Tate’s Bluff Fortification
The Tate’s Bluff Fortification near Camden (Ouachita County), constructed circa 1864, is a square earthen fortification measuring 100 feet on each side and located on a hilltop just below the confluence of the Little Missouri and Ouachita rivers.
The Tate’s Bluff community was established by Captain Richard (Dick) Tate. Following service at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, Tate traveled by boat up the rivers of the Louisiana Purchase to the point where the Ouachita and Little Missouri rivers ran together. He returned to his home in Tennessee and persuaded eighty-nine people to immigrate to Arkansas with him and settle in the area. John Henderson Tate, who was Dick Tate’s nephew, and his wife, Ann Bryan Tate, built a home at Tate’s Bluff in 1829; it is believed to be the first permanent structure erected in Ouachita County.
After Major General Frederick Steele’s Union army captured and occupied Little Rock (Pulaski County) on September 10, 1863, Confederate forces congregated in the southwestern part of the state. Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith ordered Arkansas District commander Theophilus Holmes to gather his men at Camden on the Ouachita River. As it became apparent that Steele would not pursue the beaten Rebels, preferring instead to consolidate control of the Arkansas River, Smith ordered Holmes to fortify the town to block any Federal movement toward Shreveport, Louisiana.
Brigadier General Alexander T. Hawthorn was ordered to construct fortifications, and he soon set Rebel soldiers and the few available local slaves to digging rifle pits and gun emplacements at several strategic locations around the town, erecting a series of strong points between January and March 1864.
It is possible that the defense-conscious Confederate command also had the square earthen fort at Tate’s Bluff built at this time, commanding the strategic confluence of the Little Missouri and Ouachita rivers twenty-three miles northwest of Camden. As early as November 10, 1863, Major L. A. McLean had ordered cavalry pickets to remain at Tate’s Bluff and “keep these headquarters posted as to any information from the front of a reliable character.”
The fortification is surrounded by a ditch from which the earth was moved to construct the fort. Its corners are oriented to the four cardinal directions, with a passageway cut through the southeastern wall. The ditch is filled there, creating a ramp for access to the fortification. Each corner of the fort features a raised earthen gun platform. The walls of the fort stand about four feet above the flat interior floor of the fortification. Shallow, narrow ditches that may have served as trenches for supporting infantry are located thirty to fifty feet east of the fort.
Steele set forth from Little Rock on March 23, 1864, with a Union army, intending to link up with troops under Major General Nathaniel Banks to occupy cotton-rich areas of Texas. Realizing that the Federal troops were heading his way, Brigadier General John Sappington Marmaduke, commanding the Confederate cavalry division, ordered Brigadier General William L. Cabell to move his brigade from a position seventeen miles west of Washington (Hempstead County) to the Ouachita River. Cabell reported on March 24: “I will reach the position assigned to me as soon as I can possibly do so. I suppose that this is intended for Tate’s Bluff, to which place I will go.” Cabell ultimately would stop fifteen miles southwest of Tate’s Bluff in an area that offered more forage.
Marmaduke himself marched to Tate’s Bluff on March 28, bringing Colton Greene’s Missouri cavalry brigade, some Arkansas infantrymen, and a section of artillery with him from Camden. After determining that Steele’s army was heading west toward the Confederate capital at Washington instead of directly toward Camden, Marmaduke ordered Greene’s troops to cross the Little Missouri on March 30 and join the rest of the cavalry division in attempting to strike at the Union rear. Marmaduke also met with his other brigade commander, Brigadier General Joseph O. Shelby, at Tate’s Bluff on March 30.
Ultimately, the Rebel cavalry imposed itself between Steele and Washington at Prairie D’Ane near present-day Prescott (Nevada County), and the Union army stopped its southwestward drive, moving instead to occupy Camden and seek supplies. After losing forage trains and troops in fighting at Poison Spring and Marks’ Mills, the Federal commander abandoned Camden and, after a desperate battle at the crossing of the rain-swollen Saline River at Jenkins’ Ferry on April 30, returned with his surviving soldiers to Little Rock.
The final mention of Tate’s Bluff in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies is in a December 27, 1864, letter from Major General John Bankhead Magruder, who was then commanding the District of Arkansas, which revealed that supplies were still scarce in the region. Writing to the Trans-Mississippi Department’s chief of staff W. R. Boggs, Magruder begged that corn be transported from Louisiana and collected in depots in southern Arkansas. “The [Ouachita] river is now up, and I must place corn at Tate’s Bluff, Camden, and Pigeon Hill, or we cannot operate at all on that line next spring, and the enemy can take possession without a struggle,” Magruder wrote.
While it never saw combat and served mainly as a picket post, as a marshalling center, and possibly as a supply depot, the Tate’s Bluff fort played its role in Confederate strategy in southwest Arkansas as Rebel commanders sought to fortify and protect Camden. The Tate’s Bluff Fortification was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on December 31, 2002.
For additional information:
Scholtz, J. A. Tate’s Bluff Fort Arkansas Archeological Survey Site Survey Form 3OU38. On file at the Arkansas Archeological Survey, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Shea, William. “The Camden Fortifications.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 41 (Winter 1982): 319–326.
“Tate’s Bluff Fortification.” National Register of Historic Places nomination form. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Mark K. Christ
Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
Last Updated: 10/05/2021