In the fall of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln devised a plan for the invasion of Texas primarily to capture cotton said to be housed in vast warehouses. The cotton was badly needed in northern textile mills.
His plan called for a three pronged Federal invasion force with General William Sherman moving west from Mississippi, General Nathaniel Banks moved north from the Gulf and General Frederick Steele marching south from Little Rock.
Steele was opposed to the plan from the start. It would require him to march southward across hostile Arkansas, which still had a sizeable Confederate force operating across it. That coupled with the lack of available supplies meant Steele’s army would have to forage on the march, a difficult task to feed 13,000 men and thousands of horses.
Steele made it as far south as Camden when he made the decision to turn back to the safety of Little Rock. His two attempts at obtaining supplies had met with disaster at the Battles of Marks’ Mill and Poison Spring.
Without Steele and with disorganization, the Federal invasion force collapsed. Confederate General E. Kirby Smith, based in Shreveport, heard of Steele’s plight and decided to pursue the Steele’s army, hoping to overtake it before it could reach the safety of Little Rock.
On the afternoon of April 29, 1864, the Federal army reached the west bank of the Saline River at Jenkins’ Ferry, a small crossing south of present day Sheridan. Upon arriving at the river, which was rapidly, rising during the heavy rains, Steele, his Chief Engineer Captain Junius Wheeler and Cavalry Commander General Eugene Carr, conferred about the situation. The decision was made to erect a pontoon bridge across the river (located where the state park is now located).
The work on the pontoon bridge, along with the muddy roads, slowed the Federal’s advance toward the river, enabling the Confederates time to close the gap. Several miles south of the river crossing, advanced Confederate troops engaged the Federal rear guard near Guesses’ Creek. The two armies banged away here for over an hour with musket and artillery fire. One artillery round blew a hole in a nearby two-story house, which the locals would refer to as the “Cannon Ball House.” This same house would serve as a Confederate hospital following the battle.
The Federals were able to hold back the Confederates as the crossing at the Saline River continued.
By nightfall on the 29th, the pontoon bridge was in place and Carr’s 3,000 horsemen had made the crossing. Steele had the cavalry cross first as their were rumors that Confederate Cavalry commander General James Fagan was moving toward unprotected Little Rock (which proved to be untrue).
Steele ordered the crossing to continue throughout the night. Meanwhile, the 8,000 Confederates under Kirby Smith pushed their way closer, bedding down just a few miles from the Federal position.
During the night, Steele ordered General Samuel Rice, commanding the Federal’s Third Brigade, to position his 5,000 troops at the rear in order to hold off any attack by the Confederates.
The area west of the Saline River was swampy with the heavy rains only adding to the situation. To the north lay Cox Creek, a slough running bank full with depths up to ten feet. Running alongside the creek was the Military Road with four fields (Wilder’s, Grooms’, Tucker’s and Foreman) running west to east through the bottom with the northern most portion of each field anchored along the Military Road.
The Federal’s Third Brigade positioned themselves alongside the eastern edge of Groom’s field and began cutting trees and piling the trees and limbs into makeshift breastworks as the swampy conditions made it impossible to dig trenches.
The swampy conditions were just as difficult to the Confederates. At daylight on April 30th, the Confederates arrived at the ridge overlooking the Saline River bottom. They observed the flooded Cox Creek to their north and even swampier conditions to their south. Their only option would be a series of headlong attacks across open ground into the Federal line.
And so it went. Wave after wave of Confederates charged the Federal line and was repulsed each time with heavy causalities.
Meanwhile, Steele continued moving his troops across the pontoon bridge and two miles north to an area on the high ground where they were to regroup.
Midway through the battle, the Texas Division, commanded by General John Walker, arrived joining the other two Divisions of Confederates on the field (Churchill’s Arkansas Division and Parson’s Missouri Division). General Kirby Smith, in an effort to break the Federal line, had ordered Walker to move up from the south, finding a little used road through the swamp.
As he approached Groom’s field, an area 200 yards square planted in ankle high corn, Walker observed this was where the fight was concentrated. He ordered one of his three Brigades to move up and prepare to move westward across the field (much as the other units had done). While this Brigade (Waul’s) moved head on toward the Federal line, Walker would take his other two Brigades (Randal and Scurry) and attack to Federal’s left flank, hoping the combined attack would break the line.
The problem was, Walker’s two Brigades moving up from the south became lost in the dense forest and emerged not on the edge of Groom’s field, but in the middle. General Horace Randal and William Scurry were shot down the moment they emerged from the wood line. Waul had begun pushing his men across the field when he observed the chaos occurring to his right. Just then, Waul was hit, his left arm almost blown off. All three Texas Brigade commanders were down.
Along the Federal line, General Rice was riding up and down the line, cheering his men when he was struck, a bullet striking his foot, driving the spur deep inside it (he would died of his would two months later).
There were now four generals down. A fifth, General John B. Clark, was also wounded but would survive.
General Randal and General Scurry would die of their wounds within hours. Scurry refused to be moved until the battle was finished. Then he said to those around him, “Now take me to a nearby house where I can be made comfortable and die.”
The Confederates, accepting the reality that the conditions were making it impossible to break the Federal line, broke off the attack. This enabled the Federal’s to make their escape across the Saline River.
Once the Federals crossed over, they sank the pontoon bridge into the Saline River, preventing the Confederates from using it. But in doing so, Steele made the decision to abandon his wounded, leaving them behind to be taken captive by the Confederates.
The Confederates remained on the field for two days, caring for the wounded of both armies as well as burying the dead.
Upon arrival at the high ground, the Federals camped for the night before continuing the march to Little Rock. Prior to leaving their encampment, General Steele ordered the destruction of over two hundred wagonloads of supplies, still fearful the Confederates would somehow make it across the river and begin the pursuit once again.
Though technically a Federal victory by their escaping the situation, both armies suffered heavy casualties with figures running as high as 1,700 killed or wounded during the battle.