Archive for the ‘Civil War’ Category

Driving through the south Arkansas pines

Tuesday, June 13th, 2017

I had spoken at a funeral service in my hometown of Arkadelphia on a Saturday morning in June. Since the rest of my family was in Texas, I decided to spend the afternoon driving through the pine woods of south Arkansas.

The goal: To visit all three of the small state parks that mark Civil War battles that occurred during the Camden Expedition of 1864 — Poison Spring in Ouachita County, Marks’ Mills in Cleveland County and Jenkins’ Ferry in Grant County.

Historian Derek Clements explains the expedition this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Part of the Red River Campaign, the Camden Expedition resulted from Union Brig. Gen. Frederick Steele’s orders to strike south from Little Rock and converge with Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks’ column in northwest Louisiana before marching to Texas. Because of poor logistical planning, horrible roads and strong Confederate resistance, Steele abandoned this plan to occupy Camden instead. Losing battles at Poison Spring and Marks’ Mills, Steele became unable to supply his army and retreated toward Little Rock. The Confederates caught Steele while he was crossing the Saline River, engaging in the last battle of the campaign at Jenkins’ Ferry.”

Textile mills in the North were starved for cotton by 1864. The thought was that with Banks coming up the Red River in Louisiana and Steele marching south through Arkansas, the two forces could capture prime cotton-growing land in east Texas.

Those who know me best realize that I love visiting all parts of Arkansas. Days spent in the Delta or the Ozark Mountains usually are pleasurable days. But south Arkansas is where I was raised, and I’m most at home when driving through the pine tunnels of the Gulf Coastal Plain. I took U.S. Highway 67 south out of Arkadelphia to Gurdon, passing the spot at Gum Springs where a Chinese company hopes to build a $1.3 billion pulp mill that will use the pine timber that dominates the southern part of our state.

At Gurdon, I headed south on Arkansas Highway 53, crossing the Little Missouri River as I made my way from Clark County into Nevada County, where I picked up Arkansas Highway 24. That highway will take you through Chidester and Bragg City in Ouachita County on the way to Camden. I turned off before reaching Chidester so I could cross White Oak Lake for the first time in many years. The land flooded by the lake was acquired by the federal government during the Great Depression as part of the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937. The act was designed to provide land ownership for tenant farmers. The state acquired the property in 1957, and White Oak was constructed in 1961. Six years later, a state park was opened on the shores of the lake.

I reached Poison Spring a few minutes after crossing the lake. It was quiet in these pine woods with only one other car parked there. The small park, which includes a short hiking trail, was established by the Legislature in 1961 at a time when Arkansans were beginning to mark the centennial of the Civil War. The trail leads through the sand hills that mark much of this part of Arkansas, a reminder of a time millions of years ago when the Gulf of Mexico covered the area.

I remember camping here more than four decades ago as a member of Boy Scout Troop 24 of Arkadelphia.

On April 18, 1864, Confederate troops ambushed a Union foraging expedition that had been sent by Steele from Camden to find food.

“On April 17, Steele sent a force of more than 600 men and four cannon under Col. James M. Williams with 198 wagons to seize 5,000 bushels of corn that were reportedly stored west of Camden,” writes Mark Christ of the Department of Arkansas Heritage. “Marching to White Oak Creek some 18 miles from Camden, Williams sent his troops, which included the First Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment, into the surrounding countryside to gather corn at area farms and plantations. Though Confederate cavalry had managed to destroy about half of the corn, the Yankee troops gathered the remainder, as well as other plunder, and regrouped at White Oak Creek. Williams was joined the next morning by a 501-man relief force of infantry, cavalry and two additional artillery pieces.

“Confederate Brig. Gen. John Sappington Marmaduke, meanwhile, positioned about 3,600 Rebel cavalrymen backed by 12 cannon between Williams’ column and Camden, blocking the Camden-Washington Road near Poison Spring. In addition to Arkansas, Missouri and Texas horsemen, his force included Col. Tandy Walker’s Choctaw Brigade from the Indian Territory.”

The fight ended in a Union retreat with Williams having had 301 men killed, wounded or missing. There were fewer than 145 Confederate casualties.

After reading the markers, I got back on Highway 24 and headed into Camden, which was among the state’s leading cities at the time of the Civil War with a population of more than 2,200 people.

“During the 1850s, Camden served as the supply center for several counties and was the mercantile center for a radius of 100 miles,” Daniel Milam writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “During this time, as many as 40,000 bales of cotton were shipped from its wharfs in a single year. As a steamboat river port, Camden had the accommodations and transportation to service the planter-provisioning trade to New Orleans. … After the Civil War, cotton production remained important to Camden. Much of it was accomplished by sharecropping.

“Steamboats continued to navigate the river, but railroads were coming. Trains opened up markets for Ouachita County’s pine and hardwood forests. Though they were challenged by the railroads, the steamboats continued to serve Camden until the 1930s.”

Camden flourished during the first half of the 20th century.

Oil was discovered in Ouachita County in the 1920s, allowing some of the county’s residents to become wealthy.

International Paper Co. constructed a large paper mill at Camden in the late 1920s.

Camark Pottery and Grapette sodas became well-known brands that came out of Camden.

The Camden Army Air Field opened in 1942. The Shumaker Naval Depot was constructed just across the county line in Calhoun County. The depot closed in 1957, but the land was transformed into the Highland Industrial Park, which attracted several defense contractors.

The city’s population soared from 3,238 in 1920 to 15,823 in 1960.

The population has been falling steadily since the early 1980s and was down to 12,183 in the 2010 census. The biggest of the body blows came when IP closed its mill in 2000.

Camden is filled with beautiful old homes such as the McCollum-Chidester House. As I entered town, I noticed that the parking lot of the Camden Country Club (I once watched the Belmont Stakes on a television in the bar there while attending a wedding reception) is packed. It’s the weekend of the four-ball golf tournament, still an important social event in south Arkansas.

I looked at the other side of the highway where the Gay’s Steak House stood. It was a favorite stop of my parents when we would go to Camden to watch Arkadelphia High School play football and basketball games at Camden High School (which no longer exists) and Fairview High School.

I headed downtown and made my way to the White House Cafe for lunch. It’s one of the oldest restaurants in Arkansas, having been established in 1907 by a Greek immigrant named Hristos Hodjopulas. It was next to the depot, serving those aboard the many trains coming in and out of Camden. The founder sold the restaurant to a cousin named James Andritsos. Camden was so busy in those days that Andritsos made it a 24-hour diner. The restaurant is now open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.

From Camden, I followed U.S. Highway 278 through Locust Bayou, Hampton (stopping to read the Civil War marker on the grounds of the Calhoun County Courthouse), Harrell and Banks on my way to Warren. Unfortunately, it was a bit too early in the summer to find Bradley County tomatoes for sale on the side of the road. Still, I enjoy driving those brick streets on the square around the beautiful Bradley County Courthouse.

I then got on Arkansas Highway 8 and passed through one of my favorite small towns in Lower Arkansas — New Edinburg. Though empty, the buildings that once housed several of the old stores that served those who lived in that part of Cleveland County still stand. It’s like a movie set.

“New Edinburg was initially dubbed Edinburg, with a post office under that name beginning in 1876,” Paula Reaves writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “John Fowler was the first postmaster. By 1891, the town had been renamed New Edinburg, as suggested by John H. Cherry. At that time, there were two churches, a livery, several mercantile stores, grist mills, gins and blacksmiths. The Saline River Railroad, which passed through the town, was chartered in 1897 and was running by 1898. It was a spur of the Cotton Belt.

“In 1904, the Bank of New Edinburg was organized with E.M. Attwood as the founder and president. During the Great Depression, it was the only bank in the county that remained open. By 1936, there were several merchants in New Edinburg as well as cafes and a beauty shop. One building housed both the central telephone office and the Knight Theater, which showed matinees at noon for children on their lunch break from school and also had shows after school and on Saturday night.

“New Edinburg was known for having a tree in the middle of the road, which traffic had to go around. The tree had to be cut down when the road was paved and became a state highway in July 1940.”

Soon after leaving New Edinburg, I came upon Marks’ Mills State Park and stopped to read the markers. The battle here took place on April 25, 1864, as Confederate troops ambushed a Union supply train.

“With supplies dwindling, the acquisition of rations became important to the Union troops,” Clements writes. “The arrival of provisions from Pine Bluff on April 20 convinced Steele that more materials could be obtained there. Three days later, he dispatched Lt. Col. Francis Drake with more than 1,200 infantrymen, several pieces of artillery and cavalry support with 240 wagons to obtain supplies at Pine Bluff. An unknown number of white civilians and 300 black civilians accompanied the Union force to safety. On the morning of April 25, 150 cavalrymen from Pine Bluff met Drake, increasing the Union column to almost 1,800 combatants with 520 troops trailing the column at some distance.

“Learning of Drake’s departure from Camden, Confederate Brig. Gen. James F. Fagan positioned his more than 2,000 cavalrymen near the juncture of the Camden-Pine Bluff Road with the Warren Road, cutting off Drake’s route. Setting an ambush, Fagan order Brig. Gen. Joe Shelby’s division to the east on the Camden-Pine Bluff Road to block possible escape toward Pine Bluff. Brig. Gen. William L. Cabell’s division was to attack from the southwest.”

The overwhelming Confederate numbers won the day.

“Cabell’s command suffered 293 casualties (41 killed, 108 wounded, 144 missing) while Union casualty estimates ranged from 1,133 to 1,600 with most being captured and an estimated 100 killed,” Clements writes. “The Confederates captured about 150 black freemen and are believed to have killed more than 100 others. The defeat of Drake’s command had a significant impact upon Steele’s position at Camden. Coupled with the defeat at Poison Spring, the loss at Marks’ Mills prevented Steele from obtaining much-needed supplies for his army. Already on reduced rations and with reports of Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith’s command marching northward from Louisiana, Steele’s position became untenable. With all possibility of supporting Banks’ campaign on the Red River gone, the Union Army silently slipped over the Ouachita River on the night of April 26, abandoning Camden and beginning a desperate race back to Little Rock.”

I made my way to Kingsland so I could say I had been in the birthplace of Johnny Cash (there’s only one small marker there). Kingsland was created in the 1880s when what would later become the Cotton Belt railroad was completed across the county.

“Seventy-five people, mostly engaged in the timber industry, lived near the railway station when Austin Gresham applied for a post office for the community in December 1882,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His first selected name, Arkatha, was refused by the postal service, as was his second choice, Cohassett. Kingsland was his third choice, and it was approved in June 1883. The second-class city was incorporated in 1884. At the time, it contained three steam-operated sawmills, a planing mill, several stores, two hotels, a druggist, a livery stable and a blacksmith. A Methodist church was begun in 1884, followed by two Baptist churches the following year.”

By 1889, there were nine sawmills in the area. The Cleveland County Bank opened that year, and a brick factory went up the next year. Cash was born near Kingsland in 1932, but his family headed to the new resettlement colony at Dyess in northeast Arkansas when he was 3. I drove from Kingsland to Fordyce and then headed north on U.S. Highway 167 to visit Jenkins’ Ferry in Grant County.

The battle at Jenkins Ferry occurred on April 29-30, 1864, as Steele and his troops made their retreat to Little Rock.

“On April 29, Steele’s column arrived at the Saline River,” Clements writes. “Without delay, engineers began building pontoons across the swollen river, and soldiers began constructing crude battlements. … Marmaduke’s troops arrived and began skirmishing with the rear guard of Brig. Gen. Frederick Salomon’s division, stopping as darkness fell.”

The fight resumed at daylight the next day and lasted until 12:30 p.m. when the Confederate attack was called off.

“After conferring with Steele, Salomon moved his men across the river to safety,” Clements writes. “Union troops destroyed what could not be easily carried, including the pontoon bridge, and continued marching to Little Rock. The Confederates turned to gathering the wounded and reforming their shattered ranks. … The Confederates claimed losses of 86 killed, 356 wounded and one missing, and the Union troops claimed 63 killed, 413 wounded and 45 missing. Most historians think the numbers were greater because some units did not file official returns.”

My south Arkansas excursion wasn’t quite finished. Before returning to Little Rock, I took a slight detour to Prattsville (the Grant County community that produced Arkansas business titans Witt and Jack Stephens) for a fried catfish dinner at that classic restaurant known as The Whippet.

An oasis at Clarendon

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

It was a prime spot for a settlement.

It’s where the Cache River empties into the White River.

The hunting was good — bear, deer, wild turkey and more.

The trapping was good — mink, muskrat, beaver and more.

The fishing was good as the streams were filled with catfish, buffalo, bass, bream and crappie.

French hunters and trappers built cabins there in the late 1700s. When the Military Road was constructed between Little Rock and Memphis in the 1820s, the ferry crossing over the White River was at the place they called Clarendon. When Monroe County was carved out of parts of Phillips and Arkansas counties in 1829, Clarendon was chosen as the county seat.

“By the last half of the 1850s, Monroe County, along with the rest of the Arkansas Delta region, experienced unparalleled economic growth with slave-based, plantation-style farming,” W.R. Mayo writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Cotton was the focus of the transformation of subsistence farming to large-scale operations. The White River served as an important byway for the Union forces during the Civil War and was heavy with gunboat traffic with Clarendon serving as a skirmish point. Supplies for Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele’s federal army were brought to DeValls Bluff, north of Clarendon, by way of the White River and were shipped from there to Little Rock by rail. Various skirmishes and battles took place in and around Clarendon. … After the war, the town resumed its role as an important industrial port for cotton and other commodities. The Monroe County Sun, the town’s current newspaper, was established in 1877.”

Business further boomed in Clarendon when the Cotton Belt line built a railroad bridge over the White River in 1883. Automobiles continued to use the ferry until the U.S. 79 bridge was constructed in 1931.

“Industries and cultural development began with a stave and barrel factory in 1889, an oar factory in 1892 and an opera house in 1893,” Mayo writes. “Clarendon continued to develop new industries after the turn of the century, including lumber mills and a factory producing buttons made from mussel shells found in the river. Freshwater pearls were sold at the Clarendon Pearl Market. The Moss Brothers Bat Co., which produced baseball bats, was also established. The Monroe County Courthouse was designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles L. Thompson and constructed in 1911. It remains the town’s most significant landmark.”

Problems and hard times loomed, however.

There was the Great Flood of 1927, which devastated the town.

There was the drought of 1930-31.

There was another big flood in 1937.

Then, the rapid mechanization of agriculture after the end of World War II caused tens of thousands of former sharecroppers and tenant farmers to leave the Delta, never to return.

“During the mid-1950s, the town had a box factory and a thriving fish market, along with a bustling downtown with shops, including apparel and dry goods stores and a movie theater,” Mayo writes. “In addition, the town had a thriving public school system. However, along with much of the Arkansas Delta, the town has experienced an economic downturn from that heyday. As of 2010, with the exception of the local public library, a bank and two law offices, the remainder of the old downtown shop buildings are shuttered and closed, including the movie theater, and the town is without an industry presence.”

To get a sense of what has occurred in this part of the state, consider these census figures for Monroe County:

1940 — 21,133

1950 — 19,540

1960 — 17,327

1970 — 15,657

1980 — 14,052

1990 — 11,333

2000 — 10,254

2010 — 8,149

My mother was raised further north along the White River at Des Arc in Prairie County. My grandfather was a Prairie County judge and owned the hardware store and the funeral home at Des Arc. I’ve long been fascinated by the culture of the lower White River region. It’s a part of who I am.

So I was intrigued when I received an email last summer from a John Brown University student named Jeremiah Moore.

He wrote: “Along with my brother, I run a small family park and museum in Clarendon. I’ve read your blog for the past two years and have found your writing on Arkansas’s affairs of past and present to be incredibly enjoyable and insightful. Your forthright love for our state and its history bring a certain kindred feeling that leads me to invite you down to Monroe County for a tour and a catfish lunch on me. I would love the opportunity to meet you and show you our small yet charming park and museum. It’s called the John B. and Margaret Moore Jacobs Park and Museum. … The house is the second oldest in the city, dating back to 1870. I believe you might appreciate this as well as the multiple antebellum fixtures and artifacts from the late 19th century.”

Never having been a man who could resist an invitation to a catfish lunch, Paul Austin of the Arkansas Humanities Council agreed to join me for the trip to Clarendon.

After circling the Monroe County Courthouse, we found the Moore-Jacobs House on a residential section of Main Street in the town of about 1,600 residents.

Here’s how the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program describes the house and its history: “The Moore-Jacobs House represents the strong influence of the Greek Revival style of architecture in the state. The house was built in 1870 by John Wesley Moore, who had come to Clarendon from Sussex County in Virginia. The architectural influences of his Virginia upbringing are evident in the home he constructed for himself. The house was built on a lot that ran down to the river’s edge and gave a spectacular view of the heavy traffic on the White River until the construction of a levee following the 1927 flood.

“Following his death, the house went to his son, John Burton Moore, who had established himself as an attorney as well as the owner of extensive land holdings in Monroe County. He married Bessie Branch of Holly Grove in the early 1900s. Bessie was the daughter of William F. Branch, who established the Bank of Holly Grove, and Ella Walls Branch, whose family held large amounts of acreage in the county.

“Margaret Moore Jacobs, John Burton Moore’s eldest daughter, moved into the house in 1927 following her marriage to John B. ‘Jake’ Jacobs. Her parents by this time occupied a larger home next door. When it burned in 1931, the Moores decided they needed the lot upon which the small Greek Revival house stood. To save the house from destruction, Jacobs had it moved by mules over log rollers to a lot directly across the street. This new location had been the site of an early schoolhouse in Clarendon. Margaret Moore Jacobs was a freelance writer whose articles appeared in many of the top women’s periodicals of the period. As such, she was acutely aware of the preservation and restoration movement that was becoming popular as a result of the activities at Williamsburg, Va.

“Jacobs restored the house following the move, and her restoration was in keeping with the general concepts held at that time. She also landscaped the grounds, utilizing plantings mentioned in the Bible. In the 1940s and 1950s, Jacobs developed a large following based on inspirational writings that she produced. … The Moore-Jacobs House, in its dignified simplicity, reflects the tastes, lifestyle and background of its builder and the continued respect that his family holds for the heritage he provided them.”

Let’s quickly climb the family tree:

— John Burton Moore was the son of John Wesley Moore. John Wesley Moore had built the house in 1870.

— John B. Moore’s son, John B. Moore Jr., was the brother of Margaret Moore Jacobs. When Jacobs died in 1976 (her husband had died a dozen years earlier), the house and surroundings gardens were left in a trust with instructions that the property be turned into a park and museum. A 700-acre farm was also left to the trust to produce the income needed to operate the museum. John B. Moore Jr. was appointed as the trustee, but nothing was done with the house for years.

— John B. Moore III (who goes by Burton) later became the trustee and saw to it that the house and gardens were cleaned up.

— John B. Moore IV, who is Jeremiah’s older brother, moved back to Monroe County from Colorado two years ago with his wife and two children. He now oversees the museum and gardens. John IV is 26. Jeremiah is 20. They’re determined to do what they can to revitalize this part of east Arkansas, which has been bleeding population for years.

On Jan. 19, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published a front-page story by Noel Oman that told of the brothers’ efforts to save the U.S. 79 bridge from demolition once a new bridge is completed.

Oman wrote: “Two young Monroe County brothers say their effort to save an 83-year-old bridge in their hometown from demolition will preserve a link to the impoverished Delta’s past and boost the region’s economic and cultural future. East Arkansas may face long odds in arresting continued economic decline, but John Moore IV and Jeremiah Moore insist they are optimistic in the face of even steeper odds in rescuing the aging bridge over the White River at Clarendon. The Moores have joined forces with city officials and others to stop the planned demolition of the historic bridge on U.S. 79 to provide time to raise money to maintain the bridge as a crossing for cyclists, hikers, bird watchers and other outdoor enthusiasts through one of the largest remaining tracts of contiguous bottomland hardwood forest on the North American continent.”

John IV told the newspaper: “This is one of our great shots at preserving history and rebuilding our future. It won’t be just for Clarendon. It will be for Marianna, Hughes and Roe.”

The brothers already are preserving history at what Margaret Moore Jacobs always described as the “Dear Little House.”

The website for the park and museum states that Margaret was born in 1900, the oldest daughter of John Burton Moore.

“As a teenager, she contracted tuberculosis and was confined to bed in a sanatorium in Denver with a view of the Rocky Mountains,” it notes. “Perhaps this is where she gained the inspiration for contemplation and her resulting writings. Perhaps this is the condition that also left her childless, a circumstance that shaped her life and played a role in her creation of the park and museum trust. When Margaret returned to Clarendon, she married Jake Jacobs, who was a partner in a newly established Ford dealership. They were given the former house of Margaret’s grandfather, John Wesley Moore.”

Margaret wrote for magazines ranging from Furniture World to the Presbyterian Observer. Her subjects ranged from spiritual matters to antiques to gardening. She also wrote books.

Here’s how the website describes the property: “The eyes fall upon what appears to be a scene from the 19th century. First there is the iron fence that originally surrounded a court square in Tennessee. This is one of the most intricate fences you will see outside of the corn fence in New Orleans. Next to the fence is a horsehead hitching post to which you can tie your carriage. Lining the inside of the fence and front brick walk are boxwood hedges. Boxwoods were a favorite in English gardens and were brought to America by the colonists, as can be seen in Colonial Williamsburg.

“Guarding the front walk on either side is a pair of great iron dogs. On the north side of the yard is a large, tiered iron fountain. Closer to the house itself is a magnolia with a round iron bench surrounding its trunk. Under its spreading boughs next to the north-perimeter boxwoods and slightly behind an iron bench stands a life-size doe deer hiding in the shadows. At her feet is an iron rabbit. On the outside corner of the south front yard in an antique lamp from Fifth Avenue in New York City.”

The narrative goes on from there, but you get the point.

Best of luck to the Moore brothers. It inspires me to see two Arkansans in their 20s doing so much to preserve the rich history and culture of a region that too many others have forgotten.

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.


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.