March 30, 1864 – This Day During The American Civil War – The Battle of Mount Elba

March 30, 1864 – The Battle of Mount Elba also known as Action at Mount Elba, was fought in present-day Cleveland County, Arkansas, as part of the Camden Expedition, during the American Civil War.
On March 27, 1864 Colonel Clayton, who commanded the Fifth Kansas Cavalry at Pine Bluff, reported to Union Brigadier General Kimball his plans to launch an attack at Mount Elba, a community on the Saline in modern day Cleveland County, and “at which point, I will throw a temporary bridge across the Saline, and leave my infantry and part of my artillery to hold the same and act as a reserve. I will cross with my cavalry, make a feint in the direction of Camden, and move rapidly down the Saline by way of Warren to Long View, at which point the enemy have a pontoon bridge over which they cross in communicating with Camden from Monticello. I think they have some military stores also at this point. By destroying this bridge, I will cut off their communications and will be able to attack any small parties that may be between the Saline and the Washita .”
The infantry and train moved out of the post at Pine Bluff at sunset on the 27th with 100 cavalry commanded by Lieutenants Greathouse and Young in the direction on Monticello. The balance of the cavalry started at daylight the next morning.
Clayton moved first toward Monticello, then toward Mount Elba. Arriving at Mount Elba in Cleveland County about 4 p. m. on March 28, the Union troops killed one and captured four of the Confederates defenders there. They then began assembling their wheeled pontoons and completed a bridge across the river by midnight.
Confederate troops at Mount Elba were returning from Gaines Landing on the Mississippi River near Eudora where they had picked up supplies to be taken to the Confederate command in Camden. With the attack on Mount Elba, many of those soldiers withdrew to the Longview area.
Lieutenants Greathouse and Young returned during the night and reported that they had driven in the enemy’s pickets at Branchville the night before. At daylight on the morning of the 29th, Colonel Clayton left all the infantry, three pieces of artillery and one squadron of cavalry with the train at Mount Elba under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Marks with instructions to hold the bridge and observe the enemy in the direction of Monticello. He then moved eight miles with the balance of his command across the Saline in the direction of Camden to the vicinity of Marks’ Mill.
Colonel Clayton made this crossroads the base of his operations and gave instructions to Lieutenants Greathouse and Young with 50 picked and well mounted men each, for a total of 100, to move rapidly by the way of Warren to Longview to destroy the pontoon bridge. In order to cover the raid on Longview, Colonel Clayton sent a squad of cavalry along the Camden road, the two Princeton roads and up each side of the Saline River with instructions to convey the idea that the whole command was advancing on each of these roads. These squads of cavalry went out from 10 to 20 miles and returned the same day. Captain Pierce captured six prisoners on the road up the south banks of the Saline River. Captain Young skirmished with a squad of Confederate cavalry on the Princeton road, capturing 10 prisoners and reported Confederate General Joseph Shelby was at Princeton.
At daylight on the morning of March 29, the Union troops left their encampment at Mount Elba and moved rapidly toward Camden to the vicinity of Mark’s Mills. From there, Clayton sent Lieutenants Frank M. Greathouse of the First Indiana Cavalry and Grover Young of the Fifth Kansas Cavalry with 50 picked men from each unit, for a total of 100 troopers, “to move with the utmost rapidity by the way of Warren to Long View, to destroy the pontoon bridge, the enemy’s trains, etc.”
The Union cavalrymen moved rapidly, arriving on the west side of the river at Longview just after sundown. A number of Confederate soldiers were encamped on the west side of the river.
Apparently Confederate pickets failed to respond to the presence of the Union raiding party because they assumed that the Union soldiers were a party of Wright’s Cavalry that recently passed through the area were returning for some reason. It was often difficult to distinguish Union soldiers from Confederates during this period of the war. Some Confederates in Arkansas were wearing clothing manufactured at Confederate depots made out of English army cloth. Confederates had received a supply of British cloth through the Union blockade to Confederate depots in Texas, and a supply of uniforms made from this cloth had been forwarded to Arkansas. Jackets made from this material were hard to distinguish from Federal infantry and mounted service jackets. To add to the confusion, some Confederate units, such as Confederate General Joe Shelby’s Missouri Cavalry Brigade had become known for dressing in captured Union uniforms. Confederates on the west side of the river apparently thought that the Union cavalrymen were fellow Confederates and made no attempt to resist them. The written report that the two lieutenants explained, “When we came to the fork of Long View and Camden Road, which is some two miles from Long View, we took four prisoners, and learned from them that there had been a train of nine wagons and 25 men passed out a short time ahead of us. We sent a party out after them, burnt the wagons, and captured the men. We learned from them that there was a large train crossing, which had come out from Monticello that day. We moved on, and reached their camp just at dark. We charged into their camp, surrounded them, and demanded their surrender, and ordered them to fall into line. We coming on them so unexpectedly, and they being in such confusion, they obeyed immediately. There were 250 men, 7 or 8 officers. We destroyed their bridge, threw about 175 or 200 stand of arms in the river, burnt 30 wagons, which were loaded with baggage and camp equippage, also ammunition; took some 300 horses and mules. We then mounted our prisoners, and returned to our most worthy commander all O. K.”
Numerous accounts of the skirmish at Longview seemed to suggest that most of the Confederates there were engaged in unloading a steamer of corn along with a supply and baggage train headed to Camden. The Steamer was not captured as once it became apparent what was happening the crew slipped it mooring and allowed the boat to drift downstream to be hidden in some rushes.
The Union troops cut the pontoon bridge and destroyed a Confederate supply train they found on the west side of the river, and by 9:30 the next morning, had returned to the Union camp at Mount Elba.
While the remainder of Dockery’s brigade remained in camp at Monticello, Colonel John C. Wrights’ regiment was on outpost duty between Pine Bluff and Monticello. Here, Colonel Wright received orders from General Dockery to move in the direction of Pine Bluff and ascertain whether the enemy had moved or was preparing to move. When within a few miles of Pine Bluff, Colonel Wright learned that the enemy had gone south on the day before in the direction of Mount Elba, Colonel Wright immediately took up the pursuit and overtook the enemy at sundown camped in the town of Mount Elba. At this time his presence was not known. Leaving a strong picket in the enemy’s rear, he moved five miles east across Big Creek and went into camp. Earlier he had sent a courier to General Dockery at Monticello informing him of the condition and asking for re-enforcements.
In a few hours a courier from General Dockery arrived with an order stating, “The General commanding is surprised to learn of your whereabouts; supposed from the orders given you, you would be in the vicinity of Pine Bluff. You will report at once to these headquarters.” Colonel Wright’s answer to this was, “if I obey this order there will not be so much as a single picket between you and the enemy. I am sure the General commanding does not understand this situation, hence I decline to obey until further orders.” This answer was dispatched in haste and by daylight on the morning of the 30th, General Dockery with his brigade was at the camp of Colonel Wright.
While en route to attack the Union force at Mount Elba, Colonel Wright informed General Dockery that he had men in his command that knew the country well, who had before sunrise had gotten behind the Federal pickets and captured them without firing a shot, so that when the whole command was within a few hundred yards of the Union camp, their presence being unsuspected.
A charge then would have taken them by surprise and the results would be almost certain capture of all north of the river. But, General Dockery would not consent and delayed two hours getting his regiments into position. Meanwhile, their presence had been discovered by Captain Barnes with a squad of cavalry who had been sent on the road toward Monticello to watch the enemy.
About 2:00 a.m. on the morning of the 30th, fearing that Lieutenant-Colonel Marks might not have sufficient cavalry to watch the enemy in the direction of Monticello, Colonel Clayton sent Captain Barnes with a squad of cavalry to report to him with orders to move at daylight in that direction. About 8:30 a.m. Colonel Clayton received a report that Captain Barnes had met the enemy on an opposite side of the river and had been driven in. Colonel Clayton immediately sent Lieutenant Colonel Jenkins with the Fifth Kansas cavalry to the assistance of Lieutenant-Colonel Marks, who was holding the bridge at Mount Elba.
At 9:30 a.m. Lieutenants Greathouse and Young returned and reported the destruction of the bridge at Long View, the burning of a loaded train of 35 wagons, the capture of a large number of arms and ammunition, and bringing with them about 260 prisoners, nearly 300 horses and mules and a large number of contrabands.
When Captain Barnes reported to Lieutenant-Colonel Marks early on the morning of the 30th, he sent his out on the road toward Monticello with instructions to scout the road for some distance and report by night. At 7:30 a.m. Captain Barnes returned and reported that he had encountered a body of the enemy cavalry of 100 men marching in the direction of Mount Elba.
Colonel Marks immediately prepared for their defense. A barricade was formed of rails and logs from some negro huts and companies A, F, G, H and I of the Twenty-Eighth Wisconsin was thrown forward as skirmishers to engage the enemy and watch his movements. Here the skirmishing continued for approximately two hours. A t 9:30 a.m., The Federal skirmishers were forced to retreat into their camp, closely followed by the Confederates who made a spirited attack. About the time the Federal skirmishers were driven in, Lieutenant-Colonel Jenkins of the Fifth Kansas cavalry arrived at the Ferry and assumed command of the camp.
Dismounting his men and leaving the horses under the bluff across the river from the camp, Colonel Jenkins sent his men to the front and threw out the line of skirmishers to hold the enemy in check as long as possible enabling them to improve on the hastily constructed barricades from the rails lying scattered around and in the fences nearby. This was done under a heavy fire from the enemy who now appeared in such force that Colonel Jenkins’ skirmishers had to fall back on the main command.
The Union battle line was formed with the right flank held by the Eightieth Illinois infantry, the left by the Twenty- Eighth Wisconsin and two companies of the Fifth Kansas cavalry and the center by three howitzers supported by the dismounted cavalry. The Confederates evidently expecting easy victory, kept moving steadily forward under the cover of the timber keeping up a continuous fire along their whole line. Up to this time only two or three rounds had been fired from the artillery though the firing of small arms had been severe for some time. The Confederates were now advancing with loud cheers and could plainly be seen through the woods in their front. Colonel Jenkins ordered the howitzers to be fired as rapidly as possible. After 30 minutes of hard fighting, it became evident that the severity of the Union fire was causing the Confederates to fall back in great haste and confusion. Seeing this, Colonel Jenkins again advanced his skirmishers and threw his left flank for ward some 300 or 400 yards. Here they found a number of Confederate dead and wounded as well as a number of arms which had been left in their hurried retreat. Colonel Jenkins now had the horses brought across the river and Majors Walker and Scudder of the Fifth Kansas cavalry with 100 men and one howitzer were sent after the retreating Confederates with orders to harass them as much as possible. Lieutenant Colonel Jenkins had just issued orders to have the dead collected, the wounded taken into the house, and to have the arms gathered when Colonel Clayton arrived relieving him of command.
When the sound of the artillery firing was heard in the direction of Mount Elba and after a courier from Colonel Jenkins reported an engagement going on at that place, Colonel Clayton, who was still at his camp at Mark’s Mill, immediately marched to the assistance of Colonel Jenkins. When he arrived at the crossing, he found that the enemy had been repulsed and had fallen back about one mile, followed by Majors Walker and Scudder with the Fifth Kansas cavalry. He immediately joined the pursuit with all his available cavalry and instructed Colonel Marks to follow with the infantry. After going about one mile, he found the enemy posted in thick timber with an enclosed field and peach orchard between his position. He had the fence thrown down and ordered the charge.
When the artillery opened fire, the Union cavalry charged across the. open field into the timber. Here the Confederates broke into the wildest confusion and from this time on, their retreat was a perfect rout. The road and timber was strewn with blankets, saddlebags and guns. Prisoners were being brought in and sent to the rear. The pursuit was kept up until the Union cavalry reached a point about five miles from Mount Elba where the road crosses Big Creek. Here the Confederate rear guard under the command of Colonel Wright had succeeded in tearing up about 20 feet of the bridge and carrying off the boards. The creek could not be forded, therefore the pursuit was suddenly and effectively halted. By the time the Union forces were ready to move again, it was 5:00 p.m. and by the time they reached Centerville, a point about 12 miles from Mount Elba, it was night.
At this time the greater part of the cavalry that had the expedition to Longview was very much fatigued and unable to move any further. The infantry with the prisoners and train were still somewhere behind. In view of this and the fact that the enemy had obtained four hours head start by obstructing the bridge and the encumbrance of the prisoners who would be difficult to guard during a night march, Colonel Clayton concluded that to pursue the enemy any further would be a useless tax upon the energy and endurance of his command. He therefore went to camp and the next day; marched the 28 miles back to Pine Bluff.

Battle of Mount Elba

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