Buffalo River Expedition


Location: Madison and Carroll counties
Campaign: None
Dates: January 9–12, 1863
Principal Commanders: Major Joseph W. Caldwell (US); Unknown (CS)
Forces Engaged: First Iowa Cavalry (US); Unknown (CS)
Estimated Casualties: None (US); 1 killed, 39 captured (CS)
Result: Union victory

By 1863, much of northwestern Arkansas was loosely controlled by Union forces but still home to many Confederate partisan forces. In many instances, isolated areas in the mountains were used as sites by these and others for the manufacture of saltpeter, an ingredient necessary for the production of gunpowder.

On January 9, 1863, following orders issued by Brigadier General Francis J. Herron, Major Joseph W. Caldwell led a detachment of 300 Union troopers of the First Iowa Cavalry into the mountains in the direction of Kingston (Madison County) in search of Confederate activity. They rode out of Huntsville (Madison County) at 8:00 a.m., arriving in Kingston at 2:00 p.m. Here, Caldwell forwarded recently acquired information to Herron concerning area Confederate activity.

Additional guides were recruited when it was discovered that those initially assigned to the detachment were unfamiliar with the terrain beyond Kingston. Due to the rugged terrain, Caldwell proceeded only four miles beyond Kingston, halting his command and making camp at 4:00 p.m. That night, pickets captured three suspicious men leading fourteen horses. Questioning revealed that one of the three, Parson Rodgers, was in the business of supplying mounts to the Confederates. When two Union officers were escorting the prisoners back to the main camp, they were confronted by an undermined number of men who ordered them to surrender. Upon refusing, the two Union soldiers were fired upon. One of the assailants was killed in the fight, and one of the prisoners escaped.

At 4:00 a.m. on January 10, the column moved out of Kingston. At daylight, it approached a saltpeter works near the Buffalo River about fourteen miles from Kingston. Caldwell surprised the Confederates, capturing seventeen men. The works were described by Caldwell as a new “first class operation.” Included were fourteen buildings, two steam engines, three boilers, and seven large iron kettles. The entire operation, with approximately a half ton of manufactured saltpeter, was quickly burned. After about six hours, Caldwell moved his command about four miles from the Buffalo River, where he sent a detachment of about 100 men under the command of Captains Alexander G. McQueen and David C. Dinsmore to destroy a similar saltpeter operation of several buildings and four kettles. In the meantime, an additional twenty men, who were described as “notorious outlaws,” were captured.

After the destruction of the second operation, Caldwell began his return to the safer confines of a Union outpost. Crossing the mountainous terrain by night, he arrived at Carrollton (Carroll County) on the night of January 12. Here, he turned over thirty-nine prisoners and thirty-nine horses and mules to the provost marshal. The expedition, which had resulted in no Union casualties, was a complete Union success.

For additional information:
Johnston, James J. “Bullets for Johnny Reb: Confederate Nitre and Mining Bureau in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 49 (Summer 1990): 124–167.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, Vol. 22, Part 1. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1888.

Mike Polston
CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas


No comments on this entry yet.