Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Battle of Jenkins' Ferry, Arkansas - Capt. John Whiteford's letter to his wife

Jenkins' Ferry State Park
The letters of Captain John Whiteford, a Southern Unionist who commanded Company I, 1st Arkansas Infantry (U.S.) during the Camden Expedition of the Red River Campaign, reveal a great deal about the tribulations of a Southern family that fled north during the Civil War.

Whiteford was a resident of Texas when that state left the Union in 1861. Leaving his wife "among strangers" at Fort Riley in Kansas, he enlisted in the Union army. In September of 1863, he was appointed as the captain of Company I, 1st Arkansas (U.S.). In this capacity he served first in Sebastian County, but went on to fight in the Camden Expedition.

Saline River at Jenkins' Ferry Battlefield
On April 30, 1864, Whiteford was among the Union officers and soldiers who threw back the bloody attacks of Confederate forces at the Battle of Jenkins' Ferry on the Saline River near Sheridan, Arkansas. Under the command of General Kirby Smith, Southern troops tried to destroy the retreating Union army as it crossed the flooded Saline River at Jenkins Ferry. The attacks, however, were not well coordinated and the Federals escaped after inflicting heavy casualties on the Confederates.

Whiteford, who had never actually been mustered into the service and would later be labeled a "civilian" by the Union army, led his company in heavy fighting at Jenkins' Ferry and described the scene in a letter to his wife a short time later:

Jenkins' Ferry Battle Monument
...The infantry were in the rear to protect the train, and fight the rebels, while the balance of the army were crossing on the pontoon. It was a regular infantry fight. The rebels had four pieces of artillery in making the attack on us, but the Second Kansas Colored Volunteers captured that after the third charge, and then we had an even show. They massed their infantry on us and charged fiercely, but it was no go. Our regiment (Second Arkansas) distinguished itself. The dead rebels were thick over the ground. As we drove them back one man, by my side, was shot, and the bushes and sapplings were cutting down in front of me and bark and dirt thrown in my face, but no ball touched me. Thanks to God, who saw fit to spare my life awhile longer. The musketry was fiercer and more constant than at Prairie Grove. We fought all day on swampy land. The night before we were up all night in the rain in line of battle, and during the fight we were up to our knees in water, and when we had drove the enemy back we had to march on return four miles through mud knee deep. - Capt. John Whiteford, May 4, 1864.

Whiteford continued by describing the actual crossing of the Saline River, which took place at the site of today's Jenkins' Ferry State Park:

...Union families from Camden had to leave their carriages in the mud, and carry their children to the bridge. Men even dropped down in the confusion and wagons pass over them, it raining all the time. When we got across the bridge we had three miles more of such mud. Such a sight of women and children crying, and horses and mules dying, and wagons abandoned, I never saw. The rebels came to the river after we had crossed, but too late to do us any damage. We had destroyed the bridge that night, and all the wagons except one to each brigade. - Capt. John Whiteford, May 4, 1864.

Although the numbers may not be accurate, reported losses at the Battle of Jenkins' Ferry were 86 killed and 356 wounded for the Confederates and 63 killed, 413 wounded and 45 missing for the Federals.

You can learn more about the battle and today's Jenkins' Ferry State Park at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/jenkinsferry1.

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