Expedition from Greensboro to Helena
The Civil War expedition from Greensboro (Craighead County) to Helena (Phillips County) was undertaken in July 1863 as Brigadier General John Wynn Davidson’s Union cavalrymen descended Crowley’s Ridge in search of Confederate troops in the early stages of the Little Rock Campaign.
Davidson led his 6,000-man cavalry division across the St. Francis River at Chalk Bluff (Clay County) from southeastern Missouri on July 19, 1863, to face a reported advance by Confederate troops under Major General Sterling Price. The poorly supplied Union column moved rapidly down Crowley’s Ridge while foraging for food. As one Union artilleryman put it, “our fast marching…is for grub.”
As they neared Greensboro, likely on July 24, Davidson sent a party of fifty troopers of the First Iowa Cavalry Regiment under Captain James D. Jenks on a mission to carry messages to the Union base at Helena on the Mississippi River. While the contents of the messages are unknown, they likely included a plea for food for the hungry cavalrymen.
The Iowans rode 100 miles “through a country held by the enemy and infested with guerrillas,” at one point capturing a picket post of Brigadier General Lucius Marshall Walker’s Confederate cavalrymen, whom they “tied…to trees on the side of the road” as Jenks and his men “then passed the rebel camp and through their pickets on the other side without molestation.” They crossed the L’Anguille River while being fired on by Confederate troops, and at some point, Jenks destroyed the messages he was carrying for fear they might end up in enemy hands.
They made it to Helena, having captured six Confederate soldiers on the road, and Jenks reported the contents of the destroyed messages “without losing an item.” A congratulatory order from Davidson said of Jenks that “his whole conduct presents an example of brilliant cavalry daring worthy of the study and imitation of every officer in this command.”
Davidson’s column reached the St. Francis River near Wittsburg (Cross County) on July 29, fortifying the high ground above them, and the next day the Hamilton Belle, a small steamboat carrying supplies from Helena, arrived. The cavalry division continued down Crowley’s Ridge on August 1 with new orders to move toward the capital at Little Rock (Pulaski County) ahead of 6,000 Union troops under Major General Frederick Steele marching from Helena. The cavalrymen, though, did most of the fighting in the Little Rock Campaign, including actions at Brownsville (Lonoke County), Bayou Meto in modern-day Jacksonville (Pulaski County), and Fourche Bayou near Little Rock. Confederate troops abandoned the capital on September 10, 1863, eventually establishing a new headquarters at Washington (Hempstead County). Little Rock remained in Union hands for the remainder of the war.
For additional information:
Christ, Mark K. Civil War Arkansas, 1863: The Battle for a State. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.
Lothrop, Charles H. A History of the First Regiment Iowa Cavalry Veteran Volunteers, From Its Organization in 1861 to Its Muster Out of the United States Service in 1866. Lyons, IA: Beers & Eaton, 1890.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vol. 22, part 1, p. 464. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1888.
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
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