Skirmish at Princeton (December 8, 1863)

Location: Dallas County
Campaign: Reconnaissance mission south of Little Rock
Date: December 8, 1863
Principal Commanders: Colonel Lewis Merrill (US); Captain Mark S. Miller (CS)
Forces Engaged: Seventh Missouri Cavalry, two battalions of the First Iowa Cavalry, one battalion of Merrill’s Horse, a detachment of the First Missouri Cavalry (200), a detachment of the Third Iowa Cavalry (200), four guns of Hadley’s Battery (US); Crawford’s First (also known as Tenth) Arkansas Cavalry, Company B (CS)
Estimated Casualties: 1 wounded (US); 8 killed, 18 wounded, 28 captured (CS)
Result: Union victory

The December 8, 1863, Skirmish at Princeton was part of a Union reconnaissance mission out of Little Rock (Pulaski County) to assess Confederate force strength and movement south of Princeton (Dallas County). The mission was led by Colonel Lewis Merrill under orders of Major General Frederick Steele, commander of Union forces in Arkansas. Merrill was told that Parsons’s Confederate cavalry brigade was camped near Princeton with artillery. Steele sought to have the enemy troops driven away from that position and wanted information about their positions, troop strength, and apparent intentions. Merrill was ordered to “exercise [his] own discretion as to when and how to advance, and also as to what was necessary to be done.”

Concerns about the political and economic control of Texas and Louisiana were already brewing in Washington DC, concerns that would inspire the Red River Campaign and its Arkansas component, the Camden Expedition, the following year, but the motivation for this mission seems to be more in response to rumors of a possible Confederate attack out of Camden (Ouachita County) led by General Kirby Smith.

Col. Merrill left Little Rock on December 5 with about 800 Union cavalry forces. Another 400 cavalry and four artillery units joined the mission in Benton (Saline County) that evening. The next day, Merrill’s 1,200-man cavalry and artillery force arrived at Rockport (Hot Spring County) on the Ouachita River and apparently spent the night there, although this is not explicit in the report. At this point, Merrill reports sending a small number of his forces toward Arkadelphia (Clark County) in order to veil the movement of the rest of his men toward Tulip (Dallas County). Merrill was receiving a great deal of information indicating that Major General Sterling Price’s Confederate army was advancing from Camden, likely toward Little Rock or Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), and he was determined to get close enough to obtain information about their movements and position.

At 10:00 a.m. on December 7, Merrill received details about the troops near Princeton. The 700 troops there had come from Camden but were reportedly led by a Colonel Crawford and were not Parsons’s brigade as originally assumed. The single surviving muster roll for Crawford’s First, Company B, indicates an engagement with Federal troops on December 8, 1863, near Princeton, and while the command of the unit at the time of the skirmish is not clear, the unit was organized in Benton by Captain Mark S. Miller on March 26, 1863. Merrill pressed his troops to move quickly in an attempt to capture the entire unit, but a noon rain made it impossible to move as quickly as was necessary, and so Merrill’s forces had to camp that night near Tulip, where they arrived at dark and were met by the units that had made the feint toward Arkadelphia.

Merrill’s troops left Tulip at dawn on their way toward Princeton. Four miles from Princeton, Merrill’s advance guard uncovered a small picket of Confederates, who retreated and were not engaged. Merrill gave command of the advance guard to Major Milton H. Brawner with orders to push ahead as quickly as possible in order to determine the force and position of the Confederates. Maj. Brawner flushed out several outposts along the way and came upon the main body of Confederate troops about two miles south of Princeton behind a small stream. Here, Brawner ordered one unit and part of another to dismount their horses. The dismounted Union cavalry were able to drive the Confederates from their primary encampment to a fallback position just over the crest of a hill half a mile from their original camp. Using similar tactics, Brawner’s men were again able drive the Confederate troops from their position.

Only one other attempt was made by the Confederates to resist. A group of fifty led by a Captain McMurtee rallied and made a stand in the road. Two squadrons of mounted Union cavalry led by Captain Lafayette Bunner charged the group. Riding hard to make up the distance, only six horsemen had kept the pace when contact was made, but they charged into the Confederates anyway. The Confederates only held for moments before scattering in retreat. All of the eight Confederate deaths occurred during this point in the skirmish, with six from saber attack. Most of the eighteen Confederates wounded were also injured by saber. The Union forces continued the chase for another ten to twelve miles, but this only resulted in a few more Confederate prisoners, while the rest were able to evade capture in the wooded underbrush surrounding the road.

No Union deaths resulted from the skirmish, though a single soldier was reported as “severely wounded.” Merrill reported the capture of three commissioned Confederate officers, twenty-five privates, and a four-mule wagon loaded with blankets.

The reconnaissance mission was successful in determining the location and intent of the Confederate forces in the area as well as in removing those forces south of Princeton. Merrill sent units to Arkadelphia after this encounter and was able to determine three things: no troops were camped there, the rest of the Confederate forces were in or near Camden, and Kirby Smith was in Shreveport, Louisiana, after having visited Washington (Hempstead County) for a brief time. After confirming this, Merrill returned with his forces to Little Rock.

For additional information:
Gerdes, Edward G. “Crawford’s 1st/10th Arkansas Cavalry, Company B.” (accessed December 7, 2021).

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, Vol. 22. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1888.

Michael Hodge
North Little Rock, Arkansas


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