Recently, I ordered A Harvest of Death: the Battle of Jenkins Ferry, Arkansas
from Amazon. I originally planned to review a book about Grant's infamous order expelling the Jews from his area of operations. However, Barnes and Noble lost my order
First, before I review the book, a little background. The author, Joe Walker, grew up only a few miles away from the Jenkins Ferry battlefield and visited the battlefield often as he grew up. I too live only a few miles away from another battlefield of that campaign, Mark's Mill. I can understand his enthusiasm for the battlefield and battle.
The battle of Jenkins Ferry was the last battle in the Red River Campaign/Camden expedition. After overseeing Richard Taylor's Army of Western Louisiana defeat Nathaniel Banks thrust toward Shreveport in the battles of Sabine Crossroads and Pleasant Hill, Kirby Smith detached three infantry divisions from Taylor to reinforce Sterling Price's Army of Arkansas, which was at that time investing Frederick Steele's expeditionary force consisting of the Union VII Corps in Camden. Exposed in an area barren of supplies and lacking sufficient cavalry to protect his supply lines, Steele lost two supply trains in the battles of Poisons Springs and Marks Mill. Without supplies and now learning that Kirby Smith was on his way with infantry (Price's force had been nothing but cavalry), Steele elected to retreat to Little Rock.
Here is where Mr. Walker begins his book after a brief overview of the above events. He covers with excellent detail Steele's decision and the factors that compelled him to retreat. He describes Kirby Smith's arrival and assuming direct command of the Army of Arkansas from Price (delegating him a corps like command of Churchill's Arkansas and Parson's Missouri Division). Whenever he comes across someone important to the battle, Walker gives only a brief encyclopedic background of them. This shortens the already pamphlet like book.
Walker also lacks giving an in-depth order of battle and regimental history (although to his credit he does include a brief order of battle in the back of the book, but it includes several gaps such as missing regiment commanders and unit strengths). Walker goes on the pursuit of Steele's forces. Through bad luck and rain, Steele is caught in the Saline Bottoms while trying to cross the flooding Saline River. Here, Kirby's lead elements of the Army of Arkansas catch up with Steele. The ground is both a curse and blessing to Steele. Although is he is caught in a swampy bottomland with a flooded river to his front, a creek on his right flank, a swamp on his left, and his front lies a ridge that is a perfect position for Confederate Artillery. However, lucky for Steele, the Confederates lack sufficient heavy artillery that can fire from the ridge, and the ground too soft in the bottom ground for effective close artillery support. The river, creek, and swamp also mean that the Confederates cannot flank him, and must attack his rearguard head on.
It is important to note that at this point, both sides have been plagued by a mismanagement of use of arms. Rather than using his cavalry under Eugene Carr to screen his retreat and delay Kirby Smith's infantry, Steele orders all his cavalry except for two companies and all his artillery except for a section to cross the river ahead of his main body. This leaves only two cavalry companies from the 6th Kansas Cavalry, a section of artillery, and his infantry to act as a rearguard.
Likewise, Kirby Smith also makes a poor use of Cavalry. Based on a poor rumor, he orders Maxcey's Cavalry Division of Texans and Indians to go back to Indian Territory to stop a "Union invasion" there. The remainder of his cavalry consists of two divisions under Fagan and a division of Marmaduke. Fagan had been detached by Price to attack Steele's supply lines. After capturing one of Steele's largest wagon trains at Marks Mill, Fagan now attempted to cross the Saline River and attack Union supply depots at Little Rock and Pine Bluff.
Then Fagan made a controversial decision. Informed that another Union Train had left Steele's main body and was on route to Arkadelphia, he moved to intercept this train. However, there was no Union supply train to intercept. This prevented him from getting in front of Steele's army before it could reach the Ferry.
However, Walker does reveal new information about Fagan's controversial decision. Two strikingly similar accounts appeared after the war from Unions veterans from the VII Corps. In both of these accounts, a Confederate courier was captured by Steele's main body. This courier carried a message from either Kirby Smith or Price (the only place where the accounts differ) telling Fagan to intercept Steele's force before he reached the Saline River. Steele rewrote the message telling Fagan to attack the train at Arkadelphia, and forged the Confederate officer's name to the order. He then ordered a trusted aide to deliver the note in a Confederate uniform. If true, this would reveal that Fagan was not so much to blame in failing to stop Steele.
So instead of Fagan's 4,000 Cavalrymen blocking Steele's 12,000 man force from crossing the river and enabling the 10,000 infantry and dismounted cavalry from Kirby Smith's main force to box Steele in, the Union force reaches the Ferry unmolested and despite flooding began to cross the river by deploying a pontoon bridge and corduroying the muddy roads. A small artillery skirmish broke out in-between Steele's rearguard and Marmaduke's Cavalry.
Despite being delayed in his pursuit, Kirby Smith's main infantry body caught up with Steele in the swampy bottom lands that made up the Union position after a hectic night march in the rain. In a humorous incident during the blinding night march, several soldiers in the 33rd Arkansas Infantry tired of being run over by horse mounted officers in the dark, cornered an offending officer and hauled him off his horse at bayonet point. They angrily threatened this officer, asking him his name and business. The harangued officer replied "E. Kirby Smith, and my business is to command this Army".
Despite such such incidents, on the morning of April 30th, Kirby Smith's lead infantry division under Churchill arrived on the ridge overlooking the bottoms. After a staff meeting with Price and Churchill, Kirby Smith now faced a dilemma. The poor terrain meant that artillery support would have to expose itself to enemy fire and counter charge. Conversely, the same terrain meant that his army would have to attack the enemy head on. On the same point, if Kirby Smith could break the Union rear guard, he could overwhelm the Union force and capture it as it crossed the river. It would be a frightening harbinger of the situation Hood and the Army of Tennessee would face at Franklin.
Sterling Price initiated the battle proper when he told Churchill to send a Infantry brigade to locate and attack the Union rearguard. Churchill sent Brigadier General Tappan's Brigade of 700 Arkansans forward. Deploying his brigade in skirmish order (something a bit tactically innovative for it's time), Tappan's skirmishers advanced on the rear guard.
It is important to understand the terrain. Three open fields belted by woods, with a creek on one side and a swamp on the other boxed in the Confederate advance. Likewise, under the supervision of Brigadier General Samuel Rice, the Union forces had cut down trees to fortify their position. For the remainder of the day, Confederate forces attacked across these open fields against the Union positions. Union troops fought valiantly against Confederate troops who attacked with equal valor. Rice commanded and directed the Union troops with daring and bravery. At the height of the action, a Confederate Missouri Battery got too close to the Union line without infantry support. In a bit of controversy, The 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry despite taking sweeping canister fire, charged the battery and killed the gunners, even those who surrendered, sparing the battery commander to deliver a message. The Kansas Colored Infantry cried "Remember Poison Springs", citing the battle earlier in the campaign where Texan and Choctaw Indian Cavalry had murdered prisoners and wounded from the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. This would led to further retribution by Confederates later in the action.
Walker does reference this event and the background leading to it. However, he does lack detail in certain events that leave the reader wondering, like for instance where a brigade of Missourians that was supposed to be supporting the mentioned battery where when the 2nd Kansas Colored charged. Another instance he mentioned the Tucker family which abandoned it's farm following the battle. He does not mention the reason (poor sanitary conditions of unburied bodies), which could leave a reader without such conjecture wondering why the Tucker family left.
Throughout the battle, first, Churchill's Arkansans, and then Parson's Missourians would charge across the fields, being repulsed after savage fighting. Finally, Walker's famous Texas Division arrived on the battlefield. By this time, Kirby Smith had attempted a flanking manuever across the creek on the Union right by a brigade of dismounted cavalry. This had been repulsed. Now Kirby Smith learned of a road that ran through the swamp on the Union left. Walker was ordered to send two brigades on this road while ordering his third brigade to reinforce the Confederate Center. In the climax of the battle, the two Confederate Texas brigades turned off the road before they reached the Union left to turn it and ended up attacking the Union center across the open field. In this fighting, Union commander Rice was mortally wounded when a bullet hit his spur and fragmented it into his heel. Two of the three Texas brigadiers were also killed and the other was wounded. Another attack by a brigade from Churchill's Arkansans was also repulsed. This ending the fighting.
Steele despicably decided to cross the river immediately and abandon his wounded and his hospital to the enemy. This gave the Confederates a phyrric victory by holding the field and capturing the abandoned Union wounded and hospital.
Several wounded soldiers from the 2nd Kansas Colored were murdered at the Hospital by an angry Confederate officer as revenge for the Missouri Battery. The Union hospital staff were also captured, refusing to abandon their patients. Steele made haste to return to Little Rock, burning more than 200 wagons worth of supplies that were burdening him.
Kirby Smith did not remain in the area long. Realizing that Steele would reach the safety of Little Rock, and not having the artillery or forage to sustain a siege, Kirby Smith returned with his Infantry to Texas and would later send his cavalry under Price in the Missouri Raid. He left the field with such haste that he did not take the time to ensure bodies were properly buried.
Walker does an excellent job in the details of these, citing personal correspondence from the families of participants and oral family tradition as well as traditional reports and letters. His research is somewhat revealing and impeccable.
Walker also makes the case for conservation of the battlefield. Currently, the battlefield is a state park, but not a recognizable battlefield. It suffers from heavy tree overgrowth. Walker advocated the restoration of the battlefield.
However, Walker's book does have some major flaws.
Aside from a few minor errors (for example, he describes Churchill as Major General, when Churchill would not be promoted to Major General until March of the next year), Walker's otherwise excellent book is hampered by two things.
He lacks a definitive bibliography (he does cite using foot notes). However, the lack of a bibliography makes it hard to quick glance what sources Walker uses.
Walker's book is also roughly edited. He uses an inconsistent font size (notably in between chapter 11 and 12). Several places also suffer from poor spacing, notably in Chapter 5. It is my understanding that Mr. Walker self published this book. However, Walker could have handily fixed the problems with the print with peer review and a more thorough editing process.
Overall it is important to note that Walker has written a book about a battle that is mentioned in less than .002% of all written work of the Civil War. The last major work written about this battle was Edwin C. Bearrs' book in 1954. However, for the students of the Red River campaign and the Trans-Mississippi Theater this book is an detailed study on the last major infantry engagement west of the Mississippi and should find it an excellent addition to their library.
+ Detailed book on a battle that has often been ignored.
+ Impeccable study and research
+ Well drawn maps and illustrations
+ Use of family oral traditions and sources on the battle
+ Advocates conversation of this ignored battlefield
+ Major overview of the "Franklin of the Trans-Mississippi"
-Walker's book suffers from poor editing and a rough terse writing style
-A bit short. The book could use additional back ground information to flush it out.
I recommend this book for those interested in the Trans-Mississippi Department. However, if you cringe at rough editing in the book, you should probably stay away or wait until a later edition is published.
Three and a half out of Five stars.