Skirmishes at Little Red River (June 5 and 7, 1862)

Location: Little Red River in White County
Campaign: Pea Ridge Campaign
Dates: June 5 and 7, 1862
Principal Commanders: Colonel Asbury Porter, Captain David R. Sparks (US); Colonel James R. Taylor, Alfred Johnson (CS)
Forces Engaged: Fourth Illinois Cavalry, Fourth Iowa Cavalry (US); 17th Texas Cavalry, Alfred Johnson’s independent Texas Spy company (CS)
Estimated Losses: June 5: 2 wounded, 4 missing (US); unknown (CS)
June 7: 2 wounded, 7 missing (US); unknown (CS)
Result: Confederate victories

As the Federal forces under Major General Samuel R. Curtis attempted to move from Batesville (Independence County) down the Little Red River area toward Little Rock (Pulaski County), the Rebels were determined to keep up the constant harassment of the enemy. During May and June 1862, Rebel forces repeatedly thwarted Curtis’s efforts to advance toward his goal of capturing Little Rock and assuming control over the capital city and the Arkansas River and its tributaries. The skirmishes in early June that occurred near the Little Red River—following the most significant action in White County, the Action at Whitney’s Lane—contributed greatly to the abandonment of Curtis’s objective.

The Little Red River flows through north-central Arkansas for approximately 100 miles, merging on the southeast end of White County with the White River. Rebel activity was geographically widespread east and west of Searcy (White County) and along the Little Red River. Other nearby White County communities included Prospect Bluff (present-day Judsonia), Fairview, and West Point.

Major General E. A. Carr and Colonel Peter J. Osterhaus commanded the Union forces under Major General Curtis. Rebel forces served under General Thomas C. Hindman, who had assumed command of Confederates of the Trans-Mississippi District on May 31, 1862. By June 3, the Twelfth Texas Cavalry had reorganized and achieved its goal of consuming much of the food and forage in Curtis’s path. This was accomplished by forces under Lieutenant Colonel A. B. Burleson of Parson’s Cavalry Brigade by the evening of June 4, 1862.

The skirmishes occurred because of the need for food and forage. Curtis had approximately 8,000 men and 1,000 horses and mules to feed. Heavy spring rains that made roads impassable for supply trains and the meager crops available added to the difficulties of moving and supplying an army. Federal foraging parties had scoured the area throughout May and June. The following correspondence from Curtis to Brigadier General W. Scott Ketchum provides insight into the overall conditions: “Tell General Halleck I am compelled to send out cavalry expeditions in all directions to suppress rebel bands, especially on the Rolla (Missouri) lines. Provisions which were last year sent down to Mississippi are now being shipped back by railroad which runs through the enclosure. General Carr, in advance near Searcy urges me to fall back, in view of bad roads preventing a forward movement and destitute of food and forage. I hope the gunboats will soon open a way to bring supplies by water. They cannot be conveyed by land and then to the Little Red River. We cannot get half rations of some things.”

June 7, 1862, correspondence from Colonel J. C. Kelton to Brigadier General W. Scott Ketchum describes the continuing situation: “General Curtis’ advance has fallen back from Little Red River to the Batesville side of the White River, being destitute of forage and so pressed by rebels as to make picket and forage duty insufferable.”

In addition to the need for provision, the perceived need for reinforcements was part of the growing discouragement of the Federals. This perception—promoted by the Rebels—was somewhat of an exaggeration. With several regiments and Texas forces arriving daily, General Hindman began to convince the enemy that he had received reinforcements from Corinth, Mississippi, a conviction he encouraged through rumors to that effect. He greatly exaggerated estimates of the number of his forces, numbers intended to be carried to Curtis by disloyal informers. The news brought by a citizen to Colonel Albert Brackett that General Earl Van Dorn had arrived with 30,000 men was a feature of this invention and was circulated through every channel likely to reach Curtis. Curtis learned of the rumors and, in correspondence dated June 1, wrote, “I must concentrate on this side of the White River and be reinforced immediately. The enemy is moving; we must be on the alert. I have spread my force to hold my lines of communication, which have been cut for ten days.”

Correspondence dated June 4, 1862, from Curtis to Ketchum noted that that forces from Little Rock were moving forward and that reinforcements were needed, as well as supplies. He wrote, “I stand firm, but in case the force is as strong as reported, I will have to move my advance from the Little Red River to this side of the White River. I sent so much to Corinth and got so far in sechesh [secessionist territory], this command now needs strengthening.”

The number of losses resulting from these skirmishes in early June was small. In the June 5 skirmish on the Little Red River, the Union losses were two wounded and four missing. These were men from the Fourth Iowa Cavalry. The losses of June 7 were from the Third Illinois Cavalry. Captain D. R. Sparks, from his camp at Fairview, reported to Lieutenant Colonel Lafayette McCrillis: “In action today, 14 miles south of this place, in which I commanded Company L, 1 man was wounded and six missing, four of whom are killed, wounded, or taken prisoners. Two, it is thought, may come in, with four missing horses. Company H had 1 man wounded and 1 missing.”

A few additional details of the skirmish on June 7 are included in a June 8, 1862, letter from Curtis to Ketchum in a reference to an attack on the forces of Captain Sparks, Commander of Company L, Third Illinois Cavalry, serving under Gen. Carr: “The enemy has followed up General Carr’s forces, attacking his pickets at Fairview, and yesterday driving in a party of sixty (Third Illinois Cavalry), under Capt. Sparks, with a loss of six men. The general complaints of want of forage and food, and is moving back nearer to the White River. Fairview is only eighteen miles out. I have requested General Schofield to send the nearest troops this way, filling up with those more remote. It takes so much force to support my lines. I have not enough to do justice to rebels in front.”

Sparks’s own correspondence to McCrillis reveals further details of the skirmish on June 7: “The enemy seem to be in strong force, about 200 or 300 cavalry, with some infantry; cannot give number, as we saw but a few. My force 66 strong. After giving the enemy a pretty strong fire broke and retreated in tolerable order. If we had been armed with pistols we could have done much better execution. The enemy being so close upon us, the men could or did not stop to load their guns. The few that had revolvers made a halt after retreating a short distance and made some very effective shots, as several of the rebels were seen to fall. They did not pursue us a half a mile, showing plainly that they had been hurt as well as ourselves.”

General E. A. Carr wrote acting Union adjutant general H. Z. Curtis on June 4, 1862, at headquarters in Batesville that he had lost three wagons of the Third Illinois Cavalry the day before while foraging in the forks of the White and Little Red rivers. Gen. Carr continued: “I do not think there is any probability that the general can take Little Rock with his present force by this route; therefore I see no use in placing us in a position where certain arrangements could prevent us from re-crossing and make us fight a retreating battle at a great disadvantage.”

After a meeting of Union field officers and much deliberation, Curtis did withdraw his forces, moving his headquarters first to Jacksonport (Jackson County), then Augusta (Woodruff County), then to Helena (Phillips County), by way of the north and east banks of the White River. He notified his superiors on June 25 of his move from Batesville.

The widespread harassment of the Federal troops by the Rebels, the lack of provision, and poor conditions throughout the spring of 1862 all contributed to the fallback of Curtis and, ultimately, the immediate abandonment of his mission. The communities of White County were left with much devastation after the withdrawal of the two armies. Records of 1862 show that crops had failed, and the state, including White County, had suffered great economic loss. The Confederate forces were, however, given time to amass more troops needed to retain control over the state. Southern areas of the state would remain in Confederate control until the end 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.

Dennis, Frank, ed. Recollections of the 4th Missouri Cavalry: William S. Burns, Co I , 4th Missouri Cavalry (Union). Dayton, OH: Morningside House, 1988.

Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion: Missouri Regimental Histories. New York: Yoseloff, 1900.

Evans, Clement A., ed. Confederate Military History: A Library of Confederate States History Written by Distinguished Men of the South. Atlanta, GA: Confederate Publishing Co., 1899.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compendium of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, vol. 13. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1885.

Loretta Haskell
White County Civil War Roundtable


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