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Camden's Arkansas Expedition

  • Time Period: arch 23- May 3, 1864
  • Area: Arkansas area
  • Explanation: This expedition was also known as Steele's Arkansas Campaign

Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele enjoyed a distinguished war record until spring 1864, when, as commander of all Union forces in Arkansas, he was ordered by the War Department to cooperate with Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks in the latter's red River Campaign- the goal; the capture of Shreveport, Louisiana. Steele opposed the plan, for the roads were bad in that wet season, the country was stripped of forage, and his flanks would be susceptible to Confederate raiders. The government ordered him to move out of Little Rock, and Steele complied.

On March 23rd, 3 weeks later than intended because of poor supply and organization, Steele led the 3rd Division/VII Corps and 2 cavalry brigades south toward the Red River. Brig. Gen. John M. Taylor was to join him at Arkadelphia, making a combined army of 10,400. All along the way, Steele skirmished with Confederate cavalry, slowing his march, but when he reached Arkadelphia on the 29th, Thayer was not there, nor did he arrive for several days, by which time Steele had decided that he had to push on despite shortages of supplies. It was April 9th before the 2 columns united in the vicinity of Elkin's Ferry on the Little Missouri, and already the campaign was in serious trouble.

Steele's role in the campaign was to draw the Confederate cavalry away from Shreveport, so that banks could take the city with very little opposition. The plan was working after a fashion, for 3 of the 5 available brigades of confederate cavalry in the region were moving toward Steele. Brig. Gen. John S. Marmaduke, commanding the brigades of Brig. Gen. Joseph O. Shelby. Col. Colton Greene, and Brig. Gen. William L. Cabell, had set out harassing Steele's advance and began serious skirmishing with him on April 1st as the federals left Arkadelphia. During the next several days, additional skirmishes impeded Steele's advance at Wolf Creek and Okolona near Antoine, and at Elkin's Ferry. On the 10th, when Steele and Thayer moved out to into Prairie D'Ane, they engaged in a small scale battle with foes that by now numbered more than 5,000, a battle that continued intermittently for 4 days. Confederates in the region were commanded by Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, and they believed that Steele's goal was Washington, Arkansas, some 10 miles west of Prairie D'Ane. Steele only made a demonstration in that direction, then turned east and marched toward camden, his original goal. Still short of supplies, he intended to make Camden his base for any further campaigning. His men had been on half-rations for almost 3 weeks, and the situation was made worse when word came of Banks' defeat at Mansfield, and his subsequent abandonement of the Red River Campaign. Now Steele was on his own, deep in Confederate territory.

Thanks to the Washington feint, Steele reached Camden one step ahead of the Confederates. On the 15th, after a sharp skirmish with Marmaduke, Steele occupied the town with his exhausted, starving army. Three days later, furhter disaster loomed when a supply train sent out to forage was overwhelmed at Poison Spring. On the 20th, Steele had confirmation of Bank's withdrawal when Maj. Gen. E. Kirby Smith arrived in front of him with 3 divisions. Smith ordered divisions made against Camden to cover the movements of other troops attempting to get behind Steele, and between Steele and Little Rock. Control of the campaign had gone over to the Confederates, and they completed Steele's discomfiture on the 25th, when Price's troops captured a train of 211 wagons sent from Camden with a 2,000-man escort to get supplies. Only 300 men escaped. Out of supplies, outnumbered in the field, and in danger of being surrounded and isolated, Steele ordered a withdrawal to Little Rock.

Moving due north, by way of Princeton, Steele was harassed all the way and finally forced to battle on the 29-30th at Jenkin's Ferry on the Saline River. Leaving behind his seriously wounded, and abandoning or destroying the pontoon bridge he had constructed, Steele successfully defended himself and ended the pursuit. Still, there were 3 more days of dreary march, often in the dark, the way lit by fires set by advance cavalry. On May 3rd, the Federals returned to Little Rock, thoroughly worn out, disgusted, and discouraged.

The whole campaign had been a failure, due chiefly to Steele's constant shortage of supplies and Banks' predictable failure on the red River. Steele had suffered a total of 2,750 casualties, 400 more than the Confederates, and lost 9 field pieces and well over 650 wagons. Worse, Smith and Price were now free to turn on the retreating Banks. Had they done so successfully, there might have been a major Union ctastrophe in Louisiana.

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