Skirmishes at Sylamore (January 23 and 26, 1864)

Location: Stone County
Campaign: None
Dates: January 23 and 26, 1864
Principal Commanders: Captain T. A. Baxter, Lieutenant Colonel William Baumer (US); Colonel Thomas R. Freeman (CS)
Forces Engaged: Fourth Arkansas Mounted Infantry Volunteers, First Nebraska Cavalry, Eleventh Missouri Cavalry, Sixth Missouri State Militia (US); First Missouri Cavalry (CS)
Estimated Casualties: 1 wounded, according to Union reports, or 20 killed, according to Confederate reports (US); 15 killed, 10 captured (CS)
Result: Munitions effort on South Sylamore Creek secured

After Arkansas seceded from the Union in May 1861, the Confederate Congress urged state leaders to make provisions for the manufacture of arms and munitions, including saltpeter, a major component of gunpowder. On August 21, the steamboat New Moon arrived at Sylamore (Stone County) with a cargo of thirty huge kettles, a steam engine, and a hammer mill to produce gunpowder for the Confederacy. They were brought up the North Fork of Sylamore Creek to what became known as Gunner Pool (now located in the Ozark National Forest). Governor Henry Rector placed Colonel Thomas R. Freeman in charge of the militia units to protect the munitions efforts. As steamships loaded and unloaded cargo and supplies for all of northern Arkansas to aid the munitions effort, the river port town of Sylamore became a critical location in the Civil War. In the spring of 1862, Union brigadier general Samuel Curtis had more than 20,000 soldiers spread out from Pocahontas (Randolph County) to Yellville (Marion County) searching for the Confederate powder mills located throughout the hills and caves.

In the winter of 1864, the northern end of Round Bottom—a major route along the White River with two steamboat river landings—was the camp of 200 men of the First Nebraska Cavalry and a small detachment of 100 men from the Eleventh Missouri Cavalry, Union troops all stationed at Batesville (Independence County). In January 1864, Major General Sterling S. Price commissioned Col. Freeman to maintain a regiment for the Confederates across all of northern Arkansas. On January 20, 1864, a detail of forty-four men of the Fourth Arkansas Mounted Infantry Volunteers (US) under Captain T. A. Baxter attacked Freeman’s Confederates, driving them from their camp at the Skirmish at Lunenburg in Izard County. After this, they received the following orders: “You will proceed immediately and attack every Rebel encampment you find. Move via Hookrum, Lunenburg, Sylamore. Shoot every Rebel soldier you find in Federal uniform and destroy all armed Bushwhackers. On North Fork of Sylamore you will find and destroy a powder mill operating there. Should the town of Sylamore be occupied and fire upon you, burn them out. The object of this expedition is to destroy Freeman.”

At 9:00 a.m. on January 23, 1864, the First Nebraska Cavalry and Sixth Missouri State Cavalry moved north, through Evening Shade (Sharp County), Franklin (Izard County), and Lunenburg (Izard County). At Sylamore Creek they encountered a force that they estimated to contain 300 men; the force, commanded by Freeman, retreated under fire. Federal forces captured three wagons, ten mules, official documents, private papers, and Confederate money. They captured about fifty men. Their only casualty was one man severely wounded.

On January 25, Lieutenant Colonel William Baumer of the First Nebraska Cavalry, under orders from Colonel Robert R. Livingston, rode through Mount Olive (Izard County), killing at least three there, including Isaac Jeffery, and capturing ten prisoners; they burned the town of Mount Olive before crossing the river. From there, they moved on the old road under the bluff to Sylamore, where they burned most of the town, killing four and wounding one. The two-story home of Judge Henry Hill Harris and his wife, Lucy Dillard Harris—which was built in 1848 and sits at the junction of Highways 5, 9, and14 at present-day Allison (Stone County)—was commandeered as a base, saving it from being burned.

Scouts were sent to find Freeman, with the remaining Union troops moving to Riggsville—present-day Mountain View (Stone County)—to join the Eleventh Missouri Cavalry that had gone south out of Batesville. The scouts reported back that Freeman was camped on Middle Sylamore Creek at Rorie’s Mill. Union soldiers were dispatched. The Confederates fired into the Union army from “very steep and high hills,” but to no avail. Lt. Col. Baumer’s command rode on toward Riggsville, camped, and rode back to Sylamore the next day (January 26), but the Rebel forces had gone, making their way to a point farther west on the Middle Sylamore Creek. Angry that Freeman had gotten away, the Union soldiers burned the Rorie family’s sawmill and grist mill to the ground, but not before torturing and killing three men of the Rorie family in an effort to determine the location of Freeman and of Rorie’s Cave, believed to be producing powder works. Absalom Rorie and his sons, Andrew and Hezikiah, had their arms tied to separate horses, which were driven in opposite directions, dismembering the bodies.

The next morning, January 27, 1864, Captain William Monks and the Eleventh Missouri Cavalry went in first, but Freeman had left before dawn, going back northeast toward Livingston Creek. Freeman had left a rear guard as distraction, which the Union chased a number of miles through Big Flat before capturing it. After the eight men surrendered, they were shot and killed. Col. Livingston’s monthly report states, “Of this scout to Sylamore 1 Union wounded.” Although the river was reported as being frozen sufficiently solid for loaded wagons to cross, Livingston wrote that “1 wounded man was put in a dugout boat with 3 men to bring him to Batesville.” Confederate soldiers reported another story; the east side of the river is said to have at least twenty graves of Union dead buried in the black cemetery of Ruddells (Izard County).

For additional information:
Phillips, Freda Cruse. Places of Our People: Stories of the People and Places of the White River Valley. Kearney, NE: Morris Publishing, 2011.

———. Voices of Our People: Stone County, Arkansas. Kearney, NE: Morris Publishing, 2009.

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

Freda Cruse Phillips
Mountain View, Arkansas


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