Skirmish near Searcy (August 13, 1864)

Location: White County
Campaign: Union Expedition from Little Rock to the Little Red River
Date: August 13, 1864
Principal Commanders: Brigadier General Joseph R. West (US); Colonel Thomas H. McCray (CS)
Forces Engaged: Eighth Missouri Cavalry, Third U.S. Regular Cavalry (US); McCray’s Brigade (CS)
Casualties: 1 wounded (US); 1 killed (CS)
Result: Union victory

Starting in May 1864, Brigadier General Joseph Shelby was in sole command of all Confederate forces north of the Arkansas River; he actively recruited local men of fighting age and mustered his force effectively to harass Union garrisons and supply lines along the White River. Within Shelby’s Iron Brigade, munitions were in short supply and were acquired through raids on the enemy. By mid-July, a detail led by Colonel Thomas H. McCray and his brigade had procured for Shelby more than 800 firearms and badly needed ammunition from a transport on the Mississippi River. Successful hit-and-run tactics over the summer sufficiently frustrated Union command at Little Rock (Pulaski County) and warranted more than one expedition mounted to deal with Shelby.

On July 27, Shelby left his headquarters at Jacksonport (Jackson County) and began an expedition to Clarendon (Monroe County), with Colonel McCray and other units behind him to guard the White River between Jacksonport and Batesville (Independence County). Shelby quickly turned back upon hearing word of a Union force approaching Jacksonport, marching up the east side of the White, reaching Augusta (Woodruff County) by August 3. McCray remained on the west side of the White between Searcy (White County) and Jacksonport.

The expedition against Shelby started on August 6 when Brigadier General Joseph R. West set out from Little Rock, joined advance units en route, and arrived at Searcy on August 8. West split his force in two, deciding to march up either side of the White to prevent McCray and Shelby from consolidating their forces. On August 10, about 1,000 Union cavalry were dispatched north toward Denmark (Jackson County) as a feint, while the remainder of West’s force arrived at the White River opposite Augusta, intent on crossing. West sent requests for boats to assist in crossing, but none were forthcoming; some units crossed the river only to cross back again because West’s artillery could not travel on the small ferry available at the landing. West returned his column to Searcy on August 12.

Fighting commenced when a reconnaissance party of fifty from the Eighth Missouri Cavalry (US) encountered a detachment of McCray’s Brigade about eight to ten miles north of Searcy, along the road to Denmark. Two hundred and fifty men from the Third U.S. Cavalry were then dispatched to reinforce the Eighth Missouri with orders to continue northward to Fairview (Independence County). The Confederates fell back with one man killed; Union forces sustained one man wounded. West subsequently moved his entire column eleven miles northward from Searcy, sending a detachment to Hilcher’s Ferry along the Little Red. At 6:00 p.m., he received word that the Third U.S. had united with the Eighth Missouri but had encountered no Rebels and had proceeded on to Fairview.

West’s pursuit of Shelby stalled following the skirmish, and he opted not to cross the White River at Jacksonport, claiming that “Shelby could successfully contest my crossing at that point or fall back faster than he could be followed.” West further cited the poor condition of his horses and insufficient forage in the surrounding country, making a brief mention of “irregularities”—in his estimation owing to lack of discipline among some of his officers and men. By August 14, West learned that there were only stragglers remaining west of the White River and marched back to Little Rock by August 16, dispersing his forces along the way to rout bushwhackers in the area. This expedition was the third failed attempt by Union forces to neutralize Shelby during the course of the war.

For additional information:
Akridge, Scott H., and Emmett E. Powers. A Severe and Bloody Fight: The Battle of Whitney’s Lane & Military Occupation of White County, Arkansas, May & June, 1862. Searcy, AR: White County Historical Museum, 1996.

Muncy, Raymond Lee. Searcy, Arkansas: A Frontier Town Grows Up With America. Searcy, AR: Harding Press, 1976.

O’Flaherty, Daniel. General Jo Shelby: Undefeated Rebel. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954.

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, 1891.

Watson, Lady Elizabeth. Fight and Survive! A History of Jackson County, Arkansas in the Civil War. Conway, AR: River Road Press, 1974.

Adam Miller
Searcy, Arkansas


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