Archive for the ‘Civil War’ Category

To St. Francis and back

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

I’ve traveled a lot of Arkansas roads through the decades, but a recent trip into northeast Arkansas took me onto roads I’ve never traversed.

The day trip (albeit a long day) was the idea of Mark Christ, perhaps the foremost expert on the Civil War in Arkansas, and Paul Austin, who heads the Arkansas Humanities Council. Two other men with deep knowledge of our state — Center Ridge native and UCA professor Ken Barnes and community development expert Freeman McKindra — joined a trip that would take us to the most northeast spot on an Arkansas map, the Clay County community of St. Francis.

During the day, we drove the back roads of Lawrence, Randolph and Clay counties with Paul, an Imboden native, at the wheel. Lunch was on the front porch of a Mennonite store at Dalton, just south of the Missouri border in Randolph County. Supper (a reward for the hundreds of miles covered) was in Bald Knob at Who Dat’s, a longtime favorite. We saw the big raven at Ravenden, walked down to the spring at Ravenden Springs and even passed the road to Success (Success being a community in Clay County).

The first stop of the day was at Jacksonport in Jackson County on the White River. By late afternoon, we were walking through the thick Crowley’s Ridge hardwoods to Chalk Bluff on the St. Francis River. A town developed here in the 1820s with the name derived from a white clay bluff that’s still visible. Abraham Seitz operated a ferry crossing and general store from the 1830s until the Civil War. In May 1863, this was the site of the Battle of Chalk Bluff as Union Gen. William Vandever failed in his efforts to prevent troops commanded by Confederate Gen. John Marmaduke from crossing the St. Francis River.

Marmaduke, after suffering heavy casualties, had abandoned a second expedition into the Missouri Bootheel and was trying to get back to Arkansas.

Marmaduke, accompanied by 5,000 men, headed for the Bootheel in the spring of 1863. He was defeated at Cape Girardeau and began withdrawing toward Arkansas with the crossing of the St. Francis River planned for Chalk Bluff. Fighting began there on May 1 and lasted until the next day. Marmaduke’s rear guard was able to hold off the Union forces long enough for his engineers to complete a bridge across the river.

Minor skirmishes would occur at Chalk Bluff on and off for the remainder of the war.

I noted that we began our day on the banks of the White River and found ourselves by late afternoon on the banks of the St. Francis River. So while this day was supposed to be about the Civil War, it was really about rivers — the rivers that have so shaped the eastern half of our state through the decades.

The St. Francis River originates in Missouri. It’s a mountain stream until it slows down near Poplar Bluff. It forms the boundary between the Missouri Bootheel and Arkansas before continuing its path in east Arkansas between Crowley’s Ridge and the Mississippi River. The St. Francis flows into the Mississippi north of Helena in the St. Francis National Forest.

During the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, parts of northeast Arkansas dropped by six to eight feet, leading to a huge swampy area that slowed development for decades. That area is now known as the St. Francis Sunken Lands, and much of it is managed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission as a wildlife management area.

“The St. Francis River was not navigable in its natural state, having numerous snags and rafts,” Jodi Morris writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1836-37, W. Bowling Buion surveyed the river under the auspices of the federal government with an eye toward improving navigation, but nothing came of it. Only after the Civil War did Congress begin funding the clearing of the river. Numerous clearing and dredging operations made the St. Francis navigable from its mouth up to Wappapello, Mo. Because the swampy Sunken Lands impeded progress on railroad construction until the land began to be drained in the late 1890s and early 1900s, steamboats continued to operate on the river until well into the early 20th century.

“The St. Francis Levee District was created in 1893 and began constructing levees and drainage canals to control flooding. These measures were strengthened and increased after the catastrophic flood of 1927 and the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1928. This greatly affected the natural course of the river and included a number of diversion ditches that run somewhat parallel to the river along its course from southeastern Craighead County down through Lee County, thus providing an outlet for excess water.”

The law establishing the St. Francis Levee District was Act 19 of the Arkansas General Assembly of 1893. It was the first improvement district in Arkansas. It addressed flood control in Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Lee, Mississippi, Phillips, Poinsett and St. Francis counties. Gov. W.N. Fishback made the first appointments to the levee board with three representatives from each county.

Previous efforts at flood control through the federal Swamp Land Grant of 1850 and state organizations had been ineffective. The levee district initially was funded by an appropriation from the Mississippi River Commission and a tax levy on the increased land values that were anticipated.

The St. Francis Levee District ended up draining a large portion of east Arkansas with hardwood forests replaced by row crops.

Take the Little River of northeast Arkansas (not to be confused with the Little River of southwest Arkansas) as an example of what the levee district did. The Little River starts west of Cape Girardeau and flows into northeast Arkansas, where it enters what’s now the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the state’s Big Lake Wildlife Management Area near Manila in Mississippi County. It joins the St. Francis River at Marked Tree. Before the New Madrid earthquakes, the Little River was a clear, swift stream. It’s now described by the state encyclopedia as “not much more than a series of stagnant mud holes due to channeling and ditching.”

After leaving the Big Lake area, the Little River is part of a floodway that’s about a mile wide and enclosed by levees. The floodway includes Ditch No. 1, Ditch No. 9, Left Hand Chute of the Little River, Right Hand Chute of the Little River and the Little River itself.

“These waterways run together, separate and join again,” Norman Vickers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The dominant channel is the Right Hand Chute of the Little River. Near the southern end of the St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management area, the floodway enters the St. Francis River.”

The L’Anguille River, another tributary of the St. Francis River, begins west of Harrisburg and flows down the west side of Crowley’s Ridge before crossing the ridge near Marianna and flowing into the St. Francis. The L’Anguille River and the Cache River to its west were major obstacles to the construction of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad. The east Arkansas gap in the line existed until 1871.

The Cache begins near the Arkansas-Missouri border and flows south until emptying into the White River near Clarendon. Flood-control efforts during the 1920s and 1930s split the river into two ditches between Bono and Egypt in Craighead County. The Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project, which was designed to dredge 140 miles of the river upstream from Clarendon while also dredging 77 miles of the Bayou DeView. Initial funds for the project weren’t approved until 1969.

Congressman Bill Alexander, a Mississippi County native who owed allegiance to the big planters, was a strong supporter of the dredging but was opposed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and others entities across the state. Federal Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 1972, but a federal appeals court sent the case back to Henley, saying the Corps had not properly prepared its environmental impact statement. That statement wasn’t approved until 1977. By then, support in Congress had waned. The Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was established from Grubbs to Clarendon in 1986 to protect the stream.

The St. Francis, Little, Cache and L’Anguille rivers are lowland streams. A bit to the west — but still in northeast Arkansas — are the many streams of the Ozark foothills. The flat Delta quickly gives way to the rolling foothills after you cross the Black River at Black Rock. Most of these streams are fed by springs in Missouri before flowing south into Arkansas.

There’s the Eleven Point River, which flows into the Spring River.

To the west, Myatt Creek and the South Fork also empty into the Spring.

The Spring River, which flows through Arkansas for almost 75 miles, then empties into the Black River near Black Rock.

The Little Black River comes out of Missouri and flows into the Current River just northwest of Datto.

The Current River then merges with the Black River near Pocahontas.

The Fourche River (not to be confused with the Fourche La Fave River in west-central Arkansas) comes out of Missouri and flows through Randolph County for about 20 miles before emptying into the Black River.

The Strawberry River flows for 90 miles to the southeast before emptying into the Black River in Independence County.

The eastern half of the state truly is a land of rivers, both swift and slow.

Three rivers come together in southeast Missouri to form the Black River. The Black crosses the Arkansas border northeast of Corning and then passes the Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area, Pocahontas, Davidsonville Historic State Park, Black Rock and Powhatan.

From there, the river flows through the Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake Wildlife Management Area before turning toward the southeast and entering the White River at Jacksonport. The sharp bends in the Black River have colorful names such as Deadman, Hole in the Wall, Box Factory, Battle Axe and Dead Mule. The first steamboat to go up the Black River to Pocahontas was the Laurel in 1829.

Jacksonport, Powhatan, Davidsonville and Pocahontas all prospered as steamboat ports. More than 40 steamboats were traveling the Black River in 1900. The first train had reached Pocahontas in 1896, however, and river traffic declined.

Jacksonport, where we started our day, thrived until the railroad bypassed the town in 1872, leading to the rise of Newport. For decades prior to that, boats bound for Memphis, New Orleans and St. Louis had offloaded goods at Jacksonport. Confident that river traffic would reign supreme, Jacksonport officials voted against giving the Iron Mountain, St. Louis & Southern Railroad the land grant and $25,000 that railroad officials had requested to pass through the city. It was a big mistake. Newport grew after completion of the railroad and was incorporated in 1875.

“Businesses and residents began drifting away from Jacksonport for the upstart Newport,” Adam Miller writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Newport marginally edged out Jacksonport in population by 1880, but the growth momentum was thereafter permanently in Newport’s favor. In 1882, construction of a narrow-gauge railway began in an effort to stem the loss of business. The railway ran from Jacksonport to Brinkley via Newport and was utilized by lumber businesses for a few decades. In February 1882, a devastating flood and fire that consumed most of the town — both within the span of a week — further accelerated the depopulation of Jacksonport. Hotly contested elections to move the county government to Newport first arose when Jacksonport was surpassed in population in the 1880s. Jacksonport rallied and won the first two elections, managing to postpone removal of the county seat until 1891, when Newport won a third election.

“By 1900, the population of Jacksonport had dwindled to 265, and the schools at Jacksonport were consolidated with Newport in 1944. Apart from a levee built in 1909, there were few infrastructure improvements at Jacksonport until the old courthouse was saved from demolition in 1962 by the Jackson County Historical Society, which purchased the derelict building and adjacent lands. The old courthouse was renovated to its former grandeur and became part of Jacksonport State Park in 1965.”

It was quiet at Jacksonport near the banks of the White River on a Thursday morning, just as it would be quiet more than eight hours later at Chalk Bluff on the banks of the St. Francis River in the northeast corner of the state. In both places, though, you could almost feel the rich history. Like so much of Arkansas, these places were shaped by rivers.


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July 4 and the Battle of Helena

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

The Fourth of July marks another anniversary of the Battle of Helena.

It took place July 4, 1863.

Because the Battle of Gettysburg occurred July 1-3, 1863, the Battle of Helena has been overlooked by Civil War historians and amateur history buffs alike.

Because Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863, the happenings that day at Helena have fallen even further into the recesses of history.

As noted in a previous Southern Fried blog post, Helena is doing more than any other Arkansas city to capitalize on its Civil War heritage.

As we approach the Fourth of July, let’s remember what happened there 149 years ago.

In the spring of 1861, two militia companies known as the Yell Rifles and the Phillips Guards left Helena to join other Confederate forces. Additional companies would follow.

Now one of the poorest counties in the country, Phillips County was among the richest places in Arkansas at the start of the Civil War with 224 plantations of 100 acres or more. Forty of those plantations had more than 500 acres, and four of them had more than 1,000 acres.

Of the almost 15,000 people in the county, about 9,000 were slaves.

In the Civil War interpretive plan developed for Helena, Joseph and Maria Brent of the Kentucky firm Mudpuppy & Waterdog Inc. write: “The cotton grown on the plantations meant money, and the money brought power. Helena on the Mississippi was a thriving port. Cotton went downriver to New Orleans, where it was exchanged for goods from Europe. The war brought the easy life that Helena’s upper class enjoyed to an end. The Union navy captured New Orleans and controlled traffic on the river. In July 1862, the Union army marched into Helena, capturing the city.

“The Union army used Helena as a supply center and a base of operations. It was also a freedom center. As the Union army marched from Missouri and across Arkansas, thousands of slaves left farms and plantations, following the army to Helena. The escaped slaves, known as contraband, found themselves wards of the army. Unfortunately, the army had no idea how to feed, clothe and house several thousand destitute civilians.”

These escaped slaves were housed in tents, churches, stables and other structures at Helena. Some of them were used to help build Fort Curtis for the Union forces along with a ring of batteries on Crowley’s Ridge that were designed to protect Helena from a Confederate attack.

“Thousands of Union troops came to Helena en route to Vicksburg,” the Brents write. “As a result of the crowded conditions, hot weather and poor sanitation, many men became sick and hundreds died. Helena became ‘hell in Arkansas’ to many Union soldiers.

“Part of the problem was 19th century understanding of disease and sanitation. Many of the drugs given to soldiers were actually poison, including mercury and silver nitrate. At one point, the doctors ordered soldiers not to drink water from the springs on Crowley’s Ridge and to only drink water from the river.”

Following the Emancipation Proclamation, Union forces declared the contraband to be free. Hundreds of the freedmen in Helena joined the Union Army, forming several regiments.

In the area surrounding Helena, Union forces confiscated abandoned plantations and leased the land to sympathizers. These Union sympathizers hired freedmen to raise cotton. President Lincoln believed that the plantation lease system would serve as proof that freedmen would work and serve as productive citizens after the war.

Confederate generals believed an attack on Helena was needed to relieve the pressure on besieged Vickburg and force the Union to use its resources farther north on the Mississippi River.

Almost 8,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes attacked Helena on July 4, 1863.

Writing for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Michael Taylor says that “for the size of the forces engaged” the Battle of Helena was ”as desperate a fight as any in the Civil War, with repeated assaults on heavily fortified positions similar to the fighting that was to be seen in 1864 in Gen. Ulysses Grant’s overland campaign in Virginia and Gen. William T. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign.

“It was the Confederates’ last major offensive in Arkansas (besides cavalry raids and the repulse of the Camden Expedition) and the last Confederate attempt to seize a potential chokepoint on the Mississippi. But the Battle of Helena has been little noted and not long remembered.”

Because of its location overlooking the Mississippi River, Helena was considered strategically important. Holmes’ decision to attack came after prodding from Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and Confederate Lt. Gen. Kirby Smith.

Holmes met on June 18, 1863, in Jacksonport with Maj. Gen. Sterling Price and Brig. Gen. John Marmaduke to plan the attack. The Confederate troops left Jacksonport four days later.

Traveling on muddy roads, Marmaduke’s cavalry and Price’s infantry moved south to Moro in Lee County, covering 69 miles in 10 days.

Taylor writes that they had to improvise a ferry over the Bayou DeView after a bridge constructed by Price’s engineer washed away. Meanwhile, Gen. James Fagan headed east out of Little Rock with additional Confederate troops. Their trip was easier since they could travel by rail and steamboat as far as Clarendon.

In a meeting on July 3 at the Allen Polk house five miles west of Helena, it was decided that the battle would begin at daybreak. Fagan would attack from the southwest, Price would attack from the west and Marmaduke would attack from the north.

It’s clear that the Confederates underestimated how strongly fortified the Union positions were.

“Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin M. Prentiss had learned at Shiloh in Tennessee about the need for prepared positions,” Taylor writes. “He established four fortified positions on the bluffs north and west of town, Batteries A and B to the north taking advantage of Rightor Hill, Battery C west of the city on Graveyard Hill and Battery D near the home of Gen. Thomas Hindman on Hindman Hill.”

Union intelligence had brought word of the impending attack, and the 4,129 Union forces were on alert beginning at 2:30 a.m. on July 4. Prentiss had trees cut to block the approaches to the city.

Price thought “daybreak” meant “dawn.”

Fagan thought “daybreak” meant “first light.”

Fagan attacked Battery D at first light and came under heavy fire from Battery C to the left of the attacking forces.

An hour later, Price’s men charged up Graveyard Hill at dawn and took Battery C. A charge on Fort Curtis, however, proved unsuccessful.

“To the north, Marmaduke’s cavalry failed to take Rightor Hill, stymied by troops under Col. Powell Clayton in a flanking position on the Union right behind the levee,” Taylor writes. “Col. Joseph Shelby’s attack was repulsed. Marmaduke’s anger about Brig. Gen. Marsh Walker’s failure to advance on the right resulted in a Little Rock duel on Sept. 6, 1863, in which Marmaduke killed Walker.”

Union defenders received support from the timber-clad USS Tyler, which fired 413 rounds from the river.

Holmes ordered a retreat at 10:30 a.m. Large numbers of Confederate troops who were trapped in the ravines of Crowley’s Ridge surrendered.

The Second Arkansas Infantry, which consisted of black soldiers, held the extreme left of the Union line, something that received nationwide attention in the abolitionist press.

“From the Confederate point of view, the Battle of Helena was a tragic waste,” Taylor writes. “The bloody attack turned out to be a cruel and pointless irony, coming as it did on the day Vicksburg fell. Holmes’ army clearly brought with it to Helena a fighting spirit, but morale suffered badly after such a repulse. The fierce riverside battle was the unsuccessful culmination of the last major Confederate offensive in Arkansas. … For the Union, Helena represented the long-awaited crack in the Arkansas Confederate facade.”

Estimated casualties at Helena were 239 Union soldiers and 1,614 Confederate troops.

“The summer heat added to the misery,” the Brents write. “Wounded and sick men filled every house in Helena. Hell had returned in Arkansas.”

In August 1863, 2,000 sick and wounded men were transferred from Helena to hospitals in Memphis and St. Louis.

Fresh Union troops later were shipped to Helena. Under the command of Gen. Frederick Steele, they marched from the city and captured Little Rock.

The overcrowding, heat and poor sanitation also affected the general population of Phillips County. Homes were taken for use as hospitals, storage rooms and offices. Crops and livestock were confiscated. Slaves left the farms by the thousands.

“Helena was never again threatened by a large Confederate army,” the Brents write. “By 1864, more and more freedmen were working on the leased plantations. Those too old, too young or too sick to work lived on the ‘Home Farm’ on the Pillow Plantation about three miles south of Helena. Another large group was housed opposite Island 63, about 11 miles south of the city. After several attacks on the plantations by Confederate cavalry, Union Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte Buford, commander of Helena, ordered forts built to protect the freedmen at both locations.”

Northern benevolent organizations sent representatives to Helena to help in hospitals and teach in schools. Quakers from Indiana operated an orphan asylum and later opened a freedmen’s school. The school and asylum evolved into Southland College, which attracted blacks from across the South. The school, which operated from 1865 to 1925, later moved to Lexa.

The federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands — usually known as the Freedmen’s Bureau — operated in Helena from 1865-67.

“The bureau operated schools, distributed rations to both freedmen and white refugees and worked with planters to contract the freedmen for farm work,” the Brents write. “Ironically, it was the Freedmen’s Bureau that developed the concept of the sharecropper. When crop prices were high, this system worked to the advantage of the cropper; when they were low, the cropper ended the year in debt. For the next 75 years, sharecropping was a way of life in the Delta. People were tied to the land by debt with little or no hope of a better future.”

Phillips County had exited one era and entered another.

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