in the Trans-Mississippi Theater, including a skirmish at Cotton Plant in July 1862, the capture of Arkansas Post in January of 1863 as well as the capture of Little Rock in September 1863. Carr’s Division served as the eyes and ears of Steele’s Seventh Corps as it snaked its way southward to assist in the invasion of Texas.

Once the decision was made by Steele to abandon the march and return to the safety of Little Rock, he moved quickly northward from Camden but his army stalled once they reached the flooded Saline River bottoms. The Federals knew a fight was about to happen. But concerning Frederick Steele as much was Confederate General James Fagan. Following his overwhelming victory at the Battle of Marks Mills days before, Fagan had become a very real threat. Steele was concerned that Fagan would follow-up his victory by making a move on Little Rock.

As Steele and Eugene Carr sat atop their horses that afternoon on the bank of the Saline River, Steele’s orders were clear; as soon as the pontoon bridge was operational; Carr was to move his Division with all possible speed toward Little Rock

By 4:00 pm on April 29, 1864, in the pouring rain, Captain Bates trotted his horse across the newly constructed pontoon bridge.

Now, for those who have visited Jenkins’ Ferry State Park, can you imagine Bates and 3,000 horseman gathered on the east side of the river where the park is today? 3,000 horses? It seems unbelievable when you stand among those gentle oak trees today.

They were able to leave the Saline River behind as the Confederates closed the gap, resulting in the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry.

Once Bates and the rest of Carr’s Division completed the crossing, they moved quickly to establish a camp on the high ground (near the intersection of Highway 291 and 46) before moving toward Little Rock. It turns out the fears over Fagan capturing Little Rock was unfounded (that will be the subject of tomorrow’s blog).

In January 1865, Captain Bates and his regiment were consolidated with the soldiers of the 15th Illinois Cavalry and designated the 10th Illinois Veteran Volunteer Cavalry.

After the war, Captain Bates would live quietly, dying in Blackwell, Oklahoma, in February of 1917 just as another war, the “Great War,” was raging across Europe.