Saturday, December 19, 2009

Battle of Jenkins' Ferry - Sheridan, Arkansas

The Red River Campaign of 1864 was one of the most disastrous Union efforts of the entire Civil War.

The campaign as planned called for two Union armies to converge on the strategic city of Shreveport, Louisiana. The first, led by General Nathaniel Banks, advanced up the Red River to Alexandria, Louisiana, and was closing in on Shreveport when it was thrashed at the Battle of Mansfield by the much smaller Confederate army of General Richard Taylor. The defeat so unnerved Banks that he soon was in full retreat back for the Mississippi River, with Taylor nipping at his heels.

The second army, led by General Frederick Steele, marched from the Arkansas cities of Little Rock and Fort Smith and headed southwest for Shreveport. Confederate resistance stiffened as these forces joined and advanced, but supply shortages forced Steele into the fortified city of Camden in southern Arkansas. The Cofnfederates then won major victories at Poison Spring and Marks' Mills as Steele struggled to find provisions for his hungry army.

Finally deciding that he could do no more, Steele turned his army back for Little Rock. Confederate forces did their best to slow him until their reinforcements could come up. On the afternoon of April 29, 1864, they caught him as he was trying to move his wagon train across a pontoon bridge at Jenkins' Ferry on the Saline River.

The Battle of Jenkins' Ferry opened in earnest the next morning at dawn as Confederate troops surged forward into the river swamps of the Saline to attack the Union army. The Federal soldiers took up positions behind hastily constructed breastworks and beat back repeated Southern attacks. Unfortunately for the Confederates, their assaults were poorly coordinated and they were unable to prevail even after catching Steele's army in an exposed position.

The weather was extremely rainy during the hours leading up to the battle and the men of both sides fought in water that was from a few inches to a few feet deep. The conditions were among the most miserable of any battle of the war. It was the last significant encounter of the Arkansas phase of the Red River Campaign.

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