April 30, This day during the American Civil War

April 30, 1864 – The Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry was fought April 30, 1864, in Grant County, Arkansas during the American Civil War. It was the climactic battle of the Camden Expedition, which was a part of the Union Army’s failed Red River Campaign. Each side sustained a large number of casualties, especially considering the size of the respective forces, and a general was killed on each side. As a result of the battle, the Union force was able to complete a successful retreat from a precarious position at Camden, Arkansas to their defenses at Little Rock, Arkansas. General Steele’s Union forces reached Jenkins’ Ferry, Arkansas on the Saline River at 2:00 p.m. on April 29, 1864 in their retreat from Camden, Arkansas to their base at Little Rock, Arkansas. They found that the river was swollen by heavy rain. The rain continued in torrents on April 29 and the riverbank and approaches became a quagmire of mud and standing water. The tired and famished Union troops could not construct their pontoon bridge and get their wagons and artillery out of the mud and over the river during the night, although the Union cavalry did get across. Since the Union commanders realized that Kirby Smith’s Confederate forces were rushing to catch up to them, a Union Army rear guard built breastworks and took a formidable defensive position to oppose the Confederates when they arrived in force on the morning of April 30. With Steele continuing to supervise the river crossing, Brigadier General Frederick (Friedrich) C. Salomon should have commanded the rear guard action against the pursuing Confederates but he left the task to Brigadier General Samuel Rice and 4,000 Union infantrymen. Before dawn on April 30, 1864, Marmaduke’s Confederate cavalry troopers arrived near Jenkins’ Ferry, dismounted and skirmished with Steele’s rear guard infantry force about 2 miles (3.2 km) from the Saline River crossing. Rice had placed the Union forces behind breastworks, abatis and rifle pits. Rice’s lines were protected by Cox Creek, sometimes shown as Toxie Creek on the right. While some accounts have stated that the Union position was bordered by an impassable cane swamp on one side and thick, rain-drenched timber on the other, other sources state that the left flank was vulnerable and only after failed Confederate efforts to turn his left flank did Rice extended the left end of his line until it rested on a steep wooded slope. The difficult approach to the Union position was only about four hundred yards wide and would allow at most only 4,000 Confederate infantry to attack at one time. In the event, the Confederates attacked in an even more piecemeal manner. Price first committed the infantry under Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill and then the infantry under Brigadier General Mosby M. Parsons to the battle as soon as they arrived on the field. In turn, they each made little headway because they had no cover for an attack and the approach to the Union position was ankle to knee deep in mud and pools of water. These Confederate divisions were sent into the attack piecemeal, brigade by brigade, not in a more concentrated effort. Gunpowder smoke added to a blanket of fog soon after the battle began. This smoke and fog made it nearly impossible for the opposing forces to see each other except by crouching down low. This served to help the defenders more since they were mainly lying behind their works and not attempting to get to them through the mud as the Confederate attackers were attempting to do. They also could simply fire into a narrow area where the Confederates had to attack and achieve effective results. The mud and standing water prevented cavalry and artillery from participating much in the battle. In fact, the Confederates lost three artillery pieces to a charge by the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry and the 29th Iowa Infantry regiments from their fortified positions. After Price’s forces under Brigadier Generals Churchill and Parsons had made little progress, Kirby Smith came up with the large Texas infantry division under Major General John G. Walker. Walker carried on the attack in the same manner as the previous divisions had done, brigade by brigade. All three Confederate brigade commanders under Walker were wounded in these attacks. Two of them, Brigadier General William Read Scurry and Colonel Horace Randal were mortally wounded. Union Brigadier General Samuel Rice also was mortally wounded in the final Confederate assault at Jenkins’ Ferry. After taking about 1,000 casualties in their repeated attacks against the well-fortified Union troops while inflicting only about 700 casualties on the defenders, including the capture of stragglers, the Confederates gave up the piecemeal attacks on the Union position. Before leaving the field, some African-American soldiers of the 2nd Kansas Colored regiment shot Confederate wounded 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 Marks’ Mill. After Price’s forces under Brigadier Generals Churchill and Parsons had made little progress, Kirby Smith came up with the large Texas infantry division under Major General John G. Walker. Walker carried on the attack in the same manner as the previous divisions had done, brigade by brigade. All three Confederate brigade commanders under Walker were wounded in these attacks. Two of them, Brigadier General William Read Scurry and Colonel Horace Randal were mortally wounded. Union Brigadier General Samuel Rice also was mortally wounded in the final Confederate assault at Jenkins’ Ferry. After taking about 1,000 casualties in their repeated attacks against the well-fortified Union troops while inflicting only about 700 casualties on the defenders, including the capture of stragglers, the Confederates gave up the piecemeal attacks on the Union position. Before leaving the field, some African-American soldiers of the 2nd Kansas Colored regiment shot Confederate wounded 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 Marks’ 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 irretrievably stuck in the mud, which they burned. Steele’s forces were compelled to abandon many more wagons in the swamp north of the Saline River. The Confederates did not renew the attack as Steele’s men crossed the pontoon bridge on the afternoon of April 30. Not only were the Confederates exhausted from the morning’s battle, but the Union forces had 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, which they would not need for the remainder of their march. With no way to get across the river, the Confederates could not follow them. By not trapping Steele’s force at Camden or cutting them off before they reached the Saline River, 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 paid dearly for the engagement. The Confederates officially reported 86 men killed, 356 wounded, and one missing for a total of 443 casualties. The numbers would doubtless have been much higher, perhaps 800 to 1,000, if Walker’s Texas division’s losses were known. Walker filed no report on the battle. Officially reported but incomplete Union casualties were 63 killed, 413 wounded, and 45 missing, a total of 521 casualties. The Union total casualty figure was incomplete because Brigadier General John Thayer filed no report. As noted above, in view of the incomplete or missing casualty reports, historians Shelby Foote and Gregory J. W. Urwin in the Heidlers’ Encyclopedia of the American Civil War used 1,000 and 700 as the best estimate of total Confederate and Union casualty figures, respectively, for this battle. The Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry may be counted as a Union victory, at least tactically. Not only did the Confederates sustain more casualties, but Steele’s Union troops successfully held back the attacking Confederates. This allowed the Union 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 viewpoint. Kirby Smith’s forces held the battlefield, prevented Steele from joining with or further assisting Banks and forced Steele’s continued retreat back to Little Rock. In the campaign overall, Steele had lost 3,000 men to Smith’s loss of 2,000. Many of Kirby Smith’s men were lightly wounded. Steele had lost 10 artillery pieces to balance with 3 captured. He also lost 635 wagons, 2,500 mules, enough horses to mount a cavalry brigade and a long list of captured material, including ammunition, food and medical supplies. The Union force lost General Rice while the Confederate force lost General Scurry and Colonel Randal. Kirby Smith’s last hope to destroy Steele’s army outside of his well-fortified base at Little Rock was dashed as a result of the mismanaged, disjointed and piecemeal attacks at Jenkins’ Ferry. Although the Union position and weather conditions limited Confederate options, a more concentrated effort appears to have been possible. The Confederates also failed to concentrate on the Union’s more vulnerable left flank at the outset, choosing instead to pursue frontal assaults across Kelly’s field, where the Southern lines of infantry were devastated by Union fire. Assuming Rice had left this weak spot in, or just beyond, his defenses, the Confederates’ early missed opportunity to attack in this area with concentrated force allowed Rice to see the possible vulnerability in his position and to extend and protect the left flank of the Union line. After the Union left flank was closed off, any opportunity for a successful Confederate attack at that point and any realistic chance Kirby Smith and Price might have had to trap most of Steele’s force was gone.

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