Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"Sun Stroke & Tired Out": Chasing J. O. Shelby, June 1864

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

"Sun Stroke & Tired Out": Chasing J. O. Shelby, June 1864

Article excerpt

IN EARLY MAY 1864, BRIG. GEN. JOSEPH O. SHELBY, perhaps the most feared Confederate cavalry officer west of the Mississippi, crossed the Arkansas River with orders to consolidate the bands of deserters, bushwhackers, and partisans that plagued northeast Arkansas and to "occupy the valley of White River, and prevent its navigation and the use of the Little Rock and Devall's Bluff Railroad in every possible manner and fashion."1 Over the following summer, Shelby proceeded to sow chaos throughout the region, including capturing and destroying a United States gunboat, which triggered a retaliatory expedition that is recounted in the two letters reproduced here.

Shelby's troops spent about a month between Batesville and Jacksonport before they began actively campaigning against Union forces. On June 15, they set out for Clarendon, forcing their way along muddy roads that Confederate artilleryman Coleman Smith would later describe as "one vast swamp . . . on account of recent rains. We marched, camped, cooked and slept in water from two to six inches deep until the morning of the 23rd, when we encamped on land about twelve inches above high water."2 Shelby's Iron Brigade arrived at Clarendon around midnight on June 24.

The Rebel cavalrymen discovered the Queen City sitting at anchor on the White River. The vessel, a tinclad sidewheel steamer, was part of a flotilla that had been prowling the river in anticipation of attacks by Shelby on river traffic. Though lightly armored, the Queen City carried two 30- pounder Parrott rifles, a pair of 32-pounder cannons, four 24-pounder howitzers, and a heavy 12-pounder, manned by a crew of sixty sailors under the command of acting master Michael Hickey. Shelby's troops filed into position along the shore fifty feet from the ship as Capt. Dick Collins' fourgun battery unlimbered and prepared to fire.3

At about 4 A.M., according to Shelby's biographer, "a yell of one thousand exultant men, a sharp, deadly crash of one thousand muskets, the roar of four pieces of doubly loaded cannon, and the thunderbolt crashed against the iron sides of the Queen City." A shell disabled the ship's starboard engine almost immediately, while a second pierced the steam pipe of the port engine, leaving the Queen City powerless and swinging at anchor. Hickey's men attempted to fight back, but, Shelby reported, "after a sharp engagement of about twenty minutes she struck her colors and surrendered." About half of the crew jumped overboard and swam away, while the rest, including the wounded Hickey, surrendered. Shelby's men-"after robbing us of all our money and carrying ashore the wearing apparel," an indignant ship's surgeon reported-removed arms and supplies, as well as one 24-pounder and one 12-pounder cannon from the vessel. Expecting the arrival of more gunboats, Shelby ordered the ship set afire and "the earth reeled and the trees trembled under the shock of the final destruction of the Queen City, and the waters closed over the remains of what had been two hours before a gallant mail-clad vessel," a Missouri cavalryman remembered.4

The gunboats Tyler, Naumkeag, and Fawn, which had left DeValls Bluff early on June 24 to escort transport vessels bound for the Arkansas River, turned the transports back and steamed downriver after finding some of the Queen City's escaped sailors on the banks of the White about ten miles from Clarendon. Shelby's gunners opened fire as they neared, the Tyler in the lead, and the gunboats, "steaming slowly past, . . . gave them broadside after broadside of one-half second shrapnel and canister." The Confederates elected to abandon the unequal contest, with Rebel cannoneer Coleman Smith writing that "a jack rabbit would have died of envy if he had seen me going across that open field and through the woods. . . . Several shells from the gunboats passed me on my way to camp, but I overtook one and passed it before I reached the camp." Shelby's men returned to Clarendon on June 25, but were soon chased away once more by the big guns of the Naumkeag and Fawn. …

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