“Centerville’s first “Civil War Days’ since the 1878 disaster is now history. I don’t think anyone lost as arm to a cannon explosion this time. I watched the re-enactment of the Battle of Elkins Ferry and it was pretty dramatic. I don’t need to elaborate as the Iowegian has done a fine job in reporting the week-end’s activities.

You may recall that I wrote my series of articles about the Civil War in mid-2004 and described the campaign of every Infantry and Cavalry unit that included a substantial number of Appanoose County soldiers, 21 weekly articles in all. These were the 6th, 17th, 18th and 36th Infantry Regiments and the 3rd, 7th and 8th Cavalry Regiments. There were also articles about Tyler and Anderson prison camps and General Lee’s surrender.

In recognition of the Centerville Civil War Days, I gathered my 21 articles up and published them in a booklet entitled “Civil War History of nine Iowa Companies” and put on an attractive cover in color with a Civil War motif. These booklets are now available at Bradley Shoppes and at The Columns for $12.00. Any profit is dedicated to the “Civil War Days Committee” of our historical society.

The battle chosen for the 2007 re-enactment was the Battle of Elkins Ferry, fought by the 36th Iowa Infantry, down in Southern Arkansas. When I wrote my series of articles about the Civil War in mid-2004, I failed to include this crucial battle. To rectify this omission, I am giving a description of this battle today.

The 36th Infantry spent their winter camp of 1863-64 in Little Rock Arkansas under the command of Lt. Col. F.M. Drake, finally attaining a spirit of vigor, enthusiasm and good health. In March 1864, the Union army began a campaign to clear the entire area west of the Mississippi of rebel forces. With Springfield, Missouri and Ft. Smith and Little Rock, Arkansas in Union hands, General Steele continued the incursion southward.

On March 29, 1864 the army, including the 36th, advanced to Arkadelphia, which is about 70 miles southwest of Little Rock. There they remained for three days while awaiting reinforcements coming from Ft. Smith, located on the Arkansas River at the Kansas-Arkansas border. The reinforcements did not arrive due to bad roads and lack of provisions. Steele was forced to continue his march without the extra men.

On April 1 General Steele’s army left Arkadelphia, reaching the Little Missouri River on April 3. By this time he was running low on food and forage. His goal was to reach Camden, in the southern part of Arkansas, as soon as possible to re-supply his hungry army and horses. The Union Army had to get across the Little Missouri River. This led to the Battle of Elkins Ferry, (or Elkins Ford) and sometimes the Battle of the Little Missouri.

The Little Missouri River meanders near Okolona, Arkansas as it flows into the Washita River north of Camden, eventually emptying into the Mississippi in Eastern Louisiana. Spring rains had made bridges impassible and the water was high. The best place to ford seemed to be a place called Elkin’s Ferry.

We might speculate that a ferry boat would be too slow to be much help, except for getting a few wagons across. Likely the infantry were able to wade across at the ford. The horses for the cavalry units and those pulling the wagons could probably swim across and some of the wagons would float. The pioneering men of those early times likely had a lot of experience in getting across large rivers when they had migrated to Iowa.

Steele quickly moved most of his 8,500 men toward the ford, leaving one brigade of infantry on the north bank to act as a rear guard. General Price of the Confederate Army had dispatched a unit of cavalry to harass the Union column from the rear. He attacked early in the morning of April 3 at the same time as a hailstorm moved into the area. The Union and Confederate forces fought their desperate battle while the storm raged with flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. Neither side gained a decisive advantage until Union artillery fire upset several beehives near the Confederate positions. This forced a hasty Confederate retreat.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke was trying to hold the Union Army from advancing forward, assaulting the head of the column arriving on the south bank. Col. Drake and the 36th Infantry were in the lead. Marmaduke was soon driven back but resumed his attack, early the next morning. He had three cavalry units totaling about 7500 men to stem the tide.

Marmaduke’s attack seemed initially successful, pushing Drake’s Federal troops back toward the river. But as more Union troops crossed the river, it became much harder for the Confederate forces to continue their attack. Drake’s had had good cover of trees. The Confederates fell back to their original positions before noon, and the rest of the Union Army was able to get across the river. The Confederated were soon in a hasty retreat.

The brunt of the unsuccessful Confederate frontal attack was borne by the 36th Infantry under the command of Lt. Col. Drake. There were 38 casualties for the Union Army, all wounded Union soldiers. There were 54 casualties for Confederate forces with 18 killed. The 36th Iowa Infantry distinguished themselves honorably in the campaign, especially in the Battle of Elkins Ford.

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