Brown County Historical Scrapbook: The Battle of Jenkins Ferry

Brownwood Bulletin
Ronnie and Donnie Lappe

Colonel Simon Pierce Burns, who later lived in Brown County, commanded Company A of the Missouri 11th Infantry Regime Unit in the Civil War Battle of Jenkins Ferry, a bloody battle near Little Rock, Arkansas, with a lot of casualties on both sides.

General Price ordered Brigadier-General Thomas Churchill’s division and Brigadier-General Mosby Parsons’ division to the battle as soon as they arrived. They each made little headway because they had no cover for an attack and the area to attack was ankle to knee deep in mud and pools of water. These Confederate divisions were sent into the attack in a piecemeal fashion, and there should have been a better coordinated attack.

There was heavy gunpowder smoke and a blanket of fog. The smoke and fog made it nearly impossible for the opposing forces to see each other, except by crouching down low.

This helped the defenders more since they were stationed behind breast works. When the Confederate attackers attempted to move ahead through the haze, the Union men could fire into a narrow area where the Confederates had to attack without aiming directly, knowing the Confederates had to come through that small area to attack.

It was like a shooting gallery with the target lined up in front of the shooter. The mud and standing water prevented cavalry and artillery from participating much in the battle because they could not move easily and would get stuck.

The Confederates lost three artillery weapons in a charge by the Union 2nd Kansas African American Infantry and the 29th Iowa Infantry regiments from their fortified positions.

Price’s forces under Brigadier-Generals Churchill and Parsons made little progress. Kirby Smith came up with the large Texas infantry division under Major-General John Walker. Walker carried on the attack in the same uncoordinated manner, with each brigade making a separate attack.

All three of the Confederate Brigade commanders were wounded in the attack. Two of them, Brigadier-General William Scurry and Colonel Horace Randal were mortally wounded. U.S. Brigadier-General Samuel Rice was also mortally wounded in the final Confederate assault at Jenkins’ Ferry.

There were about 1,000 confederate casualties in the repeated attacks against the well-fortified federal troops. There were about 700 casualties on the union side. There were some men captured.

The Confederates gave up the piecemeal attacks. Some African American soldiers of the 2nd Kansas African American regiment shot Confederate wounded men near Rice’s line in retaliation for the shooting of African American soldiers who were trying to surrender at Poison Spring and the killing of wounded African American soldiers at Mark’s Mill.

By about 3:00 p.m. on April 30, 1864, the union forces finally crossed the Saline River with all their remaining men and the artillery pieces and equipment and supply wagons which were not stuck in the mud, but others were, and were not able to be moved. General Steele’s forces had to abandon many more wagons in the swamp north of the Saline River.

The Confederates were exhausted from the morning’s battle.  The union forces set up artillery and infantry on the opposite side of the river to protect the remaining union soldiers as they crossed the bridge. After crossing the Saline River, Steele’s forces cut and burned the pontoon bridge. The Confederates had no way to get across the river. They could not follow the union forces.

The Confederates, under Kirby Smith, lost a good chance to destroy Steele’s army, which was the major portion of union forces in Arkansas. After crossing the river and three days’ further march, Steele’s forces regrouped within the fortifications of Little Rock.

Considering the numbers engaged and percentage of casualties, the battle of Jenkins’ Ferry was one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles. Both armies had major losses. The Confederates officially reported 86 men killed, 356 wounded and one missing for a total of 443 casualties.

There were more casualties because Walker’s Texas division’s losses were unknown. Walker did not file a report in the battle. The union casualty report was also incomplete. Reported union casualties were 63 killed, 413 wounded and 45 missing, a total of 521 casualties. The U.S. total casualty figure was incomplete because Brigadier-General John Thayer did not file a report.

The Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry may be counted as a federal victory, at least, tactically. The Confederates sustain more casualties, and Steele’s federal troops successfully held back the attacking Confederates.

This allowed the federal forces time and space to move most of their remaining wagons, artillery, equipment, cavalry and infantry across the Saline River and to escape back to the safety of Little Rock. Yet, Steele’s victory was hollow from a strategic standpoint.

Taken partly from The Civil War Times and other Reports of the Battle.