Taking Little Rock: A Voice from the 25th Ohio Battery
In the summer of 1862, the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Cavalry was on duty at Fort Scott in southern Kansas, and it decided to create a detachment of roughly 100 men to form a battery. General James Blunt badly needed artillery, and rather than petition the authorities back east to send him a battery, Blunt assigned 13 men from each company of the 2nd Ohio Cavalry along with two lieutenant and placed under the command of Captain Job B. Stockton of Kansas. Armed with two 3” Ordnance rifles and four M1841 6-lb smoothbores, the unit was originally called the 3rd Kansas Independent Battery. They took part in the battles of Newtonia and Prairie Gove before being re-named the 25th Ohio Battery the following February. The battery replaced their outmoded smoothbores with 6 -lb rifles that spring and saw much service in the Trans-Mississippi. By the time their term of service ended in 1865, the men of the battery had marched 6,351 miles! But the battery was most noted for their services in the expedition that captured Little Rock, Arkansas in September 1863.
The fortunes of the western Confederacy waned after the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863; in neighboring Arkansas, General Sterling Price had only roughly 10,000 men to defend the state, a conglomerate of troops from Missouri and Arkansas along with some detachments from Texas and Louisiana. During the events described in the following letter, General John S. Marmaduke (later governor of Missouri) called out his superior General Lucius Walker for cowardice at the Battle of Reed’s Bridge (of which the 25th Ohio Battery took part) which took place on August 26, 1863. Walker felt the Missourian’s charge unjust and demanded a duel to settle the fracas. On the morning of September 6th, the two squared off with a pair of Colt Navy revolvers along the Arkansas River and Walker took a shot in the abdomen which by the next night resulted in his death.
So, with the weight of numbers on his side and squabbling amongst the Confederate high command, Union commander General Frederick Steele moved to seize Little Rock in early September 1863. His Army of Arkansas numbered roughly 15,000 men and included three Ohio batteries (5th, 11th (see Iuka), and 25th) along two infantry regiments, the 22nd Ohio (old 13th Missouri, see here) and the 77th Ohio (see here). At the resulting Battle of Bayou Fourche fought on September 10, 1863, the three Ohio batteries played an important role in shelling the Confederates across the Arkansas River and helped force passage for the Union army.
It’s a rare treat to find accounts from Ohioans serving in the Trans-Mississippi theater; this letter was written by Corporal Wilbur Asahel Reeves of the 25th Ohio Battery and was published in the October 14, 1863 edition of the Western Reserve Chronicle, one of the best newspapers in the state if you’re looking for Civil War era correspondence.
Reeves enlisted as a 21-year-old private in Co. D of the 2nd Ohio Cavalry on September 4, 1861 and was officially transferred to the battery on February 17, 1863. He was promoted to the rank of corporal on March 26, 1863 and to sergeant on January 14, 1865. Shortly after the close of the war, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in Co. I of the 113th U.S. Colored Troops but resigned his commission after only two months. After the war, Reeves studied law and eventually became a judge.
September 12, 1863
For the gratification of our friends and acquaintances in Ohio, I have undertaken the task of communicating a few particulars of our recent engagements with the enemy in the vicinity of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Go back with me through the mist that encircles the past as fast as the 25th of last month which found General John W. Davidson’s division marching in three columns in line of battle across an extensive prairie some 50 miles in length by about 30 miles in width. At this time, we were nearing Brownsville, the county seat of Prairie County which is situated in a narrow belt of timber. Everything was moving on harmoniously which reminded one of a review more than an advance on an enemy when suddenly the order ‘double quick’ fell upon our ears from the commander of our battery. We wheeled out of column and away we went for the front and on moving up, we found the advance guard in line of battle and skirmishers deployed. About a mile in advance near the timber could be seen a long line of the enemy’s skirmishers. A few minutes later, and the rattle of musketry was borne back to our ears which immediately settled the questions as regards friend or foe.
We wheeled our guns into position and came in “heavy on the base.” The enemy taking for granted that it was a duet we had struck up, attempted to play an accompaniment from two pieces situated in the timber. But thinking that it might prove rather disastrous to both instruments and the performers to remain in that position longer, they concluded to retire and leave us to play it alone which created some enthusiasm and to make this manifest, we struck up a livelier tune while they kept step to the music.
This was one of their outposts and consisted of about 5,000 men commanded by General Lucius M. Walker. On the 25th, we drove them about eight miles and fired about 200 rounds at them and had the gratifying assurance that some of them had their desired effect. They made several stands during the day whenever their position gave them the advantage, but our guns were of too long range to allow them to do much execution. Besides, thinking we did not play fair, they would become disgusted with their own weakness and put out again. At night, we fell back to Brownsville where we could feed our horses and rest without being annoyed.
|Corporal Wilbur A. Reeves|
25th Ohio Battery
On the morning of the 26th at an early hour, a portion of our division together with Battery K of the 2nd Missouri Battery went out to the front to annoy the enemy. General Davidson had strict orders from Major General Frederick Steele commanding the expedition (who was at Duvall’s Bluff on White River with the infantry) not to bring on a general engagement, but to move on and feel of the enemy and find out, if possible, his strength and position. This detachment went out and the artillery shelled them a while, but finding them rather stubborn, they returned.
On the morning of the 27th, General Davidson moved his entire division which consisted of about 8,000 cavalry and 18 pieces of artillery to the front. We found the enemy in considerable force about three miles east of Bayou Metre which is twelve miles east of the Rebel capital. We succeeded in driving them across the bayou to behind their fortifications. After crossing, they set fire to the bridge over the same. On seeing the smoke ascending, their designs were manifest, and the 1st Iowa Cavalry was sent to charge on the bridge and drive the Rebels from it and save it from destruction. These boys drew their sabers and moved off as one man and on nearing the bridge, the Rebels opened on them with canister from a battery masked in the bushes on the opposite bank of the bayou. This was more than mortal man could endure; to charge the battery was impossible; to remain where they were was certain death, so consequently they were obliged to fall back as the only alternative. This proved rather disastrous for the 1st Iowa as they lost two killed and 22 wounded.
From the bayou on the surface gradually rose into a ridge about a half mile back towards the east. On this ridge, General Davidson ordered Captain Hall (chief of artillery in the cavalry division) to plant the whole amount of his artillery and concentrate its fire upon the enemy’s works and, if possible, shell them out. Our battery occupied the right the mountain howitzers the center, and Battery K of the 2nd Missouri the left. Here the sharpshooters disturbed us considerably, notwithstanding the cavalry that was dismounted and sent into the timber on our right and left to silence them. Their balls continually whistled over our heads and struck the ground around us. For three hours we thundered away at them, but failing in our purpose, General Davidson ordered us to fall back to Brownsville where we would wait until General Steele should arrive from Duval’s Bluff with the infantry.
|The 25th Ohio Battery utilized two 3" Ordnance Rifles like the one depicted above along with four older M1841 6-pdr smoothbores.|
He arrived on the 1st of September. I will not weary the patience of my readers by asking you to follow me through the details of our preparatory steps prior to our advance nor of our march from Brownsville to Ashley’s Mills near the river and ten miles below the Rebel capital. Suffice it say that at 10:30 on the evening of the 10th found our battery on the way to the river to take our position in a cornfield before day dawned as we did not wish to be seen by the Rebels. There were two Ohio batteries stationed above us, the 5th and 11th. This was to protect our men while they threw a pontoon bridge across the river. The river here described very nearly a semi-circle near the center of which the bank had been cut down to the edge of the water. Here they intended to throw the bridge across.
At the lower end of this line, our battery was concealed in a cornfield above and a little to the right of the bridge was the 11th Ohio Battery which was also concealed in a cornfield; still further up the stream and nearly opposite to us the 5th Ohio Battery took their position. At 8 a.m., they commenced laying down their pontoons. A half hour later, and the Rebels ran down a battery on the point opposite and opened fire on the bridge. Then it was that Ohio’s sons spoke to them in tones that elicited their attention for you will plainly see from our positions that we had a crossfire on them and had them in the focus of a concentrated fire. They fired a few rounds and then put out.
At 9:20 a.m., the 40th Iowa commenced crossing the bridge followed by Lieutenant George F. Lovejoy’s howitzer battery [Lovejoy’s battery was part of the 2nd Missouri Cavalry] and then our battery. The cavalry forded the stream a short distance above to save time; this point is known as Churchell’s Landing. The cavalry division crossed here, the infantry under General Steele moved upon the north side of the river. During all this time, Colonel John F. Ritter’s brigade was engaged the enemy about two miles down the river at another ford. We found no enemy until we had proceeded about three miles up the river to Bayou Fourche where our advance led by Lieutenant Lovejoy’s battery ran into an ambuscade.
The Rebels, about 2,000 strong, were concealed in the timber and as the battery (supported by the 10th Illinois Cavalry) moved up between the river and the timber, the Rebel infantry charged down on them at the same time, yelling hideously and pouring a murderous fire into our ranks. This threw the cavalry into confusion and they gave way and fell back, thus leaving the battery without any support. Before they could bring their guns into position, nearly all their horses were shot down and the enemy was upon them. All honor is due to the brave cannoneers who stood by their pieces and fought their enemies with their revolvers until they were nearly all killed or wounded. They succeeded in getting away with two of their pieces; the other two fell into the hands of the enemy and here Lieutenant Lovejoy fell severely wounded.
|Sergeant Emory E. Knowlton of the 25th Ohio Battery later raised Co. I of the 4th Arkansas (Union) Cavalry in Little Rock and became its captain in October 1864.|
Our battery came up on the double quick; the left and center sections moved down the right of the timber while the right section kept straight on down the road and turned to the left into a cornfield, and all came into action quicker than I write this. The two sections on the right commended a rapid fire which turned the tide that for the moment seemed against us. As fast as the cavalry came up, they formed in line to our right and rear. We soon succeeded in driving them around the point towards the left. They soon commenced shelling the cornfield in which was the right section of our battery under the command of Lieutenant Edward B. Hubbard. He nobly stood his ground under the most terrific fire of the enemy. Shells screamed over their heads and burst between the carriages and in front and in almost every conceivable place, yet every man remained at his post determined to on victory or death. Their supports fell back and left them, consequently, they were obliged to follow. It seems a miracle that they were not all or a greater portion of them at least killed, but fortunately they all escaped unharmed except Sergeant Emory E. Knowlton, chief of the detachment, who was slightly wounded in the right arm by the fragment of a shell.
By this time, the artillery on the opposite side of the river under General Steele had the range of the Rebels and were paying their respects which worked like a charm, for the enemy could not endure a crossfire in his present position and were obliged to fall back. About an hour later, the 1st Iowa Cavalry and 3rd Missouri Cavalry led by Colonel John M. Glover made a grand charge on the enemy and recaptured one of the pieces taken from Lovejoy along with a caisson containing 150 rounds of ammunition.
This was the last and grand rout of the enemy for we followed them closely not allowing them time to collect their scattered forces until they were far beyond the capital. Thus, Sterling Price was outgeneraled and defeated. We tore down the foul flag of secession from the State House and flung out to the glad winds the red, white, and blue, and the day was ours.
Letter from Corporal Wilbur A. Reeves, 25th Ohio Battery, Western Reserve Chronicle (Ohio), October 14, 1863, pg. 1
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