Expedition from Helena up the St. Francis River (February 13–14, 1864)

On the afternoon of February 13, 1864, Captain Charles O’Connell of the Fifteenth Illinois Cavalry boarded the steamboat Hamilton Bell with 100 men of his regiment and thirty soldiers of the Third Arkansas Infantry (African Descent) and left Helena (Phillips County) to travel up the St. Francis River in search of a Confederate officer.

Arriving at Shrimp’s Landing around 10:00 p.m., the cavalrymen disembarked, and O’Connell ordered the steamboat to anchor at a nearby island overnight and then proceed up the St. Francis at daylight on February 14 to Linden (St. Francis County), where the Fifteenth Illinois troopers would rejoin the Hamilton Bell.

The Illinois cavalrymen rode up onto Crowley’s Ridge, with O’Connell leading part of the troops to the home of a Major Dawson while dispatching Captain Joseph M. Wier with a company to seek Dawson at his father-in-law’s home. The two parties reunited at 6:00 a.m. at John McDaniel’s farm, having been unsuccessful in the search for Dawson, although Wier had captured Captain R. C. Nall of Colonel Archibald Dobbins’s Arkansas Cavalry Regiment.

The Union troops continued on to Madison (St. Francis County), splitting the command to surround the town and prevent anyone from escaping; one Confederate soldier was captured. O’Connell ordered all male residents to gather at the courthouse and learned that Captain William Stewart and several privates were intent on surrendering and taking the oath of allegiance.

As this was transpiring, Colonel John E. Josey of the Fifteenth (Josey’s) Arkansas Infantry Regiment (CS), who had been detached from the Army of Tennessee to recruit troops in Arkansas since the fall of 1863, and his adjutant crossed the St. Francis River at Madison and immediately ran into Union pickets. Josey asked a trooper to what unit he belonged and, on learning the man was from the Fifteenth Illinois, said, “I will have to take you in, then.” The picket fired at them as the Confederates drew their pistols, and one of them shot Josey.

Josey and his adjutant fled while McConnell mounted his horse and raced to cut them off. He and Josey fired at each other as the adjutant changed course toward the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad tracks, with other Federals in hot pursuit. O’Connell shot Josey in the right arm, and the colonel surrendered. The adjutant’s riderless horse was found, but the Illinoisans were unable to locate the soldier.

O’Connell decided to return to the Hamilton Bell with the wounded men so that they could get medical attention in Helena. In addition to Josey and the two captains, the expedition captured two lieutenants and five privates, including a man named William Cole whom O’Connell described as a “notorious guerrilla.” The expedition arrived at Helena at 1:00 a.m. on February 15, having traveled 135 miles. Josey would remain in the Union prisoner-of-war camp at Camp Chase, Ohio, until receiving his parole on June 15, 1865.

For additional information:
Allardice, Bruce S. Confederate Colonels: A Biographical Register. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2008.

Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers who served in organizations from the State of Arkansas, Roll 140. National Archives and Records Administration.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vol. 34, part 1, pp. 143–144. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1891.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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