Battle at Mt. Elba
Compliments of James L. Boney
The expedition to Mount Elba began on March 27, 1864 when the Federal forces under Colonel Powell Clayton left the post at Pine Bluff on its mission to attack the Confederate forces commanded by Brigadier General Thomas P. Dockery camped at Monticello. The battle of Mount Elba was fought on March 30,1864.
In 1864 Mount Elba was a post office and a thriving community located near a crossing on the Saline River,
about 25 miles southwest of Pine Bluff. It was located between the road from Pine Bluff to Princeton and the road from Pine Bluff to Warren. After the capture of Little Rock on September 10, 1863 by the Federal army commanded by Major General Frederick Steele, the Confederate army commanded by Major-General Sterling Price retreated to Arkadelphia and then to Camden where they went into winter quarters. Here, Lieutenant- General T.N. Holmes, returning from sick leave, assumed command of all Confederate forces in Arkansas.
While the Union army was lying idle in their winter quarters at Little Rock, the Confederates were busy reorganizing their commands. In early December, in and around Camden there were many boys who had reached the age of military service, some men past 45 whom the late conscript law required to be enrolled and quite a number of soldiers who belonged to commands east of the Mississippi who were home on furlough.
To encourage the enlistment of these men and boys, General T. N. Holmes issued a general order allowing them to form themselves in to new companies and regiments and to elect their own officers. These men were mounted on their own horses and served as cavalry.
Brigadier-General James F. Fagan, formerly of the First Arkansas Infantry, would be in command of this new organization. As soon as the new companies were formed into regiments, they were stationed all over south Arkansas with some as far away as Monticello in Drew County. In February, 1864 the troops that were to become Dockery's brigade were sent to Drew County with their headquarters at Monticello. General Dockery had brought from Camden several partial regiments of soldiers paroled at Vicksburg and Port Hudson and had in addition to this mounted infantry; the 2nd Arkansas cavalry brigade consisting of Crawford's regiment; Wright's regiment; and Poe's and McMurtry's Battalion for a total of 2,000 effective men.
In early February, Lieutenant-General E. Krby Smith, the commanding general for the Trans-Mississippi Department had learned that the Federal high command had devised plans to cut the Transississippi Department off from the Confederacy east of the Mississippi River.
The plan called for a two phase offensive: the Union army in Little Rock commanded by General Steele would advance south to join the army commanded by Major-General Nathanial Banks moving north from New Orleans. United, these two armies would then attack the Confederate stronghold at Shreveport. General Smith sent orders to General Richard Taylor to concentrate his army at Mansfield, Louisiana and sent orders to General Holmes in Arkansas to gather his army in Camden to meet the threat from Little Rock.
Early in March of 1864, General Fagan whose headquarters were at Camden and was the ranking general for the cavalry forces in south Arkansas, visited Monticello where he remained a week or so getting the command in readiness for service. On his return to Camden, General Thomas P. Dockery was left in command.
On March 23, General Steele's Union army left Little Rock on its expedition into South Arkansas. On the 24th, Colonel Powell Clayton, the post commander at Pine Bluff received written instructions from General Steele. His orders stated that he was to remain at Pine Bluff to guard the rear of the Union army and to observe the enemy in the direction of Monticello and Camden and if he found them to be retreating, to press them with all his available force.
In obedience to these orders, Colonel Clayton selected Lieutenants Greathouse and Young of the Fifth Kansas cavalry. Both lieutenants had 40 picked and well mounted men and orders to penetrate the enemy's outer lines, hanging upon the flanks of his camps until they could obtain definite information of the enemy's movements. On the evening of the 26th, Lieutenants Greathouse and Young returned and expressed their opinion that the enemy was preparing to leave Monticello.
Colonel Clayton immediately concluded to act upon this information. After some deliberation, he decided that to march directly against the enemy at Monticello would result in his retreating across the Saline River at Long View possibly having to destroy his pontoon bridge in his rear to make good his escape. He therefore abandoned this plan and adopted one of making a demonstration in the direction of Monticello as if the whole force was advancing. At t he same time, he would advance rapidly to Mount Elba, bridge the Saline River leaving infantry and artillery to hold the bridge, and then cross with the Cavalry making demonstrations in the direction of Camden and Princeton. While this was transpiring, Lieutenants Greathouse and Young were to move with a small force to Long View, a distance of 42 miles from Mount Elba, and destroy the bridge which would prevent the Confederates from escaping. Colonel Clayton would then re-cross the Saline and attack the enemy with his whole force on the north side of the river.
On the morning of the 27th, Colonel Clayton organized an expedition which consisted of a detachment of the Eighteenth Illinois infantry consisting of seven commissioned officers and 230 enlisted men; a detachment of the Twenty-Eighth Wisconsin infantry consisting of five commissioned officers and 260 enlisted men; a detachment of the First Indiana cavalry, Fifth Kansas cavalry, and the Seventh Missouri cavalry, amounting to 600 men, four mountain howitzers and two steel rifled guns.
The infantry was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Marks of the Eighteenth Illinois infantry and the cavalry was under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Wilton Jenkins of the Fifth Kansas cavalry. In addition to these forces, Colonel Clayton had a small train of eight pontoons made for the occasion mounted on wagon wheels.
The infantry and train moved out of the post at Pine Bluff at sunset on the 27th with 100 cavalry commanded by Lieutenants Greathouse and Young in the direction on Monticello. The balance of the cavalry started at daylight the next morning. The whole command, with the exception of the cavalry went in the direction of Monticello, arrived at Mount Elba at 4:00 p.m. on the 28th, drove in the enemy's pickets, killing one and capturing four; and then proceeded with the construction of the bridge across the Saline which was completed near midnight.
Lieutenants Greathouse and Young returned during the night and reported that they had driven in the enemy's pickets at Branchville the night before. At daylight on the morning of the 29th, Colonel Clayton left all the infantry, three pieces of artillery and one squadron of cavalry with the train at Mount Elba under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Marks with instructions to hold the bridge and observe the enemy in the direction of Monticello. He then moved eight miles with the balance of his command across the Saline in the direction of Camden to the vicinity of Mark Mill.
In this neighborhood three roads from Camden, Princeton, Long View and the areas around the Saline River converged. Colonel Clayton made this crossroads the base of his operations and gave instructions to Lieutenants Greathouse and Young with 50 picked and well mounted men each, to move rapidly by the way of Warren to Long View to destroy the pontoon bridge and the enemy's train. In the meantime to cover the movements of these troops, Colonel Clayton sent a squad of cavalry along the Camden road, the two Princeton roads and up each side of the Saline River with instructions to convey the idea that the whole command was advancing on each of these roads.
These squads of cavalry went out from 10 to 20 miles and returned the same day. Captain Pierce captured six prisoners on the road up the south banks of the Saline River. Captain Young skirmished with a squad of Confederate cavalry on the Princeton road, capturing 10 prisoners and reported Confederate General Joe Shelby was at Princeton.
While the remainder of Dockery's brigade remained in camp at Monticello, Colonel John C. Wrights' regiment was on outpost duty between Pine Bluff and Monticello.
Here, Colonel Wright received orders from General Dockery to move in the direction of Pine Bluff and ascertain whether the enemy had moved or was preparing to move. When within a few miles of Pine Bluff, Colonel Wright learned that the enemy had gone south on the day before in the direction of Mount Elba, Colonel Wright immediately took up the pursuit and overtook the enemy at sundown camped in the town of Mount Elba. At this time his presence was not known. Leaving a strong picket in the enemy's rear, he moved five miles east across Big Creek and went into camp. Earlier he had sent a courier to General Dockery informing him of the condition and asking for re-enforcements.
In a few hours a courier from General Dockery arrived with an order stating, "The General commanding is surprised to learn of your whereabouts; supposed from the orders given you, you would be in the vicinity of Pine Bluff. You will report at once to these headquarters." Colonel Wright's answer to this was, "if I obey this order there will not be so much as a single picket between you and the enemy. I am sure the General commanding does not understand this situation, hence I decline to obey until further orders." This answer was dispatched in haste and by daylight on the morning of the 30th, General Dockery with his brigade was at the camp of Colonel Wright.
While enroute to attack the Union force at Mount Elba, Colonel Wright informed General Dockery that he had men in his command that knew the country well, who had before sunrise had gotten behind the Federal pickets and captured them without firing a shot, so that when the whole command was within a few hundred yards of the Union camp, their presence being unsuspected.
A charge then would have taken them by surprise and the results would be almost certain capture of all north of the river. But, General Dockery would not consent and delayed two hours getting his regiments into position. Meanwhile, their presence had been discovered by Captain Barnes with a squad of cavalry who had been sent on the road toward Monticello to watch the enemy.
About 2:00 a.m. on the morning of the 30th, fearing that Lieutenant-Colonel Marks might not have sufficient cavalry to watch the enemy in the direction of Monticello, Colonel Clayton sent Captain Barnes with a squad of cavalry to report to him with orders to move at daylight in that direction. About 8:30 a.m. Colonel Clayton received a report that Captain Barnes had met the enemy on a opposite side of the river and had been driven in. Colonel Clayton immediately sent Lieutenant Colonel Jenkins with the Fifth Kansas cavalry to the assistance of Lieutenant-Colonel Marks, who was holding the bridge at Mount Elba.
At 9:30 a.m. Lieutenants Greathouse and Young returned and reported the destruction of the bridge at Long View, the burning of a loaded train of 35 wagons, the capture of a large number of arms and ammunition, and bringing with them about 260 prisoners, nearly 300 horses and mules and a large number of contrabands.
When Captain Barnes reported to Lieutenant-Colonel Marks early on the morning of the 30th, he sent his out on the road toward Monticello with instructions to scout the road for some distance and report by night. At 7:30 a.m. Captain Barnes returned and reported that he had encountered a body of the enemy cavalry of 100 men marching in the direction of Mount Elba.
Colonel Marks immediately prepared for their defense. A barricade was formed of rails and logs from some negro huts and companies A, F, G, H and I of the Twenty-Eighth Wisconsin was thrown forward as skirmishers to engage the enemy and watch his movements. Here the skirmishing continued for approximately two hours. A t 9:30 a.m., The Federal skirmishers were forced to retreat into their camp, closely followed by the Confederates who made a spirited attack. About the time the Federal skirmishers were driven in, Lieutenant-Colonel Jenkins of the Fifth Kansas cavalry arrived at the Ferry and assumed command of the camp.
Dismounting his men and leaving the horses under the bluff across the river from the camp, Colonel Jenkins sent his men to the front and threw out the line of skirmishers to hold the enemy in check as long as possible enabling them to improve on the hastily constructed barricades from the rails lying scattered around and in the fences nearby. This was done under a heavy fire from the enemy who now appeared in such force that Colonel Jenkins' skirmishers had to fall back on the main command.
The Union battle line was formed with the right flank held by the Eightieth Illinois infantry, the left by the Twenty- Eighth Wisconsin and two companies of the Fifth Kansas cavalry and the center by three howitzers supported by the dismounted cavalry. The Confederates evidently expecting easy victory, kept moving steadily forward under the cover of the timber keeping up a continuous fire along their whole line. Up to this time only two or three rounds had been fired from the artillery though the firing of small arms had been severe for some time. The Confederates were now advancing with loud cheers and could plainly be seen through the woods in their front. Colonel Jenkins ordered the howitzers to be fired as rapidly as possible. After 30 minutes of hard fighting, it became evident that the severity of the Union fire was causing the Confederates to fall back in great haste and confusion. Seeing this, Colonel Jenkins again advanced his skirmishers and threw his left flank for ward some 300 or 400 yards. Here they found a number of Confederate dead and wounded as well as a number of arms which had been left in their hurried retreat. Colonel Jenkins now had the horses brought across the river and Majors Walker and Scudder of the Ffth Kansas cavalry with 100 men and one howitzer were sent after the retreating Confederates with orders to harass them as much as possible.
Lieutenant Colonel Jenkins had just issued orders to have the dead collected, the wounded taken into the house, and to have the arms gathered when Colonel Clayton arrived relieving him of command.
When the sound of the artillery firing was heard in the direction of Mount Elba and after a courier from Colonel Jenkins reported an engagement going on at that place, Colonel Clayton, who was still at his camp at Mark's Mill, immediately marched to the assistance of Colonel Jenkins. When he arrived at the crossing, he found that the enemy had been repulsed and had fallen back about one mile, followed by Majors Walker and Scudder with the Fifth Kansas cavalry. He immediately joined the pursuit with all his available cavalry and instructed Colonel Marks to follow with the infantry. After going about one mile, he found the enemy posted in thick timber with an enclosed field and peach orchard between his position. He had the fence thrown down and ordered the charge.
When the artillery opened fire, the Union cavalry charged across the. open field into the timber. Here the Confederates broke into the wildest confusion and from this time on, their retreat was a perfect rout. The road and timber was strewn with blankets, saddlebags and guns. Prisoners were being brought in and sent to the rear. The pursuit was kept up until the Union cavalry reached a point about five miles from Mount Elba where the road crosses Big Creek.
Here the Confederate rear guard under the command of Colonel Wright had succeeded in tearing up about 20 feet of the bridge and carrying off the boards. The creek could not be forded, therefore the pursuit was suddenly and effectively halted. By the time the Union forces were ready to move again, it was 5:00 p.m. and by the time they reached Centerville, a point about 12 miles from Mount Elba, it was night.
At this time the greater part of the cavalry that had the expedition to Long View was very much fatigued and unable to move any further. The infantry with the prisoners and train were still somewhere behind. In view of this and the fact that the enemy had obtained four hours head start by obstructing the bridge and the encumbrance of the prisoners who would be difficult to guard during a night march, Colonel Clayton concluded that to pursue the enemy any further would be a useless tax upon the energy and endurance of his command. He therefore went to camp and the next day; marched the 28 miles back to Pine Bluff.
The-Battle of Mount Elba lasted two and one half hours. For the Union forces, the expedition was a brilliant success. For three days they were deep in enemy territory, where they had fought and defeated forces more than twice their number. By skillful maneuvering, 100 picked men of this small force managed to get behind the Confederate army, capture and destroy his train of 35 wagons loaded with a great value of stores containing their paymasters safe with $860,000 (Confederate money), destroy their pontoon bridge over the Saline River, captured and brought to Mount Elba 260 prisoners, 300 horses and mules and a large number of contrabands. The Union loss throughout the expedition was only two killed and eight missing.
The Confederate forces at Mount Elba consisted of Crawford's, Crockett's and Wright's regiments or about
1,200 men commanded by General Dockery in person. Their defeat was thorough and complete with a loss in killed, wounded and missing, independent of the 260 captured at Long View, of over 160 men. General Dockery, by not taking advantage of the information sent to him the night of the 29th by Colonel John Wright and by delaying two hours in getting his brigade into position, let slip through his hands the chance to capture the greater part of the Union forces at Mount Elba.
The battle was the first in a series of battles fought in south Arkansas in the spring of 1864 in what is known in the official records as the Camden Expedition. After the battle, the Union forces returned to Pine Bluff and the Confederate forces withdrew to their camp at Monticello and were shortly called across the Ouachita River to help repel General Steele's expedition in south Arkansas.
Source: Mr. Boney, of New Edinburg, used the following references: A sketch of the life of Dr. J.M. Brown, D.D., Tri-County Advocate; The journal of Col. John C. Wright, CSA, report of Col. Powell Clayton, official records, report of Lt. Col. Samuel B. Marks, official records, report of Lt. Col. Wilton Jenkins, official records. Submitted by permission of Mr. Boney.