Civil War along the Buffalo River

color drawing with civil war soldier resting against tree with rifle upright and looking at gray bluff across blue river, the words Buffalo National River frames picture top and bottom
Drawing depicting Civil War soldier along the Buffalo River.

Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission/NPS

Although Arkansas seceded from the union in May 1861, a Peace Society developed in the Ozarks in early 1862. The Civil War around the Buffalo River was absent of large scale military maneuvers or battles. It was more consumed with jay hawking, terrorism, and guerilla tactics. This left in its wake a civilian culture that had been ripped to shreds by the stresses of murder, rape, and thievery. The strain of war also turned neighbor against neighbor in the name of survival.

Read about some of these raids below.

Union Raid on Saltpeter Works at Bat Cave

Whiteley Mill, April 1864
Richland Creek, April 1864
Richland Creek May 1864

old photo of civil war general in formal uniform
Brig. Gen. F. J. Herron, Commanding Third Division, Army of the Frontier.

Union Raid on Saltpeter Works at Bat Cave

Expedition from Huntsville to Buffalo River, Arkansas, January 9-12, 1863 (Vol XXII:213-214 Official Record)



GENERAL: I have the honor to report that, in compliance with instructions received from you, I left camp at Huntsville, Ark., on the morning of the 9th instant, at 8 o’clock, with a detachment of the First Regiment Iowa Cavalry, numbering 300 officers and men, and proceeded toward Kingston, Ark., where I arrived at 2 p.m. of said day, when I received important information of the movements of the enemy, which I immediately conveyed to you by dispatch.

The guides who accompanied me not being acquainted with the region of country beyond Kingston, where your instructions required that I should go, I procured new guides at the above-named place, and proceeded on the road 4 miles beyond Kingston. It being 4 p.m., and learning that the road before me was a winding one, through wild mountains, utterly devoid of habitations, I bivouacked for the night, and threw out on all the roads in the vicinity strong guards.

Early in the evening the picket guard on the eastern road captured 3 men and 14 head of nurses and mules, owned by an individual called Parson Rodgers, who confessed to me that he was engaged in buying horses and mules and selling them to the army of the so-called Confederate States, this being the third lot he had purchased.

During the night Capt. J.D. Jenks and Corporal Ramsey, of Company D, First Iowa Cavalry, having in charge 3 prisoners, captured while on picket, and being on their way to camp with them, were halted on the road by some unknown person or persons, who demanded that they surrender, which was promptly refused; whereupon the party was fired upon, without injury, however, to any one, and the fire instantly returned by Captain Jenks, killing 1 man, whose name was ascertained to be Allen Basham. Captain Jenks and Corporal Ramsey succeeded in reaching camp safely with 2 of the 3 prisoners, 1 of the prisoners escaping during the encounter.

At 4 o’clock on the following morning I had the column in motion, and by daylight reached the saltpeter works on Buffalo River, 14 miles from Kingston, where I completely surprised the small force there employed, and captured 17 out of 20; the lieutenant in charge and 2 men being engaged at work in the timber a short distance from the buildings, succeeded in making good their escape.

The buildings, fourteen in number, very extensive, entirely new and of good workmanship, together with two steam-engines, three boilers, seven large iron kettles, weighing, according to the bill for the same, found on the premises, 800 pounds each, besides half a tone of saltpeter, a large fire-proof iron safe (Hall’s patent) three Concord wagons, two carts, and all the appurtenances of a first-class establishment of this character, were completely destroyed by fire and otherwise.

After remaining at this place about six hours, I moved my command to a point 4 miles below, on Buffalo River, and sent a detachment of 100 men, under the command of Captains (Alexander G.) McQueen and (David C.) Dinsmore, of the First Iowa Cavalry, to destroy and establishment of a similar character. The working party, having a lookout posted on an elevated point on the mountains, escaped, but the detachment took possession of the works, which consisted of several frame buildings, entirely new, with four large iron kettles, in full operation, all of which were destroyed.

In the mean time I capture, in the valley and mountains skirting the Buffalo River, some 20 prisoners, all notorious outlaws, and a like number of horses.

Having been entirely successful in accomplishing all that was assigned to me, without casualty to any of my command, I started on my return, and recrossed the mountains in the night time, arriving in camp, at Carrollton, Ark., on the evening of January 12, delivering my prisoners, to the number of 39, and 39 horses and mules, to Lieutenant-Colonel (Elias B.) Baldwin, of the Eights Missouri Cavalry, provost-marshal of the Third Division, Army of the Frontier.

Very respectfully yours, your obedient servant,

Joseph W. CALDWELL, Major First Iowa Cavalry

Brig. Gen. F. J. Herron, Commanding Third Division, Army of the Frontier.

The commander of the raiding party reported the works had been built by the Confederate Government at a cost of $30,000. The raiders destroyed 5 buildings, 1 engine, 26 large kettles, 6 tanks, blacksmith’s and carpenters’ shops and tools; $6,000 worth of saltpeter, packed. The cave, said to be roomy enough to work 100 men, evidently lay near the White River some miles downstream from the “Little North Fork,” which the men forded in returning to Missouri.


Whiteley Mill, April 1864

General Sanborn ordered the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry into the Buffalo River region to capture Confederates Cooper, Cecil, and other Rebels. The actual battle or skirmish may have taken place at the mouth of Edgmon Creek near the Arvel Casey Farm on up to mill pond and springs. The 2nd Arkansas Cavalry’s actual route to or from Whiteley’s Springs is unknown.

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.

General Sanborn learned Confederate forces returned north into the Boston Mountains after unsuccessful attempts to cross the Arkansas River. 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.

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. 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 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.

Major Melton, 2nd Arkansas Cavalry at Rolling Prairie summarized the country as “a nest and nursery of bushwhackers and lawless marauders.” His view of the area citizenry followed two lines: the 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, were safe only when near Federal troops.

old photo of civil war soldier in formal pose
Colonel John E Phelps, 2nd Arkansas Calvary

Richland Creek, April 1864

The April 13-14 skirmishes on Richland Creek once again involved Capt. Love, whom Sanborn had ordered wiped out in early January. Col. John Phelps to General Sanborn:

Captain Turner, Sixth Missouri State Militia, at the above date [April 13-14, 1864] arrived at Yellville from a reconnaissance on Richland. The 13th instant he had attacked a camp of 63 rebels and routed them completely; one Captain Watkins and 4 others were killed, several were wounded, 1 made prisoner.

The next day two or three of the guerrilla bands gathered together to the number of 100 or more, under Captains Love and Cordelle. Captain Turner followed them up and attacked their advance. In the engagement Cordelle was killed, and 2 others wounded. [OR Series I vol. XXXIV, Pt 1, pp. 886-887]

Though many Rebels and their leaders were killed over the preceding four months, even Union commanders on the Arkansas River at Clarksville noted the guerilla problems in the Boston Mountains and Carroll and Newton Counties.

In mid-April Union commanders were informed of Rebel intentions to disrupt spring planting in Missouri, to upset the stability of Union sentiment and force in that state. General Rosecrans did not want to alarm citizens in those areas by moving in additional troops. As Major Melton pursued Cooper in King’s River and Osage, Col. Harrison at Fayetteville was very concerned over Confederate Col. Jackman being loose near Huntsville.

General Sanborn favored driving the rebels across the Arkansas River and then holding the river line strong enough to release troops north of the river for duty elsewhere. He hoped to retain troops in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas long enough to wipe out guerilla bands and raise home guards to police the areas. Otherwise, the only option was to destroy everything in northern Arkansas so that no one could live there.

As Capt. Turner skirmished on Richland Creek, Major Melton sought out these Rebel groups in the upper Buffalo River region. Rebel leader Cooper hit Federal supply lines in their rear on King’s River. Major Melton took off in pursuit but eventually had to report back to camp due to lack of rations, underscoring the acute forage and food situation.

Supply needs for the Buffalo River region’s Union troops were enormous. Union resources funneled east to Sherman at Chattanooga-Atlanta Campaign compounded supply problems in the region. Capt. Owen, Quartermaster for Sanborn, reported daily forage demands at Springfield as 13,000 pounds of grain, not including hay, and daily rations to Yellville and Rolling Prairie at 2,400 pounds. Problems mounted as animals and transportation equipment wore out and river transport was unreliable.

Col. Phelps, 2nd Arkansas Cavalry, noted forage becoming exhausted, guerillas hiding in mountain hideouts assisted by friendly residents, Union people gone, animals dying, and rains swelling rivers making fords impassible. Phelps also noted the poor condition of his troops: less than half were operational due to miserable horses. Phelps suggested the possibility of moving all or part of his command to Buffalo City or nearby to forage and receive supplies. Thus, he would be at an old river station crossroads and be closer to Rebel forces south of the Buffalo River near Sylamore and Richwoods in Izard County. Phelps’ request could have made the mouth of the Buffalo River a major supply depot and regional headquarters for the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry.

By the end of April, Confederate officials called for all available supplies in Texas to be pushed into Arkansas and Louisiana, as Confederate forces pushed back Union advances. Rebel guerillas remained in northern Arkansas and Union cavalry continued to pursue them.

old photo of soldier in formal uniform
General John B. Sanborn, commander of the District of Southwestern Missouri from October of 1863.

Minnesota Star Tribune

Richland Creek May 1864

May was a pivotal month in Arkansas. Rebels gained a momentum as Federals fell back from Arkansas Valley and Red River due to defeats and the Federals fell back into southern Missouri due to forage problems in northern Arkansas. The Buffalo River region continued to experience Federal and Rebel presence and movements.

May began with Rebels reported in the Huntsville area. However, on May 3 Rebels attacked and destroyed a Federal forage train on Richland Creek. Forage in north central Arkansas was an increasing problem since Federals arrived in January, but was worse in southern Missouri. General Sanborn noted that he had half his stock in Arkansas grazing and received his forage from Rolla, but also noted that the grass in southern Missouri was growing and provided some feed for horses.

The search for forage more than anything dictated the direction and objectives of Federal scouts. Richland Valley, noted for its agricultural bounty, once again lured Federals into an attack by opportune rebels. Following this attack, Federal troops began pulling back into the border region of Missouri.

The Official Records report that after crossing the Buffalo, the advanced guard, escort, and train-rearguard were separated when Jackman attacked down from Point Peter Mountain. The location of the advance guard, giving accounts from oral histories and James Johnston, seem to have been where the Point Peter-Snowball Road joins with the Richland Valley Road near Hall school and the cemetery. This point is about ¾ mile from the Campbell-Wasson ford where oral history claims that the Federal wagon train was burned. The Maddox account claims that the Federals moved up the valley from the main body about ¾ of a mile when they saw the Rebels coming down the mountain. If the advance guard was about ¾ mile ahead of the train on the other (east or south) side of Wasson Ford, then where was the escort? They may have been on the same side of Richland Creek as the advance guard, but a little north of Hall School, thus separated by the creek from the train and separated by distance from the advance guard and by the quickly advancing Jackman. The escort came under attack as well, but upon finding the advance guard wiped out, they escaped, leaving the wagon trains behind. The Maddox account claims that the Confederates, after destroying the train, went into camp at the mouth of Dry Branch, one mile up the Richland Valley. The junction of the Richland Valley and Snowball roads was about one mile from Dry Branch camp.

Jackman claimed to have spotted the Federal wagons from two and a half miles away from the top of Point Peter. Jackman either spotted the trains while he was rounding the old Point Peter Road near the mouth of Richland and the train was nearing Christy Ford, or Jackman was in Point Peter (the Snowball Road) watching the wagons crossing the Buffalo. The second choice is unlikely since he had to travel at least 12 miles to get to this point, while the Federals crossed the Buffalo in the morning of the same day.

What is significant is that Col. Phelps’ follow up attack on the 5th ended when he could not pursue the enemy due to the bad conditions of his horses. This was no doubt true given other correspondence between Phelps and Col. Sanborn. In addition, Phelps marched all night (May 4) to attack Jackman on the morning of May 5.

General Sanborn pondered what to do with the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry. He suggested either moving the troops south of the Boston Mountains and reassigning them to the Department of Arkansas or keeping them north in Missouri. But, he mentioned that without this force he could not operate in northern Arkansas. Sanborn opted to pull his troops back to Cassville, Mo., Berryville, Ark., and Forsyth, Mo., where apparently, forage along the White River had improved with spring growth. Major Murphy at Yellville was ordered back to Cassville while Col. Phelps was advised to fall back on Berryville and Forsyth.

A point of importance in late April and throughout May concerned the advance of Rebels back into Arkansas with the retreat of Federals following the Red River defeat and near escape. On May 12, Governor Murphy of Arkansas wrote President Lincoln that with the retreat and defeat of Banks and Steele, Little Rock was threatened. Unless help came, “all will be lost.”

Indeed, Federals were retreating. The Batesville garrison was to evacuate to Jacksonport. The Federal commander cited forage reasons for the move, claiming that all north central Arkansas was exhausted of forage and no enemy could subsist there. Yet, General Sanborn notified Col. Phelps that some good grazing could be found on Huzzah and Sugar Loaf Prairies in Arkansas. Huzzah Prairie is just southeast of Harrison and Sugar Loaf is northeast of Harrison and northwest of Yellville. This is contradictory in that the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry had been stationed near there for four months and was compelled to move back north due to lack of forage. However, since the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry’s departure, green grass had apparently sprung up enough to provide some kind of sustenance. Sanborn cautioned Phelps to take his time in falling back to his new posts. He was to bring everything with him, driving out any abandoned stock ahead of him.

Sanborn cautioned Phelps to keep a strong lookout for Rebel groups coming north, since General Price followed up General Steele’s retreat to Little Rock. Rebel cavalry was likely to work its way north. Although Sanborn comments that no Rebel force could subsist in northern Arkansas, he ordered Phelps to put out scouts well to the south. Thus, the Buffalo River region likely remained under Federal eyes even though the high tide of Federal presence was subsiding.

In mid-May, Federal commanders noted that the northern two tiers of counties in Arkansas were rapidly depopulated and becoming “wilderness,” while refugees flocked north to inhabit southern Missouri counties. More than 3500 refugees from Marion and Searcy counties in Arkansas were reported crossing the White river at Forsyth in three or four days.

Confederates began besieging Union posts at Little Rock and Alexandria, Louisiana, but were limited by the lack of sufficient ammunition and forage. However, Rebel forces moved across the Arkansas River into the Boston Mountains with orders to fill up their ranks by calling in absentees, conscripting, and arresting deserters for mandatory service. General Price was to prepare for an invasion into Missouri, reinforced by Rebel troops in the Red River theater. Everyone between 16 and 50 years of age was forced into service. Unorganized guerilla bands were to be broken up and forced to consolidate. Union commanders expected the Rebels to move north as Col. Phelps captured Rebel orders and papers in his counterattack in Richland Valley on May 5.

Sanborn informed Col. Harrison in Fayetteville that at that moment (May 17) no large force of Rebels occupied north Arkansas. Sanborn suggested organizing home guards while time permitted. All the country “north of the Buffalo Fork is desolated.” Harrison informed Sanborn of an increase of Rebel guerillas east and south of Fayetteville. Lt. Col Cameron led a detachment to Richland Valley on May 17th.

The camp of Lt. Col. Cameron on the night of May 17 was at Woolum, on the north side of the Buffalo River opposite Richland Creek. The locations of R.W. Robertson’s and Mrs. Hendrix houses are uncertain, but likely south of the cemetery. The trail followed by Cameron across the mountains and north of Point Peter to Calf Creek is likely the old Richland-Snowball road. The location of Widow Turney’s is near Snowball (Turney’s Mill). The route taken from Widow Turney’s to the Buffalo River is uncertain. Two routes are likely: 1) follow down the Calf Creek road to near the Buffalo River, or 2) angle to the northwest in order to check up on Captain Love’s farm before proceeding down the north side of the Buffalo River. The exact route along the “north side of the Buffalo” is uncertain, as is the route taken to Yellville across the Tomahawk Barrens, the location of which is unknown.

Cameron’s trip through Richland Valley, reportedly gained information that Col. Jackman was at the head of Richland Valley organizing and combining forces. This information likely came from loyal Union citizens who lived in the valley, or by jayhawking men anxious to have Union forces strike a blow at Rebel guerillas in their region of upper Richland. Cameron also learned that Rebels under Col. Freeman were gathering on the White River near Batesville.

He harassed a few bushwhackers while moving from Richland down the Buffalo River, then to Tomahawk Barrens and to Yellville. From Yellville he proceeded to Talbot’s Ferry and crossed the White River on his way back to Camp Cameron, somewhere along the Missouri-Arkansas border. He reported the presence of Jackman and others on the Richland headwaters in the Boston Mountains with several hundred men of different bands. He also noted Freeman moving up the White River near Batesville.

On May 24th, Sanborn reported a Rebel force below Buffalo City on the White River. Thus, the Buffalo River region continued to harbor rebel bands and Union patrols. Lt. Col. Cameron probably did not encounter this group of Rebels forming in the hills.

On May 26th, Major Melton claimed that Shelby with 2,000 men was on the Osage Branch of King’s River with artillery, and he was recruiting. Melton felt insecure at Berryville and had little reliable transportation. Sanborn doubted the number of Rebels but suggested that if Melton had to retreat, he should take all he could and burn the rest. Sanborn continued to claim no large Rebel force north of the Buffalo, while Rebel troops were forming between the Buffalo and the Arkansas in addition to 250 Rebels quietly moving in to Missouri per week. Rebel commanders were ordered to gather and form troops at all costs, and shoot those who fail to comply; desertions were to be tolerated no longer.

General Sanborn ordered the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry to send out woman spies and scouts to ascertain the enemy’s whereabouts and information. On May 29, General Sanborn found out that Shelby was not on the Osage with 2,000 men as reported, nor was he north of the Boston Mountains. This suggests that either the Rebel commanders were not in the area recruiting yet, or, they were quiet about it. Sanborn also reported that Rebels (Jackman) were attempting and succeeding in getting groups north in small bodies which confirms that the Rebels were quietly moving north in hopes of assembly in Missouri through northeast and north-central Arkansas, towards Rolla. Thus, the month ended with Federal watching but not stopping small bands of Rebels moving into Missouri.

In the end of May, Confederate leaders were to assemble their commands near Powhatan.Again, orders were given to conscript all able-bodied men. Major Pickler, Captains Rusk, Robinson, Roberts, and Johnson were to go and recruit in northwest Arkansas forcing all Rebel bands not attached to join Major Pickler. The area south of the White River and north of the Boston Mountains became a no-man’s-land, depopulated, mostly destitute of forage. Yet, Union scouts continued to probe the Buffalo Valley looking for signs of Rebel movement north

Last updated: November 11, 2020

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