Capture of Steamer Miller

The capture and destruction of the Union stern-wheel steamer J. H. Miller illustrates the ongoing battle for control of significant interior rivers in the Trans-Mississippi Department, almost a year after the fall of Little Rock (Pulaski County) to the Union.

In February 1864, the J. H. Miller, displacing 130 tons of water, joined the Union navy’s Mississippi River Squadron serving under charter on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. According to Captain Stephen R. Harrington of the Fifth Kansas Cavalry, reporting from camp thirty miles from Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) on the north bank of the Arkansas River, unidentified Confederate guerrillas attacked and captured Miller on August 17, 1864, from the south side of the Arkansas River and burned the vessel about ten miles below Pine Bluff. Brigadier General Powell Clayton, in an August 20, 1864, report, described the burning of the Miller as “one of the most pusillanimous affairs upon the part of those on board that I have ever heard of. She was captured and destroyed by three men. There was a large mail on her for this post and some commissary stores, which were lost.”

A postwar account in Confederate Veteran magazine revealed that the attackers who captured and burned the Miller were three sixteen-year-old boys—Bennie Riggs, Johnny Jones, and Church Price. Despite their youth, they were already accomplished guerrillas, having previously attacked the steamer New Igo. The young Confederates captured and paroled as many as 125 Union soldiers and civilians and looted the Miller before setting it afire, leaving supplies on the shore of the Arkansas River for local families to take.

Harrington also reported that the stern-wheel steamer Annie Jacobs became stranded on a sandbar at the northern bank of the Arkansas River near his camp, leaving the vessel vulnerable to a similar fate as the Miller. Although the vessel’s captain apparently freed it by the morning of August 18, a force of 100 men and one howitzer under Harrington’s command stood ready to defend the Annie Jacobs if necessary.

Harrington also stated that Brigadier General Powell Clayton of the Fifth Kansas Cavalry learned on August 16 that five Confederate brigades under Brigadier General William Lewis Cabell were encamped on Big Creek at the crossing of the Warren and Pine Bluff Road, approximately seventeen miles from Pine Bluff. He did not, however, identify any of these Confederates as responsible for the loss of Miller or the threat to Annie Jacobs. Other than the loss of the vessel, Harrington did not report any Union casualties. No Confederate reports or casualty figures exist for this incident.

Despite the fall of Little Rock to the Federal forces in September 1863, small regular and irregular Confederate attacks on Union vessels continued to hamper operations on and along the state’s major rivers.

For additional information:
Christ, Mark. “‘What Three Boys Did’: The Capture of the J. H. Miller.” Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies 49 (December 2018): 183–190.

Gibson, Charles Dana, and E. Kay Gibson. Dictionary of Transports and Combatant Vessels Steam and Sail Employed by the Union Army, 1861–1868. Camden, ME: Ensign Press, 1995.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 41, Part I. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1893.

Robert Patrick Bender
Eastern New Mexico University–Roswell

Last Updated: 01/28/2019

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