White River Expedition (August 5–8, 1862)

Location: White River; Helena (Phillips County)
Campaign: White River Campaign
Date: August 5–8, 1862
Principal Commanders: Colonel Isaac F. Shepard, Lieutenant Colonel Bischoff (US); none (CS)
Forces Engaged: Gunboats Benton, White Cloud, Louisville, Mound City; rams Bragg, Switzerland, and Monarch; steamer Iatan; Third Missouri Infantry (US); none (CS)
Casualties: 1 (US)
Result: Union advancement on the White River

The White River Expedition of August 5–8, 1862, consisted of a small portion of the Union navy in Arkansas traveling from Helena (Phillips County) down the Mississippi River to the mouth of the White River to perform reconnaissance and overcome any possible Confederate forces hiding along the shoreline. Led by Colonel Isaac Shepard on board the steamer Iatan and Lieutenant Colonel Bischoff, a fleet of four gunboats, three rams, and one steamer departed on August 5at 10:30 p.m., with the exception of the gunboat White Cloud, as it remained in port taking in coal. At 3:00 a.m. on August 6, the fleet reached Old Town (Phillips County), where the gunboats continued their operation along the river and the other ships remained in hopes that the White Cloud would soon appear. The White Cloud did not appear until 10:00 a.m., delaying their operations. Finally, with the return of the gunboats, the fleet continued to the mouth of the White River by 6:00 p.m.

The report from the day stated that there were no indications that their trip would be deterred. There were, however, three horsemen discovered at separate points that might have been Confederate scouts on the Arkansas shore, but no troops appeared. Very few people were seen on the shore, with the exception of the horsemen and a few African Americans, unknown to be enslaved or free. With no problems, the fleet anchored at the mouth of the White River while the Louisville and small transport boats continued up the river, moving three miles to Montgomery’s Cut-off. Soon after, the Louisville grounded but finally became free over an hour later. Captain Dove (no first name given) returned to the fleet, informing Col. Shepard that any further advancement up the river would lead to hazardous conditions. Agreeing, Shepard and the remaining fleet maintained their position, awaiting the return of the rest of the fleet. Observations from the White River stated that the river level had fallen three feet within the previous two weeks, leading to a major obstacle for Shepard and the fleet. Also, a report indicated the creation of a new road near Montgomery’s Cut-off, as recognized by the stumps within the large forest.

At 2:00 a.m. on August 7, the remaining fleet returned, and an hour later, the fleet made a second attempt to travel up the river. Similar to their travels on August 6, the beginning of the expedition proved to be quiet, with the exception of a large contingency of African Americans along the shoreline with a flatboat. By noon, the fleet traveled twenty-eight miles beyond the mouth of the river to Relief Station, where Shepard ordered a delay, waiting for the gunboats to arrive at their location. While waiting, he dispatched the yawl to the shoreline, looking for one of the African Americans in the area to report the recent events. The black man (no name recorded) informed the troops that no troop movement had occurred in that area within the past several weeks. He also reported that families from Arkansas did pass through to Mississippi, being tired of the war, and that one of the houses in the surrounding area was still occupied by whites, although most had vacated the area and continued their journey. No activity had been reported on the river. Shepard reported that a large group of African Americans gathered along the river bank during the investigation, and he interviewed others to confirm the initial information.

Following this discussion, Shepard dispatched a small group of soldiers to investigate the lone occupied house and retrieve a musket suspected to be there. The soldiers found a young man from Kentucky, ill and not part of a regiment for either side—or so the young man claimed. The desired musket possessed one ball, already loaded, but an apparent Confederate officer’s hat lay on top of the weapon. The family living in the house was unrelated, but the soldiers discovered inconsistencies in their story. Instead of arresting the family and the sick Kentuckian, the soldiers only took the weapon and returned to the fleet.

Their wait also produced an excellent scouting report on the surroundings. Relief Station presented a reliable location for a Union camp. Located across the river, Island No. 64 provided another area to place troops in case of Confederate attacks, but also played an important role in case of retreat. The channel between the island and the Mississippi shoreline was less than 300 yards wide. Due to the channel’s shallow nature, flat boats would have to be used. Roughly two miles downstream on the river was a landing with a road, providing access to Old Town, a densely settled area.

At 2:00 p.m., the remaining fleet reached Shepard, and they continued their expedition up the river to Helena, arriving by daybreak the next morning, August 8. The only casualty of this expedition came from a private who slept near the rail of the ship. Upon waking, the Third Missouri Infantry private was startled, losing his balance and falling overboard. The search for the missing soldier was unsuccessful.

For additional information:
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, Vol. 13, pp. 208–210. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1885.

Matthew Thomas Whitlock
Old Dominion University


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