Scout from Helena to Clarke’s Store (February 24, 1865)

Union soldiers conducted the February 24, 1865, Civil War scout from Helena (Phillips County) to Clarke’s store to capture Confederate soldiers and sympathizers in St. Francis County; they also uncovered some shady business dealings.

Captain John A. Wasson of the Eighty-Seventh Illinois Mounted Infantry loaded fifty of his men aboard the steamboat Curlew on February 24, 1865, for a scouting expedition up the Mississippi River, joining fifty men of the Sixtieth United States Colored Troops (USCT) under Captain Eli Ramsey of Company C. The Curlew sailed up the Mississippi River to the foot of Ship Island, where the Illinois horsemen went ashore; the Black soldiers remained with the steamer.

After reaching the Rodgers Plantation, Wasson split his troops, leaving Lieutenant James R. Shelton and twenty men to wait an hour there before advancing while the captain led the remainder to Clarke’s Store in St. Francis County “by a circuitous route through the swamps, by reason of the recent rains almost impassable.” They reached drier land “just in time to bag the soldiers and citizens who were fleeing Lieutenant Shelton. None escaped.”

Investigating further, Wasson determined that the steamboats Lady Pike and May Duke had been at the landing a day earlier, exchanging “salt and flour barrels, &c” for cotton, wielding papers from Major General Napoleon J. T. Dana and Commander Andrew Bryson, head of the U.S. Mississippi Squadron’s Eighth District. The Illinoisan observed that the steamers had left quickly after the cotton was taken board, leaving the “stores piled upon the shore, to be taken away at leisure by the purchasers, who, as the captures [at Clarke’s Store] verified, were in one case out of four bona fide rebel soldiers.”

While six of the men captured at Clarke’s Store were taken prisoner, the men at the landing, including one who had a permit for $1,600 in goods, had the proper paperwork endorsed by two high-ranking Union officers. Finding no evidence of fraud in the papers, and “having been instructed…to interfere in no way with authorized and legal cotton trading,” Wasson and his men boarded the Curlew and steamed back to Helena.

Wasson added, “I cannot forbear to express regret at what seems to me to be a suicidal policy, of furnishing aid and comfort to the enemy by feeding and clothing them.” The captain wrote that U.S. approval of such trade made the government “guilty of treason against itself. Such, of course, is not the intention, but such is the result.”

For additional information:
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vol. 48, part 1, p. 126. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1896.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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