Beginning with the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, Confederate fortunes in the Trans-Mississippi theater of the American Civil War declined. Less than a week later, on July 9, 1863, Major General Franklin Gardner surrendered the Confederate garrison at Port Hudson, between Shreveport and the confluence of the Red River and the Mississippi River. Gardner’s surrender established Union control of the entire Mississippi River. Two months later, on September 10, 1863, federal forces commanded by Brigadier General Frederick Steele drove Major General Sterling Price‘s Confederate forces out of Little Rock, Arkansas, and occupied the state’s capital for the rest of the war.
Even before Steele’s success in Arkansas, Major General Henry W. Halleck, the Chief-of-Staff of Union armies, began urging his generals in the west to move against Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi theater and bring Texas back into the Union.
By December 1863, Halleck had devised his own three-pronged Union assault against Confederate forces in Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas:
- Major General Nathaniel P. Banks would march 20,000 troops from the area around New Orleans across southern Louisiana and occupy Alexandria, Louisiana, near the center of the state, before moving on to Shreveport.
- Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter would ascend the Red River and join Banks at Alexandria with over thirty warships and an accompanying supply fleet. A land force of 10,000 soldiers, commanded by Brigadier General Andrew Jackson Smith and detached from William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee, would protect Dixon’s flotilla.
- After Banks and Porter joined forces and continued upriver toward Shreveport, Steele would lead another 10,000 Union soldiers out of Little Rock, Arkansas, and approach Shreveport from the north or east. Steele’s part of the operation was known as the Camden Expedition.
Steele Voices His Opposition
By early March, Steele began voicing opposition to his participation in Halleck’s plan for three reasons:
- Road conditions in Arkansas were unpredictable in early spring, thus hindering Steele’s abilities to move and supply his forces.
- Planting season provided little opportunity to forage for food as the army advanced.
- There was a high likelihood of confronting strong partisan resistance along the way.
Rather than launching a full-scale operation into southern Arkansas, Steele proposed a diversionary operation designed to confuse the Confederates and deflect attention from Banks’ and Dixon’s offensives.
On March 15, 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, who had assumed command of all Union armies a few days earlier, ended all discourse regarding the matter when he wrote to Steele:
Move your force in full cooperation with General N.P. Banks’ attack on Shreveport. A mere demonstration will not be sufficient. Now that a large force has gone up Red River, it is necessary that Shreveport and the Red River should come into our possession.
Steele dutifully complied with Grant’s orders. On March 17, Steele ordered Brigadier General John F. Thayer’s Frontier Division to leave Fort Smith with 3,600 Union troops and rendezvous with him at Arkadelphia, Arkansas on April 1. Thayer departed Fort Smith four days later. On March 23, Steele marched 6,800 Union soldiers out of Little Rock, headed south toward Arkadelphia.
During the next forty days, Steele’s soldiers would take part in five engagements and travel roughly 275 miles before returning to Little Rock as the final chapter in possibly the most disastrous Union campaign of the Civil War.
Battle of Elkin’s Ferry (aka Engagement at Elkin’s Ferry): April 3–4, 1864
After leaving Little Rock on March 23, Steele was so concerned about feeding his men that he ordered half rations on the second day of the march. He arrived at Arkadelphia on March 29 but found little forage. Having received no news about Thayer’s advance, and increasingly concerned about provisioning his force, Steele pushed on toward Shreveport on April 1.
When Major General Sterling Price, commander of the Confederacy’s District of Arkansas, learned of Steele’s march, he prepared to stop the Yankees. He ordered two brigades of Rebel cavalry to harass Steele’s vanguard as they advanced, while another cavalry brigade attacked the Union column’s flanks.
Despite the Confederate harassment, Steele reached the Little Missouri River on April 3rd. Discovering that the Rebels had destroyed all the bridges spanning the river, Steele chose to cross at Elkin’s Ferry.
Roughly 2,000 Union soldiers commanded by Colonel William McLean forded the Little Missouri River and established a bridgehead. They then began scouting enemy positions. After skirmishing with Confederate pickets, Colonel Francis M. Drake positioned six companies of infantry and an artillery battery along the road leading to Elkin’s Ferry.
The next morning (April 4), Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke led two Confederate cavalry brigades and accompanying artillery up the road toward Elkin’s Ferry. Outnumbered 300 to 1,200, Drake’s men slowly retreated until reinforcements arrived and staved off a Rebel charge.
Having lost his huge numerical advantage, Marmaduke left the field to the Federals, freeing Steele to get the rest of his force across the river.
Thirty Union soldiers were wounded during their victory at the Battle of Elkin’s Ferry. Confederate casualties totaled fifty killed and eighteen wounded.
After getting his forces across the Little Missouri River, Steele received word of Thayer’s approach on April 6, 1864. Upon learning of Thayer’s approach, Steele marched some of his troops southeast toward Washington, the temporary capital of Arkansas. The Union general hoped to draw Confederate General Sterling Price’s Army of Arkansas away from Camden, leaving the Confederate town and its much-needed provisions vulnerable to attack from the rest of the Union force.