FOURTEENTH IN A SERIES
Before reaching Prescott, I turn off U.S. 67 and take a county road to the banks of the Little Missouri River. I want to see where the Engagement at Elkin’s Ferry was fought during the Civil War.
Confederate troops attacked a Union column there during what was known as the Camden Expedition.
“The battle site is commonly known as Elkin’s Ferry because that’s how the name was printed in the official records of the Civil War, but the Elkins family owned the ferry at the time so the name is more properly rendered Elkins’ Ferry,” writes historian David Sesser of Henderson State University at Arkadelphia. “After capturing Little Rock and Fort Smith in September 1863, Union forces were in control of much of the state. From these two occupied cities, Union troops could launch an attack into southern Arkansas, northern Louisiana or eastern Texas. In March 1864, an attack on northwest Louisiana and eastern Texas was launched from both Arkansas and New Orleans.
“Leaving Little Rock on March 23, Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele set out to help the Union column from New Orleans capture Shreveport, then the headquarters for the Confederate Trans-Mississippi. Arriving in Arkadelphia on March 29, Steele remained for three days, waiting for reinforcements from Fort Smith under the command of Brig. Gen. John Thayer. Thayer’s Frontier Division’s progress was hampered by bad roads and a lack of provisions. After three days, Steele was forced to continue his mission without the extra men.”
Steele reached the Little Missouri River on April 3. He was running short on supplies and decided that the best strategy would be to capture Camden and get supplies there.
“Camden was rumored to have a large supply of food, but it was occupied by the main body of the Confederate Army in Arkansas, led by Maj. Gen. Sterling Price,” Sesser writes. “Steele decided to move toward Washington — then the Confederate capital of Arkansas — and draw Price’s army from Camden, leaving the town open for the taking. To move toward Washington, Steele needed to cross the Little Missouri. Leaving one brigade of infantry on the north bank of the river near Okolona to act as a rear guard and look for Thayer, Steele moved most of his 8,500 men to the river. Price, meanwhile, had dispatched Brig. Gen. Joseph Shelby to harass the column from the rear and Brig. Gen. John Marmaduke to stop the enemy’s advance.
“Each commander had a brigade of cavalry under his command. Price was unable to send any infantry because both of his divisions were sent to Louisiana to counter the Union thrust from New Orleans. Shelby decided to attack the Union rear guard while it was still isolated. At 9 a.m. on April 3, he attacked with his cavalry. Soon, a hailstorm moved into the area. Amid lightning and thunder, Union and Confederate forces continued their fight. The Confederates weren’t driven off by Union troops or even the weather. After three hours, Union artillery fire upset several beehives near the Confederate positions, forcing a hasty retreat.”
While Shelby was launching his attack on the Union rear guard near Okolona, Marmaduke went after the head of the column on the south bank of the Little Missouri. He was driven back, but Marmaduke’s forces resumed the attack at 6 a.m. the next day.
“Marmaduke’s attack succeeded at first, pushing Union troops back toward the river,” Sesser writes. “As more Union troops crossed the river, it became harder for the Confederates to continue their attack. They fell back to their original positions by 11 a.m. The rest of the Union Army crossed the river April 4. The next day, Steele resumed his march. He halted his army again only six miles from the Little Missouri when word reached him of Thayer’s approach. Marmaduke and Shelby had withdrawn 16 miles to Prairie D’Ane, where they went into camp and awaited the Union forces.”
Sesser calls the Engagement at Elkin’s Ferry “the Confederates’ best chance of containing the Union advance into southwest Arkansas, but the lack of infantry units and the piecemeal use of the available cavalry units hindered their efforts. The lack of commitment exhibited by the Confederate forces let the Union advance continue.”
We continue our trip down U.S. 67 to Prescott, where the Prairie D’Ane battlefield is within sight of Interstate 30.
“Price’s main objective was to protect Washington,” Sesser writes. “Two cavalry brigades under Col. Richard Gano reinforced Shelby and Marmaduke on April 6. On April 7, the rest of the Confederate forces in Camden further reinforced the units in the field. When the units from Camden arrived, Price took control of the entire army. Federal troops were also receiving long-awaited reinforcements. … On April 9, Thayer finally reached Steele, and the combined armies continued their march.
“Thayer’s men were short of food, and Steele had to request that rations be sent immediately from Little Rock. On April 10, Steele’s men reached Prairie D’Ane. The Confederates had been building earthworks for six days, and the Union troops immediately began building their own defensive positions about a mile away. Prairie D’Ane consists of about 30 square miles of open, rolling land surrounded by forests. For the next two days, the Union and Confederate armies exchanged an occasional artillery shell and engaged in limited skirmishing. Neither side wished to force a major engagement, and the bulk of the two armies received a short respite from the war. The men were able to relax and do everything from hunt rabbits to write letters home.”
There were several small attacks. The last fighting occurred about midnight on April 11.
“On April 11, Steele formed his army into a battle line that stretched more than two miles but didn’t move on the Confederate positions until the next day, when he found them abandoned,” Sesser writes. “Price had withdrawn under the cover of darkness to positions near Washington, where he prepared to defend the capital. With the Confederate Army defending Washington and leaving Camden undefended, Steele turned his troops to the east and moved on the city. His men entered Camden on April 15 despite Confederate attacks along the column.
“The skirmish at Prairie D’Ane allowed Steele to confuse the Confederates and force them to defend Washington while Union troops moved into Camden. Little loss of life resulted from the skirmish, but it was the turning point of the Camden Expedition. Without provisions, the Union advance into southwest Arkansas had been stopped and turned away. There was little hope of Steele reaching his ultimate objective of Shreveport and east Texas.”
The battlefield at Prairie D’Ane still looks much as it did at the time of the Civil War. On Feb. 23, 2018, an acquisition ceremony was held to present the deed for 808 acres of the battlefield to the Nevada County Depot & Museum.”
The museum at Prescott, which was founded in 1976, is a good place to learn more about the history of southwest Arkansas. It’s located in a 1912 depot. Passenger service to Prescott was suspended in 1968.
According to the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “The city of Prescott purchased the building and its adjoining parking lots from Missouri Pacific in 1970 for $1. During the next two years, the building was used for a variety of purposes, but the noise of passing trains soon forced the city simply to use the depot for storage. During the 1972 Prescott centennial celebration, several museum exhibits were set up in the depot, and excursion trains stopped in Prescott for the first time in years. It was during the centennial that a group of local citizens formed an organization to create a state park at the Prairie D’Ane battlefield. The depot served as the headquarters of the Nevada County State Park Association, as the group was known.
“In 1976, the Prescott Chamber of Commerce moved into the building. John Teeter became the first curator as several exhibits were installed. A replica of a pioneer cabin and some Civil War artifacts were among the first exhibits. In 1977, the Nevada County Historical Society successfully nominated the depot for placement on the National Register of Historic Places, and it was placed on the register on Nov. 17, 1978. The Nevada County State Park Association was also incorporated in 1978. In 1982, it became a nonprofit organization tasked with keeping the museum open to the public while at the same time furthering its goal of bringing a state park to Prairie D’Ane.”
No state park ever came to Prescott. In 1992, the depot received a grant from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program for renovations. Another grant came in 2000 from the Arkansas Highway Commission. The name of the association was changed to the Nevada County Depot & Museum.
When I was a boy growing up in Arkadelphia, people often would travel to Prescott to view Old Mike, the name of a traveling salesman who died there in 1911. The body was embalmed and open for public viewing for more than 60 years.
“Mike visited Prescott about once a month to sell pens, paper and thread to homes and businesses near the railroad tracks in the center of town,” Sesser writes. “He would arrive on the southbound 3 p.m. train and stay overnight. The next day, he would board the 3 p.m. train and continue his journey. On April 11, 1911, Mike probably attended an outdoor revival in the city park. The next day, his body was found underneath a tree in the park, where he had apparently died of a heart attack or stroke. The body was taken to Cornish Funeral Home, where it was embalmed. A search of Mike’s belongings didn’t turn up any identification.
“What was known about Mike was that he was 40 to 45 years old, spoke English with little accent, was probably Italian, had suffered some type of injury to his right arm and left leg (possibly the effects of a stroke) and had had elaborate dental work done. The body was placed on display at the funeral home in hopes of someone identifying it. No one came forward to identify or claim the body. As the years passed, it became more unlikely that Mike would ever be identified. The body turned into somewhat of a tourist attraction. People traveled from surrounding areas to view the remains. In 1975, the Arkansas attorney general’s office asked Cornish Funeral Home to bury the body. On May 12, 1975, a quiet ceremony was held at the DeAnn Cemetery, and Old Mike was put to rest.”
Prescott’s population has declined from 4,103 in the 1980 census to an estimated 3,000 residents today.
The land that is now Nevada County was sparsely populated for much of Arkansas’ history as a territory and state.
“It remained wilderness with a few cotton plantations introduced to the area in the first half of the 19th century,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “An important transportation corridor traversed the area, connecting Camden and Washington. This route, which ran several miles south of present-day Prescott, was part of the Indian removal route and also served as a major corridor for shipping goods and transporting people from the Washington area to the navigable head of the Ouachita River.”
The Cairo & Fulton Railroad was constructed across the north end of Nevada County in the early 1870s. Robert Burns moved from Little Rock to the Nevada County town of Moscow, two miles south of the tracks.
“He persuaded railroad surveyors to place a town on the line near Moscow,” Teske writes. “In August 1873, four surveyors, including W.H. Prescott, laid out 24 blocks on each side of the rails. Within two weeks, Burns had constructed a frame storehouse. A second store, a restaurant and a hotel quickly followed. The railroad had established a depot in the city by November. On Nov. 24, Prescott received a post office. Burns was named postmaster. Prescott was said to resemble an oil boom town in the speed of its growth.
“Controversy exists surrounding the name of the town. Most historians assume that it was named for the surveyor, but others note that railroad executives Thomas Allen and Henry Marquand had a friend of the same name for whom the city might have been named. A Methodist preacher led services in Burns’ store. The first church was a Cumberland Presbyterian church built in 1875. The first newspaper, called the Banner, was published in January of that year.”
A charter for the city was granted in October 1874, but the first election wasn’t held until 1876. E.A. Warren was the first mayor.
In 1877, Nevada County voters decided to move the county seat from Rosston to Prescott. A school district also was established that year. The Nevada County Picayune began publishing in 1878, and the first bank was established at Prescott in 1880.
“Prescott continued to grow and thrive as the 20th century approached,” Teske writes. “Ozan Lumber Co. was established at Prescott in 1891 to harvest the timber of southwest Arkansas. The Reader Railroad was created to link timber operations to the Cairo & Fulton line. Various crops, including peaches, were raised in the Prescott area. Icehouses in the city helped to preserve the fruit while it awaited shipping. Hines Trucking, an early transportation company, was established at Prescott in 1936.”
James Bemis and Benjamin Whitaker opened a sawmill in Prescott in April 1891. In July of that year, it was incorporated as Ozan Lumber Co. with the name apparently taken from the nearby town of Ozan in Hempstead County.
“Whitaker remained a part of the business for only a short period before selling out and embarking on other ventures,” Sesser writes. “The lumber business proved to be successful with timber shipped on the company-owned Prescott & Northwestern Railroad. The company opened a wholesale land office in 1901 under the control of Bemis and his sons, William N. Bemis and J.W. Bemis. The company continued to grow and began harvesting timber in the southern Ouachita Mountains in 1905, building a rail extension into the area that was known colloquially as the Pea Vine.
“Thomas Rosborough began working for the company around 1905. The brother-in-law of William Bemis, Rosborough had experience in the lumber industry, holding positions in Kansas and Louisiana. The company owned timberland in the Ouachita Mountains, but the terrain made it difficult to access. With the support of the Bemis family, Rosborough organized financial backers from Kansas City and founded the Caddo River Lumber Co. Rosborough built a mill about four miles northwest of Amity for Ozan Lumber Co. and began harvesting timber in the area. The area surrounding the mill was named Rosboro in honor of Rosborough. In 1908, Caddo River Lumber Co. purchased the mill and associated timberland from Ozan Lumber Co.”
In December 1915, Ozan Lumber Co. merged with the Grayson-McLeod Co. to form the Ozan-Graysonia Lumber Co.
“James Bemis died in 1918, and his sons continued to operate the company together until J.W. Bemis died in 1922,” Sesser writes. “J.R. Bemis, the son of William Bemis, joined his father in a partnership to operate a new company as a wholesale lumber company in St. Louis under the name Ozan Lumber Co. This company moved to Prescott in July 1929 and formally incorporated. Starting as a wholesale lumber business, the company expanded into manufacturing the next year. This mill was replaced in 1933 by a two-story mill on the same site. It burned in 1936. A second mill operated during the same period at Whelen Springs in Clark County and a third was constructed at Delight in Pike County.”
The Delight mill opened in 1937. The Whelen Springs mill closed in 1938, but a mill opened at Rosboro the following year.
“Rough lumber from the Rosboro mill was placed onto flat railcars and transferred to the Delight mill, where it was dried and finished,” Sesser writes. “With the death of William Bemis in 1935, the Ozan-Graysonia Lumber Co. and the Ozan Lumber Co. merged under the latter’s name. Four retail lumber yards and about 52,000 acres of land were transferred to the new company. The lumber yards were sold by 1941, but the company continued to purchase additional land. It focused on selective harvesting of timber, moving away from large-scale clear cutting. By 1956, the company owned more than 132,000 acres of timber.
“The company cut smaller second- and third-growth timber, as the large virgin forests had almost disappeared. This business model led the company to invest in education programs in nearby schools to teach children the importance of replanting trees after a harvest. The mill at Delight was destroyed by fire in March 1952. In order to continue to supply other operatons of the company, including a planing mill at Delight, the Rosboro mill was moved from one shift to two shifts. This second shift remained until November 1953. The company focused on other businesses outside of the timber and rail industries. Ozan Lumber Co. even owned automobile dealerships at Prescott and Smackover.”
What was then the Potlatch Corp. purchased the company in 1964. With the housing industry battered by the Great Recession, Potlatch closed its Prescott mill in 2008.