Skirmishes at Richland Creek (May 3 and 5, 1864)

Location: Searcy County
Campaign: Actions to suppress Confederate guerrillas raiding Missouri
Date: May 3 and 5, 1864
Principal Commanders: Colonel John E. Phelps, First Lieutenant Andrew J. Garner (US); Colonel Sidney D. Jackman, Captain James H. Love, Captain John Cecil, Captain George Newton, and Colonel J. H. Nichols (CS)
Forces Engaged: Second Arkansas Cavalry (US); Co. C of the Seventh Arkansas Cavalry, various guerrilla units (CS)
Estimated Casualties: May 3: 36 to 42 killed (US); none (CS). May 5: 7 wounded (US); 2 wounded (CS)
Result: May 3: Confederate victory. May 5: Union victory

In March 1864, six companies and the headquarters of the Federal Second Arkansas Cavalry commanded by Colonel John E. Phelps were transferred from Cassville, Missouri, to Yellville (Marion County) to suppress Confederate guerrillas who were raiding southern Missouri. Other companies of the regiment were left at Berryville (Carroll County) in Arkansas, and Cassville and Springfield in Missouri. In addition to protecting Missouri, the Federals hoped that troops stationed in the northern tier of Arkansas counties would encourage Arkansas Unionists in the area to organize home-guard companies for protection. Immediately after being assigned to Yellville, however, headquarters were moved to Rolling Prairie (Boone County) in order to provide better forage for the horses. The camp was moved from time to time to provide forage for the horses and finally sited at Bellefonte (Boone County). In the most unfavorable country for cavalry—broken, hilly, rocky, and mountainous—the regiment pursued the active area guerrillas.

The Confederates, also in the spring of 1864, were increasing their activity in northern Arkansas. In April 1864, Confederate brigadier general Joseph O. Shelby sent Colonel Sidney D. Jackman into the Ozarks to recruit a regiment from deserters pardoned by President Jefferson Davis. From a camp in Newton County, he recruited guerrilla companies operating in the area, some of which had prior regular Confederate service, including Captain James H. Love’s Co. C, Seventh Arkansas Cavalry, which had returned to Searcy County in September 1863. In early May, Jackman only had Love’s company and men he had brought with him.

On May 3, Phelps, concerned about feed for his horses, sent a forage train from Bellefonte to Richland Valley in Searcy County under the command of First Lieutenant Andrew J. Garner. Garner had lived in Mountain Township, Searcy County, south of Richland Valley in 1860. He had served in the first company Captain Love had raised for the Confederacy—Company K, Fourteenth (Powers) Arkansas Infantry—from August 1861 until August 1862, when he deserted to return to Arkansas and join the Union army at Helena (Phillips County). Garner’s 100-man detachment escorted twenty-four mule-drawn wagons down to the north bank of the Buffalo River, opposite the mouth of Richland Creek in Searcy County, where they were detained because of high water. Garner was soon to be attacked by his old captain.

A female Confederate sympathizer rode to Jackman’s camp and alerted him to the Federal forage train and its escort. She thought there were eighty men in the escort, but Jackman remarked that his sixty men could whip 500 Federals, and he set off to meet them. In the meantime, the Union forage train had crossed the Buffalo River and was going south up the Richland Creek valley. The Union soldiers were completely surprised, as Union supporters in the area were not aware of Jackman’s presence and had reported no Confederate force nearby. As the Confederates came over the mountain overlooking Richland Valley, they could see the Federal wagons in the valley about two and a half miles away. They formed into a line of battle preparing to charge, and Lieutenant Garner, seeing Jackman’s men, moved an advance guard forward toward a fence. The Rebels charged and knocked down the fence, cut off the advance guard from the main body, and separated it from the wagons and the rear guard. The fight quickly became hand to hand, fighting with gun butts. Reports from both sides described the fighting as fierce and determined—and disastrous for the Federals. The Union forage escort lost Lieutenant James Hester and from thirty-six to forty-two men killed. (Figures differ among the various sources.) Lieutenant Garner escaped with the remainder of his escort and fled back to Bellefonte. The Confederates suffered no casualties.

The women in the Andrew Cole household living nearby, whose sons were with Love’s Confederate company attacking the wagon train, buried Lieutenant Hester and thirty-two of the Union dead, wrapping them in blankets from their own limited store. Others fell near a Union man’s house and were left unburied to be eaten by birds and hogs. Jackman’s men raided the wagons, then burned them and killed the mules. George T. Maddox, who was with Jackman, wrote that he had never heard such pitiful groans from a human as came from those dying mules.

The Confederates withdrew about a mile upstream to the mouth of Dry Creek, where it joined Richland Creek, and went into camp, erecting slight fortifications. Jackman waited to be joined by other guerrilla units while Captain Love’s company remained at the Dry Creek camp, enjoying the companionship of their families. Three guerrilla companies under Captain John Cecil of Newton County, Captain George Newton, and Colonel J. H. Nichols arrived and were sent out as scouts to look for a possible reprisal by the Second Arkansas Cavalry.

Union colonel Phelps, when advised of the disaster, started the evening of May 4 with about 100 men he could mount on serviceable horses. They marched all night, about thirty miles, to attack Jackman’s camp on the morning of May 5. The Confederate scouts had not detected his advance. He dismounted some of his men and put them in the center, with his cavalry on the wings, and charged Jackman’s fortified camp. The Confederates took cover in a branch where the bank offered protection, but Union soldiers got in the branch above and below them and drove them from their fortifications. Some of Love’s men who were with their families upon a hill about 200 or 300 yards from camp almost became cut off from their command. Jackman’s men hurried to mount horses, but as they were about to retreat, he ordered a charge. The order was only given to deceive the Federals, but Maddox and two others in the confusion did charge Phelps’s men and narrowly escaped to rejoin Jackman.

The Confederates retreated southward following a road up Richland Creek about a mile. The Union force remained on the battlefield until the next day. Phelps reported that his horses were too weak and famished to pursue. The Confederates suffered two wounded and the Union force seven wounded. There were no deaths in the May 5 skirmish. Phelps captured some horses, Jackman’s correspondence, $15,000 in Confederate currency, and some mules that had not been killed.

The lack of forage in the Yellville, Rolling Prairie, and Bellefonte areas, which had caused Phelps to send the forage train to Richland Valley, forced his regiment to withdraw on May 15 to Forsythe, Missouri, taking several Unionist refugee families with them. Jackman remained in north-central Arkansas, recruiting for General Shelby until late June, when he was ordered to join Shelby at Batesville (Independence County) in preparation for General Sterling Price’s fall 1864 raid into Missouri.

For additional information:
Johnston, James J. Searcy County Men in the Civil War: Union and Confederate. Fayetteville, AR: Searcy County Publications, 2001.

Maddox, George T. Hard Trials and Tribulations of an Old Confederate Soldier. Van Buren, AR: Argus Press, 1897.

U.S. Adjutant-General’s Office. Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers from Arkansas, 1862–1865. Microcopy No. 399, Record Group 94, Reel 115, Record of Events, Second Arkansas Cavalry.

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

Williams, Mollie E. A Thrilling Romance of the Civil War, or Forty Days in Search of a Missing Husband. Chicago: 1902.

James J. Johnston
Fayetteville, Arkansas


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