Skirmishes at Okolona

aka: Battle of the Bees

Location: Clark County
Campaign: Camden Expedition (1864)
Date(s): April 2 and 3, 1864
Principal Commanders: Brig. Gen. Samuel Rice (April 2), Col. Adolph Engelmann (April 3) (US); Brig. Gen. Joseph O. Shelby (CS).
Forces Engaged: (April 2) Twenty-ninth Iowa, Ninth Wisconsin, and Fiftieth Indiana Infantry regiments and Voegele’s Wisconsin Artillery Battery; (April 3) Seventy-seventh Ohio, Forty-third Illinois, Fortieth Wisconsin, and Twenty-seventh Wisconsin Infantry regiments and Vaughan’s Illinois Battery (US); Shelby’s Confederate Cavalry (CS)
Casualties: 11 killed, 44 wounded, 14 missing (US); unreported (CS)
Result: Union victory


The Skirmishes at Okolona were fought as Confederate cavalry under Joseph O. Shelby harassed the rear of Major General Frederick Steele’s Union army as it moved into southwest Arkansas during the Camden Expedition of 1864, marking the first serious resistance to Steele’s advance.

Steele led his army from Little Rock (Pulaski County) on March 23, planning to link up with another Union army under Nathaniel Banks at Shreveport, Louisiana, and conquer the cotton-rich country of eastern Texas. The Federal army arrived at Arkadelphia (Clark County) on March 29 and waited for John Thayer’s Frontier Division out of Fort Smith (Sebastian County) before continuing south and camping at Spoonville (Pike County) on April 1.

At around noon the next day, Shelby attacked the Union wagon train. The Twenty-ninth Iowa Infantry Regiment of Colonel Thomas Hart Benton Jr. fought off the initial attack as Brigadier General Samuel Rice rushed the Fiftieth Indiana Infantry from the front of the train to reinforce the rearguard. Shelby hit them again at dusk near the junction of the Camden and Washington roads, and the Union regiments, reinforced by the Ninth Wisconsin Infantry, again drove the Confederate troopers back after a sharp fight. Rice continued to Okolona (Clark County), where the Federals camped for the night. Union casualties for the day were eight killed, thirty-seven wounded, and fourteen missing; Confederate losses were unreported.

The next day, Colonel Adolph Engelmann’s Third Brigade, bolstered by the Seventy-seventh Ohio Infantry and Captain Thomas F. Vaughan’s six-gun Illinois artillery battery, remained at Okolona with instructions to march back to Hollywood (Clark County) in search of Thayer’s missing division. Shelby’s men attacked Engelmann’s pickets at around 9:00 a.m., and the Federals deployed against them.

The opposing forces fought for several hours as Shelby’s artillery and Vaughan’s battery fired at each other and the Federal infantry maneuvered to keep the Confederates from turning their flank. At the height of the fighting, a thunderstorm burst upon the battlefield, pelting the soldiers with hail. As the storm ceased, Engelmann ordered Colonel Conrad Krez’s Twenty-seventh Wisconsin Infantry to advance. Shelby stopped the fighting, falling back to the village of Antoine (Pike County). Union losses were three killed and seven wounded, while Shelby’s losses were not reported.

In his postwar account of Shelby’s exploits during the war, Shelby and his Men, or The War in the West, John Newman Edwards, Shelby’s adjutant, offered an expanded account of the April 3 fight in which he claims that a Federal artillery shell upset several beehives. Edwards claims that the enraged bees attacked the Confederate lines, leading Shelby to abandon the field to both insects and Federals. However, the incident is not mentioned in any of the after-battle reports, including Shelby’s; nor is it recounted in any of the accounts published in local newspapers following the battle, such as the Washington Telegraph of Hempstead County, Little Rock’s Unconditional Union, and Little Rock’s National Democrat. It is probable that the “Battle of the Bees” is in reality one of the many embellishments included in Shelby and his Men.

For additional information:
Christ, Mark K., ed.“This Day We Marched Again”: A Union Soldier’s Account of War in Arkansas and the Trans-Mississippi. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2014.

Edwards, John Newman. Shelby and his Men, or The War in the West. Waverly, MO: General Joseph Shelby Memorial Fund, 1993.

Popchock, Barry, ed. Soldier Boy: The Civil War Letters of Charles O. Musser, 29th Iowa. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995.

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, 1890–1901, pp. 673–838.

Mark Christ
Little Rock, Arkansas


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