13,000 dead and wounded in Benton and over 7,000 in Sheridan. The disaster would make international headlines. That is what you would get with a disaster wiping out 41% of the population.
Examining casualty rates during the Civil War is fascinating. While commanders focused on tried and true 18th century infantry movements, the advancement in weaponry played an important role in raising the number of killed and wounded on both sides.
My ancestor, John McLain, was a Private in the 33rd Arkansas Confederate Infantry at the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry. He survived that dreadful day.
But all didn’t go well for his unit. The 33rd Arkansas took approximately 220 men into battle that morning in the Saline River swamp. Of those, ninety-two were killed or wounded in less than hour. That is a 41% casualty rate.
They were one of the first units brought to battle that morning. As part of General James Tappan’s Brigade, initially, the 33rd were held in reserve on the ridge overlooking the Saline River bottoms with the 19th/24th and 27th/38th Consolidated Arkansas units pushing across Grooms’ field toward the wall of 5,000 Federals hunkered down behind make-shift breastworks.
A veteran of the 27th Arkansas recalled that moment:
“When we passed through the timber, we entered an open field and marched through it toward the thick growth of timber on the opposite side and when we had got in thirty paces of the edge of the timber a destructive fire was opened up on us from a solid line of the enemy who were posted behind trees and logs in the edge of the timber. The deadly messengers flew thick and fast, killing and wounding the men at a fearful rate. Several of the men sank down, either shot dead or fatally wounded. It appeared that the missiles came as thick as hail. Our line staggered but there was no panic but it really appeared impossible to withstand such a raking fire. We heard the roar of the enemy’s small arms and the hissing of the Minnie balls as they sped through the air, with a thud when they struck a man, or a splash in the mud and water when they struck the ground. The terrible war of the guns and the noise of the balls were making and despairing groans of the wounded seemed awful. There were no orders given to return the fire but onward we went carrying our guns on our shoulders while terrible vollies [sic] were poured into our ranks.”
Watching from the ridge overlooking the bottom was the 33rd Arkansas. One of their soldiers would write later:
“After our regiment had stood there in line for twenty minutes it was ordered forward and into action. There was nothing of the romance of war or battle. No waving of banners; no martial music; no thronging of women, children and gray-haired men to the battlements of a beautiful city to witness the sentiment about this. The rain pattered down steadily. The men stood in the ranks, cold, wet, and hungry and gazed down into that dismal, cheerless swamp.”
Once they stepped off into the bottom, things went to absolute hell for the 33rd Arkansas.
As they charged across the muddy field, which had been planted in corn now ankle high, they marched into a swarm of enemy fire. One soldier later recalled how you could hold you hat up in the air and catch a hat full of minie balls being fired at them. There was a distance of approximately 200 yards they had to cover in order to make it to the Federal line. Once they got to within a hundred yards or so, the Federals opened up with a dreadful fire, dropping soldiers up and down the line. One of those who went down was their commander, Colonel Hiram Grinstead. A soldier recalled his fatal wounding:
“There was confusion in our lines every now and then and some of the boys would get a little shaky and start back to the rear. I recollect at one time that Colonel Grinstead darted in before one of these men who had started to the rear and with his sword drawn back in a threatening manner, I heard the Colonel yell out distinctly, for he was close to me, ‘If you don’t go back, I will kill you,’ and the man stopped and turned round and went back…Very soon after this Colonel Grinstead fell. I did not see him fall. But someone said ‘Colonel Grinstead is killed,’ and I looked and saw him lying on the ground.”
By the time it was over, the dead and wounded of the 33rd Arkansas was scattered across the battlefield, the screams of the wounded echoing throughout the river bottom.
41% of the men of the 33rd Arkansas went down in the mud at Jenkins’ Ferry. Today, even a single death of a soldier overseas in the Middle East makes national news. Imagine how a 41% casualty rate would devastate a unit (and a community).
High casualty during the Civil War wasn’t uncommon. In 1864, at the Battle of Cold Harbor, there were 7,000 soldiers killed within the first twenty minutes of the battle.
It was a dreadful slaughter.
Many of the dead would be carried back to Camden where they would be buried, including their commander, Colonel Grinstead. They rest silently today gather forever amongst one another.
But many remain on the battlefield today where they lay – in unmarked graves, the cornfield having been abandoned by the families who lived there – unable to plow a field where the bodies almost outnumbered the corn.