Whiteley Mill, April 1864
General Sanborn ordered the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry into the Buffalo River region and north of the river to capture Confederates Cooper, Cecil, and other Rebels. Much attention along the river as Union troops increase patrols and expeditions north of the river and into the river “wilderness” areas where guerilla hideouts were plentiful.
The actual battle or skirmish may have taken place at the mouth of Edgmon Creek near the Arvel Casey Farm on up to mill springs and the pond by the mill. It is not known where the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry camped, their actual route to Whiteley’s Springs, nor their route of retreat. Major James A. Melton reported to General Sanborn:
I have the honor to report that on the 5th instant, a scout of this regiment numbering 50 men, under Captain Orr, Company C, and Lieutenant Bell, Company I, attacked the enemy under Sissell, Cooper, Paton, and not unlikely Green, all chiefs of guerilla bands, concentrated to the number of 250 men at Whiteley’s Mills, on the headwaters of the Buffalo River.
The enemy had been warned of the approach of Captain Orr, and had formed to receive him. They were partly mounted and partly dismounted. Captain Orr dashed into their camp and twice broke their line of cavalry. After a fire of musketry of about two hours’ duration, the ammunition being nearly exhausted, Captain Orr withdrew, with the loss of Privates John H. Murry, Company F, killed, and Obed W. Patty, Company I, missing. [OR Series I vol. XXXIV, Pt 1, pp. 871]
Union commanders learned that Confederate forces southwest of Yellville across the Buffalo River were not as strong as they had initially thought. The only reason the Rebel groups moved toward Yellville was that they heard that Union troops had abandoned that location. Yet little or no forage could be found from the Buffalo River area northward for nearly “100 miles.”
General Sanborn learned that Confederate forces had unsuccessfully attempted to cross the Arkansas River to the south, so they returned north into the Boston Mountains. However, Col. Harrison reported that small bands of deserters from General Prices’ men were crossing the Arkansas and coming north. Sanborn’s plan of ambitious patrolling and pushing his line of posts and pickets southward into the Buffalo River region hampered his ability to assist Union troops in Fayetteville. Col. Harrison at Fayetteville, in Sanborn’s eyes, should have gone on the offensive instead of the defensive. By working together in the region between Carrollton and Huntsville, Sanborn hoped to assist Harrison in driving the rebels off. The Buffalo River was especially thick with Rebel bands, and Federal troops expected significant success in killing and capturing them, though Rebel guerillas remained a problem.
Major Melton, 2nd Arkansas Cavalry at Rolling Prairie, noted the conditions throughout the area. He summarized the country as “a nest and nursery of bushwackers and lawless marauders.” His summary of the area citizenry followed two lines: one group, southern sympathizers, were tepid, boastful, treasonous, passive, deceitful, treacherous, especially the women. These people assisted Rebels when possible, yet were not above playing up to Union authorities to escape harm or gain favor. He claimed that family ties played a significant role in area behavior and attitudes. The other group, loyal Union people, where safe only when in the vicinity of Federal troops.
In connection with reports of men moving north into the Boston Mountains, Col. Harrison informed Sanborn that several hundred men were gathering on Mulberry River (which is not far from the headwaters of the Buffalo River).
Not only did Sanborn have troubles of ridding the area of Rebel bands, despite strong Union presence, but he also had trouble keeping some of his troops supplied and in full operating condition. Sanborn tried to assist Harrison in Fayetteville by having Col. Phelps’ 2nd Arkansas Cavalry make a diversion toward Huntsville, Arkansas. Sanborn wanted to keep Phelps on constant patrol rather than taking troops away from outposts, abandoning them, and moving out to follow the enemy. This seems contradictory to his earlier wishes. Sanborn may have intended only the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry as an offensive arm while the other units in northern Arkansas were to hold forage areas. Even at Rolling Prairie and Yellville, forage was becoming scarce.
As Rebel bands gathered in northwest Arkansas, the Union commander notified Sanborn that he would attack them soon, but wished Sanborn could lend any help possible. Capt. Orr’s skirmish at Whiteley’s Mill magnified a problem that Major Melton’s 2nd Arkansas Cavalry at Rolling Prairie brought the shortage of ammunition to Sanborn’s attention. It is not known how long this problem lasted. Yet, by mid April, the tide of the war turned slightly in favor of the Confederates in the Arkansas-Red River theaters, as Union forces retreated down the Red River and also back to Little Rock. Union troops from Yellville moved back into the Buffalo River Valley for probably two reasons: 1) obtainable forage and, 2) seek out and destroy Rebel bands scouted since the late March encounters.