Civil War Round Table of Arkansas
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CHALK BLUFF PARK
P.O. Box 385, Piggott, AR 72454, (870) 598-2667
From The Civil War Trust's Official Guide to the Civil War Discovery Trail;
Courtesy of Macmillan Travel
Description: Chalk Bluff was a strategic crossing into Missouri used by both sides during the Civil War. General Marmaduke's 1863 raid into Missouri ended here as he fought off pursuing Union troops.
Admission Fees: Free.
Open to Public: Daily: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Visitor Services: Camping; trails; rest rooms; handicapped access.
Regularly Scheduled Events: June: Civil War encampment.
Directions: Take U.S. 62 to St. Francis; turn west from town for 1.5 miles; then turn north for 1.25 miles to Chalk Bluff site. There are signs from St. Francis.
The Battle of Chalk Bluff, May 2, 1863
From Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas;
Courtesy of the Department of Arkansas Heritage
At the same time that William Cabell was leaving Ozark to attack Fayetteville, another Confederate general was preparing to embark on a more ambitious raid. John Sappington Marmaduke, the son of a politically prominent Missouri family, had studied at Harvard and Yale before graduating from West Point in 1857. Beginning the war as a colonel in the Missouri militia, he had fought at Shiloh (Tennessee) and Prairie Grove. As the year 1863 began, the twenty-nine-year-old Marmaduke had already advanced to the rank of brigadier general. Sitting gracefully astride his horse, his long hair flowing down around his collar, the handsome young Missourian was the very embodiment of the Southern cavalier, and he exhibited the best and the worst characteristics of the breed, namely, unflagging courage and an inflated sense of personal honor.
In January, 1863, Marmaduke had led a raid on Springfield, Missouri, which convinced him that a Confederate show of strength in that state would rally Missouri's long-suffering Southern sympathizers. In March, he approached General Holmes with a plan for a second, larger raid. Holmes was skeptical. He feared (correctly, as it turned out) that Missouri Confederates would be hesitant to support Marmaduke unless they were given some indication of a permanent Rebel presence, and he warned that "Without this, though they would sympathize with us in their hearts, they would raise no hand to help us." He was finally persuaded by arguments that the raid would not only replenish Confederate supplies, but might also relieve the Federal threat on Arkansas and persuade Grant to dispatch some troops from his Vicksburg campaign to protect Missouri.
Marmaduke gathered his forces at the Eleven Point River north of Batesville, and on April 17 he led over five thousand men across the border into southeast Missouri. Almost twelve hundred of his men had no weapons and nine hundred had no horses, but Marmaduke took them anyway because he feared they would desert if he left them behind. He hoped to equip them with captured Federal supplies.
The plan was to strike the Union army under Brig. Gen. John McNeil at Bloomfield, Missouri. The Confederates hated McNeil for his brutalities against Southern sympathizers in Missouri, so the chance to capture or kill him gave the Rebels added incentive. Initially, the operation went well as the Rebels scattered several small Federal units and forced McNeil out of Bloomfield. But swollen streams and bad roads that impeded the march prevented the raiders from catching up with the despised Federal commander, who was able to reach the safety of the fortified Union supply base at Cape Girardeau on the Mississippi.
Unwilling to risk his command in an all-out assault on the fortifications at Cape Girardeau, and with his expedition plagued by bad weather and lack of forage for his horses, the Rebel commander found his position becoming increasingly tenuous. McNeil was being reinforced by water, and a second Federal force under Brig. Gen. William Vandever was moving toward him from the west. Another Rebel raider had remarked, "In those days it was easy to get into Missouri, but it was sometimes extremely difficult to get out." John Sappington Marmaduke was about to learn the truth of that statement. As he began to withdraw south toward Arkansas some seventy-five miles away, the two Federal armies, whose combined strength he estimated at eight thousand, united to pursue him.
Marmaduke recorded that his retreat was "orderly and slow," but one of the Texans in his command noted that the raiders "run back a good deal faster than we went." His line of retreat was along the military road that ran atop Crowley's Ridge, an elevated strip of land extending south from Cape Girardeau to Helena, Arkansas. Bounded on both sides by marshy lowlands, the road was the only practical route through the region during the rainy spring season. All travelers on the road between Missouri and Arkansas had to cross the St. Francis River (the border between the two states in the "bootheel" part of Missouri) at Chalk Bluff. Before the war, a ferry had provided this service, but by 1863, it had become another casualty of the war. Marmaduke knew that he would have to construct a bridge across the rain-swollen stream if he was to get his command safely back to Arkansas, and there, at the crossing, he would be most vulnerable.
While his rear guard, made up of J.O. Shelby's Missouri cavalry and George Carter's Texas cavalry, skirmished continuously with advance elements of the Federal force, Marmaduke sent a construction party ahead to build a bridge across the St. Francis. On May 1, the retreating Rebels reached Four Mile, so named for its location four miles from the ferry crossing. Marmaduke began the construction of a series of trenches at intervals from Four Mile to the river. He hoped to fight a delaying action long enough to get his troops across the river into Arkansas. Near sundown on May 1, the advancing Federals struck the Confederate position at Four Mile but were repulsed by Confederate artillery firing
In the meantime, the bridge detail had been hard at work. A Texas soldier described the site: "[H]ere the course of the river is southward, and on the Missouri side there was a low, dense, thickety bottom, while on the Arkansas side is an almost insurmountable bluff about seventy feet higher than the bottom on the other side. This was Chalk Bluff, and from it the step-rising ground extended about a mile and a half west. The construction of the bridge was under the supervision of the famous Missouri raider Jeff Thompson, the "swamp fox of the Confederacy." Thompson had been an engineer before the war and, upon hearing of Marmaduke's plight, had volunteered his services. Under Thompson's direction, the Confederates took logs from area barns to construct a large raft. Using grapevines and ropes as guy wires, they created a crude, if effective, floating bridge.
After nightfall on May 1, Marmaduke quietly fell back to the trenches nearest the river, and his men began the dangerous task of crossing the bobbing, rickety bridge in the dark. The structure could not accommodate heavy loads, so the men were forced to cross in single file. A separate raft was constructed to ferry the artillery across. When these guns arrived on the Arkansas side, they were put in place on the heights of Chalk Bluff where they commanded the approaches to the river on the Missouri side. The horses were too heavy for the bridge and were forced to swim the fast-moving stream. Many of the exhausted animals did not make it. Area residents reported that a large number of dead horses floated downstream to an old mill drift. The Rebels continued crossing all through the night, the rear guard crossing near dawn on May 2. When the last Confederate had crossed, the supports were cut, and the bridge broke in two and floated downstream.
But two hundred and fifty Texans under Lt. "Buck" Walton had been detached from the main force on the extreme left of the Confederate position and had not gotten the order to withdraw. When they returned at daylight to the area where the main body had been the previous day, they found the place deserted. They hastened to the river and saw the bridge floating toward midstream. With the Federal troops advancing toward them, Walton rode his horse into the river and ordered his men to follow. He later recalled, "I rode in the River, swung from my saddle, and caught my horse by the mane: The others followed like true men-only some of them caught their horses tails-but however they did, we went across the river safely, the enemy shooting at us all the time." All of them made it to the Arkansas shore, wet and scared, but safe.
Federal troops were now swarming over the high ground leading down to the river, their pickets moving down to the river bank. Vandever's artillery opened up on the Confederates still in the river bottom, and some of the Confederates, including Walton's Texans, returned the fire from atop Chalk Bluff. Another volley from the Federal artillery sent the Rebels scurrying behind the crest of the bluff. Artillery and small-arms fire continued for several hours. Unknown to the Confederates, in this last exchange they had almost accomplished one of the goals that had eluded them in Missouri. McNeil's horse was shot out from under him by a Confederate round, but the general was unhurt.
McNeil showed no inclination to follow the raiders back into Arkansas. The Confederates withdrew toward Jacksonport. On May 6, they entered swampy land along the Cache River, where they battled rain, mud, and mosquitoes for three days. A Confederate colonel wrote, "Day after day, in mud and water, with artillery, baggage, and ammunition wagons mired down, and horses and mules floundering in exhaustion, did my men and animals toil and struggle, when, after three days of untold trials and hardships, the entire command emerged from this wilderness of mud and disease-generating miasma more like an army of denizens of a semi-amphibious subterranean world than one of men and animals."
Accurate casualty figures for the battle at Chalk Bluff are unavailable. The official Union casualty report of all forces operating against Marmaduke between April 17 and May 2 listed 23 killed, 44 wounded, and 53 captured for a total of 120. Marmaduke contended that the number was much higher. He put his own losses at 30 killed, 60 wounded, and 120 missing. He picked up 150 recruits during the course of the raid.
For all its dash and daring, the Cape Girardeau raid, like Cabell's Fayetteville raid, was a failure. Missouri remained in Union hands, Grant still threatened Vicksburg, and the Federal army still threatened northern Arkansas. "Buck" Walton later wrote of the raid: "[A]t the time I thought and now I know, it was an unwise, hardy - a foolish thing to do. It accomplished no good.... It was said the raid was made to give the Missourians a chance to rise. It did not serve the purpose. It may have been we were not 'yeast'-and could not leaven the lump."
The battle at Chalk Bluff saved Marmaduke's army and prevented an unsuccessful raid from turning into a total disaster. But neither the Fayetteville attack nor the Cape Girardeau raid had succeeded in reversing the Rebels' sagging fortunes in Arkansas. As spring gave way to summer, their position became increasingly desperate. If the Confederacy in Arkansas were to survive, it would require more than bold, ambitious failures - it would require decisive victories, and soon.