Fort Smith Expedition (September 25–October 13, 1864)

Location: Pulaski, Conway, Pope, Johnson, Franklin, Crawford, and Sebastian counties
Campaign: None
Dates: September 25–October 13, 1864
Principal Commanders: Major Thomas Derry (US); Multiple (CS)
Forces Engaged: 385 men of the Cavalry Division, Seventh Army Corps (US); Multiple (CS)
Estimated Casualties: 2 killed, 2 missing, 31 sick, 1 died of illness (US); 20 killed, 4 captured (CS)
Result: Union victory

By the summer of 1864, the Federal army was well established in a number of posts along the Arkansas and White rivers and along the railroad that linked Argenta—present-day North Little Rock (Pulaski County)—and DeValls Bluff (Prairie County). The large distances that separated many of these posts often made communication difficult for the Federals, due in part to the operations of Confederate cavalry and bands of enemy guerrillas.

Major Thomas Derry of the Third Wisconsin Cavalry was ordered to lead a force from Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Fort Smith (Sebastian County)—over 180 miles—to deliver a number of dispatches to Brigadier General John Thayer, commander of the District of the Frontier. A large force was necessary because of the distance between the Union garrisons, coupled with both the rough countryside and the large numbers of both regular Confederate cavalry and guerrillas in the area.

In order to complete this mission, Derry organized a unit that consisted of 145 men of the Third Wisconsin Cavalry, fifty-one men of the Third Arkansas Cavalry (US), sixty-four men of the First Iowa Cavalry, sixty-five men of the Third Missouri Cavalry, fifty-one men of the Third United States Cavalry, and nine men of the Fourth Arkansas Cavalry (US). Derry reported a total of 385 men participating in the expedition, along with two ambulances and two wagons.

Derry and his command departed from Little Rock on September 25, 1864, and moved to Cadron Creek, where the Federals had some difficulty in crossing the stream due to a lack of ferry boats, which had been destroyed by enemy units. Food and forage for the horses was scarce, but the Federals were not attacked by any guerrilla units during the first few days of the expedition, although plenty of evidence suggested that such groups were nearby.

The group camped along Illinois Bayou on September 27, and Derry learned that day that several Confederate groups were in the vicinity of Clarksville (Johnson County), preparing to attack his command. The next day, the expedition continued to struggle to cross streams while the advance units sighted the enemy. Members of the Third Arkansas Cavalry pursued members of a guerrilla band to the outskirts of Clarksville, arriving at the city around 3:00 p.m. Quickly pushing the enemy picket line back, the Federals moved into the town, and the Confederates scattered, taking cover behind fences and in houses. The enemy had soon completely abandoned the town to the Federals, leaving behind seven dead. The Confederates were from a number of units who used Clarksville as a center of operations and recruiting.

The citizens of Clarksville informed Derry and his officers that the Confederates knew of the approaching Union expedition, but the speed of the group surprised them and left them unable to mount a defense. Derry and his men continued westward, staying the night about three miles outside of the city.

During the night, the guerrillas who escaped from Clarksville mounted a series of attacks against the Federals. Using the cover provided by a severe storm that had moved into the area, the attacks continued all night, and one soldier of the Third Wisconsin was killed around daylight. Derry and his men continued their march in the morning, and the enemy closely followed. Attacks were launched on both flanks of the Federal column as well as the rear. That night, the command camped along White Oak Creek, and the enemy attacks continued. The Federals remained alert during the entire night, being completely surrounded by the enemy force, and endured the continued assaults. During the night, one member of the Third Arkansas Cavalry was killed.

The next morning, Derry and his men pushed forward and broke contact with the enemy. The Federals arrived in Van Buren (Crawford County) that day, and Derry met with Thayer at Fort Smith to deliver the dispatches. Thayer was glad to see Derry, as several recent messengers from Little Rock never arrived at Fort Smith, likely falling victim to enemy forces. Thayer also reported that every group he had sent to Little Rock was either forced to return to Fort Smith due to the heavy enemy activity in the area or was captured. The Federal forces at and near the fort were under almost constant attack, and gathering forage for the animals was becoming extremely difficult.

Derry remained at Van Buren for several days in order for his men to rest and recover for their return trip to Little Rock. Many of the horses were re-shod during this delay, and men who had become sick during the march were placed in the hospital.

The command departed from Van Buren on October 5. The men escorted a forage train for two days in order for it to safely gather supplies for the garrison at Fort Smith. On October 8, the expedition separated from the forage train and moved toward Little Rock. Skirmishing began almost immediately and continued throughout the day. That evening, Derry and his men camped about ten miles west of Clarksville and surprised several Confederates in a nearby house; one later reportedly died of his wounds. Reentering Clarksville on October 9, Derry’s men surprised a number of the enemy, who once again fled in confusion. By the end of the day of October 10, the command had reached Illinois Bayou again, although with continual skirmishing all day. By October 11, the enemy had disappeared, and the troops returned to Little Rock on October 13.

Derry estimated that his men had killed twenty and captured four. The Federals lost two killed and two missing; one died at Van Buren, and thirty-one men were left in the hospital at Fort Smith.

At this point of the Civil War, reliable communication between the garrisons at Fort Smith and Little Rock required substantial forces like this expedition. The expedition was ultimately deemed to be a success, as it both accomplished its mission of communicating with Fort Smith and also returned with intelligence gathered along the Arkansas River Valley.

For additional information:
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 41. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1889.

David Sesser
Henderson State University


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