Union Forces Commanded by: Col. Christopher C. Andrews
Confederate Forces Commanded by: Brig. Gen. Dandridge McRae
**Missing and Captured
Conclusion: Confederate Victory
Brig. Gen. Dandridge McRae, following the retreat from Little Rock, Arkansas was given “command of that portion of the state lying between White and Mississippi rivers.” Aided by 46 commissioned officers who were left without commands by the flood of Confederate desertions, McRae had gone to northeast Arkansas to “collect and return to their commands all absentees found in that section.” As Steele’s army headed into Southwest Arkansas, Col. Christopher C. Andrews of the 3rd Minnesota Infantry led an expedition up the White River in search of McRae and to keep him from mounting attacks against Union positions. Andrews, whom Steele had appointed as garrison commander of Little Rock when the 3rd Minnesota marched into the capital on September 11, 1863, thought that his men “would enjoy an expedition into the country” after half a year of garrison duty.
Andrews took 186 men of of the 3rd Minnesota, commanded by Maj. Everett W. Foster, and headed to DeValls Bluff by train on March 30th, arriving there at 4:30 A.M. Andrews placed his men, along with a detachment of 45 troopers of the 8th Missouri Cavalry under Capt. L. J. Matthews, aboard the steamer Dove and headed up the White River. Awaiting the small Union expeditionary force would be McRae’s grab-bag command, which included about 400 Missourians under Col. Thomas R. Freeman, Capt. George W. Rutherford’s 60 Arkansas troopers, and small companies of 30 men under Capt. Sam McGuffin, 20 under Captain Reynolds, 35 under Captain John Bland and 50 men under Captain Tracy – a combined force of some 545 Confederates.
Andrews arrived at Gregory’s Landing on the White River at dusk and promptly sent patrols out toward Straight Lake, 4 miles out from the landing, where one of McRae’s camps was thought to be located. Using a guide who had been picked up during the Dove’s journey up the White, the Union troops proceeded through the dark, stormy night toward the Cache Bayou. Some of the 8th Missouri troopers surrounded a farmhouse across the bayou, but on learning that the Confederate camp had been abandoned that morning the entire party returned to the Dove.
The Union troops were up early the next morning and arrived at Augusta, “a small but pleasantly situated village,” at 5:00 A.M., quickly surrounding the town and seizing local citizens and slaves to question them about McRae’s location. Andrews learned that the main Confederate camp was supposed to be at Antony’s, located 7 miles up the Jacksonport Road. Leaving a small guard aboard the Dove, Andrews hurried his little command of 160 Minnesotans and the cavalrymen of the 8th Missouri toward Jacksonport.
After traveling barely 1.5 miles out of Augusta, the Union column ran into a Confederate patrol. The Missouri cavalry “pursued and charged them 2 miles, and captured 2 prisoners” before waiting for the arrival of the Minnesota infantrymen. As Foster’s infantrymen linked up with the cavalry contingent, about 150 troopers under Rutherford attacked. Foster took 3 companies of the 3rd Minnesota and drove the Confederate cavalry through the woods and across a large cypress swamp.
Andrews set flankers out from the main column and sent patrols ahead as his troops continued up the Jacksonport Road. About 6 miles from Augusta, the Federals encountered McRae himself, watering his horse in a stream near the Antony farm. “Just ahead in the woods I saw soldiers moving about, which I supposed were Rutherford’s, as many of my people wore Federal overcoats,” McRae remembered later. “A lieutenant of cavalry who had served in the cavalry since 1861 said, ‘General, they are Federals.’ I said that was impossible, since Rutherford was ahead of us and would notify me. … About that time they fired on us. ... There was no retreat for us except back through the long lane, enclosed on each side with a high rail fence.” On learning at Antony’s that they had just fired on McRae, Andrews “immediately ordered the cavalry detachment to pursue at the utmost speed, which was done.” He fled toward McCoy’s east of the Jacksonport Road, escaping his Union pursuers.
The Union contingent continued past Fitzhugh’s on the Jacksonport Road, locating another hastily abandoned Confederate camp. After marching 12 miles from Augusta, Andrews decided to abandon his pursuit of McRae’s scattered troops and return to Augusta. As they passed the road to McCoy’s, a group of Confederates appeared in the road. Andrews, fearing an ambush, declined to pursue them"
The Union soldiers paused at Fitzhugh’s plantation for lunch. As the footsore Minnesotans relaxed, “we discovered a large force of mounted men charging down upon us on our right and rear,” Foster reported. The Federals quickly formed into line of battle, and Andrews sent 2 companies forward to engage their attackers, the Missouri cavalry of Freeman’s command joined by Bland’s company. “They charged down through the open fields with loud yells,” Foster wrote, and “I let them approach within 150 yards, then sent a volley of minie-balls into them, which caused them to cease their yelling and break to the rear for the woods with headlong speed.”
Andrews was hurrying his men down the Jacksonport Road toward Augusta when “accompanied by a real rebel yell, a fierce charge was made upon our rear.” The attack came south of Fitzhugh’s place at a wooded area called Fitzhugh’s Woods, located about 500 yards north of a cypress brake. The Jacksonport Road was bordered there on the east by a cultivated field marked by “a thin body of dead timber,” on the west with a growth of heavy timber.
As the Confederates hit the Union rear guard, other Confederate troops appeared in front and to the left of the Union soldiers. “It was now apparent to all that we were largely outnumbered,” Andrew wrote later. “We were 6 miles from our transport and the situation looked desperate.” He immediately sent skirmishers from the 3rd Minnesota to shelter among the timber and felled trees, holding a company in reserve as the Missouri cavalrymen dismounted and formed up on the Union left. The combatants then commenced a heavy fire, “the men on both sides uttering defiant shouts,” at a distance of about 200 yards as “above the clamor we could hear the loud exhortations of their chiefs urging on the men to charge,” Andrews wrote. The Confederate cavalrymen fought dismounted.
After about an hour of fighting, the Confederate troops began to creep around the Union right in an attempt to cut the Federals off from the bayou crossing, leading Andrews to draw his troops off to a position around a cluster of log buildings and fences. The Confederates advanced into Fitzhugh’s Woods during the Union retrograde movement “and rose up and came on with the utmost shouting and clamor.” The Federals, growing short of ammunition, continued a steady fire. Despite the exhortations of their officers, the Confederate forces did not seriously challenge this new position, losing several officers who “vainly endeavored to stimulate their men to a desperate attack.”
McRae’s men, too, were low on ammunition. “I directed Rutherford to take such part of my force as were armed with pistols, mount his men, and charge the Federals, who were then retreating, but they manifested such sturdiness, and delivered such a heavy fire that he was unable to accomplish anything, being entirely out of ammunition,” the Confederate commander remembered later.
Andrews sent a line of sharpshooters to the Union rear after 2 1/2 hours of fighting to protect their line of retreat, then pulled his men back toward Augusta, moving the Missouri cavalrymen back first, followed by the Minnesota infantry. “Although the ford of the bayou is about 125 yards wide, and extremely difficult to cross in the vicinity of a Confederate, we made the passage without interference or obstacle, which is further evidence that he had been thoroughly whipped.” McRae acknowledged that “I was unable to do more than to slowly follow until the force returned to Augusta, embarked aboard their steamers, and left. What I was anxious to do was to reach Augusta and their boats before the Federals and thus cut them off; but there was not a round of ammunition to the men left.”
The Federals fell back to Augusta.Re-embarking on the Dove, the tired Federals headed back toward DeValls Bluff. Andrews reported his casualties as 7 killed, 16 wounded and 4 wounded and missing from the 3rd Minnesota; 1 killed and 1 missing from the 8th Missouri. Later reports put the Confederate losses at twenty to twenty-five killed and mortally wounded, sixty to seventy-five wounded, and about twenty horses killed. In addition to the wounds suffered by Lieutenant Garner and Colonel Freeman, at least four other officers were killed.
While it did little to affect the outcome of the war, the action at Fitzhugh’s Woods did serve to, at least temporarily, disrupt McRae’s efforts to recruit soldiers to the Confederate cause or bring deserters back into the service. It also was the largest military engagement to take place in Woodruff County during the Civil War.