Searcy, Fairview, and Augusta Expeditions

aka: Attack on Steamers Celeste and Commercial


Location: Lonoke, Prairie, White, Jackson, WoodruffPulaski counties
Campaign: None
Date: August 27–September 6, 1864
Principal Commanders: Brigadier General Joseph R. West, Lieutenant Colonel Charles S. Clark, Colonel William H. Graves, Colonel Lyman M. Ward (US); General Joseph O. Shelby, Colonel Archibald S. Dobbins (CS)
Forces Engaged: Cavalry Division of the Seventh Army Corps, Ninth Kansas Cavalry, Eighth Missouri Cavalry, Tenth Illinois Cavalry, Ninth Iowa Cavalry, Twelfth Michigan Infantry, Fifty-Fourth Illinois Infantry, Sixty-First Illinois Infantry, Seventeenth Corps, Ninety-Fifth Illinois Infantry, Fourteenth Wisconsin Infantry, Fifth Ohio Battery, Fortieth Iowa Infantry, and steamers Kate Hart, Dove, Celeste, Commercial, and Nevada, and Gunboat No. 30 (US); Shelby’s Iron Brigade, First Arkansas Cavalry (CS)
Casualties: 5 killed, 9 wounded (US); more than 10 killed, 9 prisoners (CS)
Result: Union forces pushed Confederates out of the area and returned to their initial expedition sites.

The purpose of the Searcy, Fairview, and Augusta expeditions was to aid Union forces previously engaged in conflict with Confederates northeast of Little Rock (Pulaski County) and then to pursue Confederate general Joseph O. Shelby.

Brigadier General Joseph R. West departed Little Rock on August 27, 1864, with 600 cavalrymen to assist Lieutenant Colonel Charles S. Clark and his 800 men of the Ninth Kansas Cavalry. Prior to West’s arrival, Clark’s men had engaged Shelby’s forces on August 26 at Cypress Bayou, four miles north of Austin—now called Old Austin (Lonoke County). He then followed Shelby’s rear guard to Bull Bayou, where ten Confederates and two Union soldiers were killed. Because he had not heard from Union forces and his company had run out of rations, Clark was forced to fall back near Austin.

Upon meeting with Clark, West was also joined by two sections of the Fifth Ohio Battery and the Fortieth Iowa Infantry under the command of Colonel John A. Garrett, who were escorting a subsistence train. After providing rations for the troops, West left the train, an unknown number of infantry, and one section of the Fifth Ohio Battery at Austin. He proceeded to march everyone remaining under his command to Bull Bayou. However, Shelby’s forces had departed Bull Bayou on August 26.

On August 28, West received a communication from the district commander that Colonel Washington F. Geiger of the Eighth Missouri Cavalry was marching from DeValls Bluff (Prairie County) toward Searcy (White County) and that West would dispatch 600 infantrymen up the White River to Grand Glaise (Jackson County). West marched to Searcy and remained there on August 29. Geiger met with West and brought 800 cavalrymen to Searcy.

Under the orders of Brigadier General Christopher C. Andrews, Colonel William H. Graves embarked the morning of August 30 toward West’s position at Searcy. Graves led the Twelfth Michigan Infantry along with detachments of the Fifty-Fourth Illinois Infantry and Sixty-First Illinois Infantry, amounting to twenty-two officers and 515 men. The forces under his command boarded the steamer Kate Hart with Gunboat No. 30, commanded by Captain John R. Grace, and moved up the White River to rendezvous with West. Arriving in Searcy, Graves provided ammunition and rations.

On August 31, West sent Graves back to the Kate Hart and departed for Grand Glaise. West reported that the thirty-five miles was fatiguing and that the roads were in poor condition. Upon his arrival, West found no steamers but captured seven prisoners, including a quartermaster; he commandeered his blacksmith shop, tools, and shoes. He also dispatched a group to Augusta (Woodruff County) to provide communication with Union boats.

After their departure, Graves and his company attempted to make it down the river, which was complicated by low water levels causing the boats to strike the river bottom. On August 31, Union forces spotted several Confederate detachments along the river under the command of Colonel Archibald S. Dobbins. Graves navigated to within nineteen miles of Augusta, where he determined navigation too difficult to continue further. They had passed Dobbins’s pickets along the river for twenty miles, estimating 800 to 1,500 Confederates present.

West’s party returned the morning of September 1 and reported no boats at Augusta Landing. Because of low water levels in his area of the White River, West moved to Fairview (White County), where he captured two Confederate scouts and learned that Shelby’s forces crossed the White River. The Union artillery and cavalry horses were in such an unacceptable condition that West determined Shelby could march three miles to his two. He abandoned the idea of chasing Shelby and decided to return to Little Rock.

On September 2, West moved his troops by the old military road to Hilcher’s Ferry, where they crossed the Little Red River and marched toward Austin. The next morning, he received a communication from the district commander three miles from Bull Bayou with information that the Union company dispatched up the White River on August 28 had returned and that another 1,200 were being sent to Grand Glaise. West left detachments from the Eighth Missouri Cavalry, Tenth Illinois Cavalry, and Ninth Iowa Cavalry at Austin. The remaining Union forces moved to Little Rock with his forces, as the report stated that Confederates were threatening to cross the Arkansas River.

Graves abandoned his expedition and returned to DeValls Bluff on September 2. The only casualty of the expedition was the accidental killing of a Twelfth Michigan infantryman. After disembarking, Graves received word from Andrews to re-embark the next morning on a second expedition. Lighter draught boats and detachments of Graves’s and Colonel Lyman M. Ward’s Fourteenth Wisconsin Infantry brigades and Smith’s division of the Seventeenth Corps became the reinforcements for the new expedition.

On September 3, Graves departed DeValls Bluff and reached Peach Orchard Bluff (Woodruff County) by noon on September 4, where they spotted Confederate pickets, under the command of Dobbins, who watched their movements and remained ahead of the Union boats. Around 4:00 p.m., the Commercial was attacked by 300 to 400 Confederates concealed in bushes on the left side of the bank. The first attack killed one Union soldier and injured eight men, including Graves, who suffered a severe knee injury. Following the first volley from the left bank was a volley from the opposite bank from forty to fifty men. There was initial confusion among the Union forces, but they soon recovered and returned fire onto the banks. The other Union boats, including the gunboat, moved up and began firing as well, forcing the Confederates to retreat. The Union steamer Dove, with 200 men of the Ninety-Fifth Illinois, arrived in Graves’s area.

Because Graves believed there to be numerous Confederates in the vicinity, he ordered the boats to land. No Confederate activity was reported that night. There was a larger force under a Captain Anderson that could have attacked the Union forces during the confusion on the river if the Confederates had succeeded. The expedition did not continue further that night. Union forces suffered one death on the steamer Celeste and one wounded on the steamer Nevada. Casualties on the Confederate side were unknown, but Graves expected their losses to be equal or more than Union casualties.

Due to his wound, Graves transferred his active command to Ward. On September 5, Ward moved the troops one and a half miles across a bend of the river at a point from Augusta and then advanced to Augusta. Ward found 400 Confederates in that area, who fled upon his movement.

Dobbins moved his forces to Shelby’s location near Jacksonport (Jackson County), higher on the river. Due to the shallow water, Ward could not pursue the Confederates further. Graves met a boat a few miles from their location with dispatches from Andrews, requesting his immediate return. Graves also received a messenger with orders for West. Graves then landed a cavalry escort two miles above Peach Orchard Bluff to assist the messenger on his way to West. He then proceeded to return to DeValls Bluff on September 6, ending the expedition.

For additional information:
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, Vol. 41, Part I, pp. 296–299. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1893.

Matthew Whitlock
Old Dominion University


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