Skirmish at Saline Bottom

Location: Grant County
Campaign: Camden Expedition
Date: April 29, 1864
Principal Commanders: Colonel Adolph Engelmann (US); Colonel Colton Greene (CS)
Forces Engaged: Forty-third Illinois Infantry, Thirty-third Iowa Infantry, Twenty-seventh Wisconsin Infantry, Vaughn’s Independent Battery of Illinois Light Artillery (US); Fourth Missouri Cavalry, Eighth Missouri Cavalry, Fourth Missouri Light Artillery Battery (CS)
Estimated Casualties: None reported
Results: Union tactical victory

This skirmish served as a prelude to the Engagement at Jenkins’ Ferry in Grant County and was part of the Camden Expedition, a Federal operation undertaken by Major General Frederick Steele’s Seventh Army Corps to assist Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Red River Campaign in Louisiana.

On March 23, Steele moved out of Little Rock (Pulaski County) toward Camden (Ouachita County), intending to re-supply prior to his scheduled rendezvous with Brigadier General John Milton Thayer’s Fort Smith (Sebastian County) column at Arkadelphia (Clark County) on April 1. After this, they planned to join Banks at Shreveport, Louisiana, to form a joint movement toward Texas. The link with Thayer, however, did not occur until April 9, south of the Little Missouri River. Heavy rain, bad roads, multiple swollen river crossings, low supplies, and determined Confederate resistance kept Steele’s column from reaching Camden until April 15. By then, Confederate cavalry captured most of the available supplies, and Banks fell back after defeats at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill, which freed Confederates in Louisiana to redeploy toward Steele and force his withdrawal back to Little Rock.

Continued heavy rains during the retreat made the Arkansas River unfordable, while the construction of pontoon bridges further slowed Steele’s column and increased its vulnerability to attack. By April 28, Steele’s advance camped at Princeton (Dallas County), near Jenkins’ Ferry. On April 29, the rear of Steele’s column, commanded by Colonel Adolph Engelmann, arrived at the Saline Bottom (a two-mile-wide expanse on both sides of the Saline River recently turned into a sea of mud by the crossing of the main Federal force). Soon thereafter, scouts from the Sixth Kansas Cavalry detected Confederate skirmishers in advance of a large enemy force moving toward the Federal column’s rear guard. The Confederate force, commanded by Col. Colton Greene, arrived at the Saline Bottom on the morning of April 29 after an all-night march. As the rear of the Federal column attempted to cross the Saline Bottom at noon in a heavy rain, Greene attacked it with Col. William Lafayette Jeffers’s Eighth Missouri Cavalry and Captain Samuel S. Harris’s Fourth Missouri Light Artillery Battery. Greene also ordered Lieutenant Colonel William J. Preston of Col. John Q. Burbridge’s Fourth Missouri Cavalry to reinforce this attack.

In spite of the rain and the Confederate assault, Engelmann maintained his march until 1:30 p.m., when the road through the Saline Bottom became choked with troops from the main Federal column. Engelmann, therefore, formed three battle lines with various pairings of the Fortieth Iowa, Forty-third Illinois, and Twenty-seventh Wisconsin Infantry regiments, along with Capt. Thomas F. Vaughn’s Independent Battery of Illinois Light Artillery. Skirmishing at the Saline Bottom lasted until dark but successfully checked the Confederate assault and allowed the rear of Steele’s column to cross to the east side of the Saline River, where it bivouacked for the night. Greene ordered a withdrawal at dark but left a large picket force in the area to monitor further Federal movements. Neither side reported casualty figures specific to the skirmish at Saline Bottom.

Although the Camden Expedition proved largely unsuccessful, the Federals gained a small tactical victory at Saline Bottom when Engelmann’s rear guard successfully defended Steele’s otherwise beleaguered supply train so it could cross the Saline River and rejoin the main force. Both sides clashed more significantly on April 30 in the Engagement at Jenkins’ Ferry. Afterward, Steele’s force continued its retreat toward Little Rock, and the Camden Expedition concluded with his return on May 3.

For additional information:
Brooksher, William R. War along the Bayous: The 1864 Red River Campaign in Louisiana. Sterling, VA: Potomac Books, 2000.

Johnson, Ludwell H. Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1993.

Joiner, Gary Dillard. One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2003.

———. Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 34, Part 1. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1891.

Robert Patrick Bender
Eastern New Mexico University–Roswell


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