Camp Retreat, White River, Arkansas: 1862. Unbound. This three-page letter was written by Corporal James J. Scales of the 10th Texas Infantry to his grandfather. It is datelined “Camp retreat. White River Ak. June 22 1862”. No mailing envelope. In nice shape. A transcript will be provided.
After Union Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis drove Southern forces from Missouri at the Battle of Pea Ridge in March of 1862, morale within the Confederate Army’s Trans-Mississippi Department, headquartered in Little Rock, was running low. However, with the arrival of the 10th Texas Infantry Regiment hope was rejuvenated. General Thomas C. Hindman deployed the Texans to DeValls Bluff in support the Confederate Navy’s defense of the White and Arkansas Rivers, which were critically important for the movement of soldiers and supplies. As Union gunboats moved up the White River, three companies were dispatched down river to defend a fort at St. Charles and block the Union advance. Although the Union force captured the fort, it was a pyrrhic victory, and it soon withdrew as the Union gunboat USS Mound City was destroyed by “the deadliest shot of the war” when a single artillery round pierced its steam drum. 105 men were scalded to death and another 25 were seriously injured by the steam. Scales’s letter details the movement of his infantry unit as well as the cat-and-mouse movements of Confederate and Union vessels on the river.
It reads in part:
“When we reached white River we was ordered down . . . to a fort by the name of St. Charles . . . about ninty five miles below. . .. The River is very narrow and crocked. we traviled until about midnight we was caught in a very severe storm we tried to land the boat [and] finily we made her fast until the Storm was over. When the Storm calmed down we uncabled and started and traveled about eight miles down the River . . . and was halted By a gentleman [who] said the gun boats is just below you. The boat that we was on turned in a hurrie we landed up the River about two miles . . . and unloaded our plunder and toated it off in the Brush and hid it. we took our knapsacks and blanket a piece and Started up the River . . . about two miles and camped. the Col. Sent two cavalry down the River to fight the gun Boats until we could get fixed above. however [when] they was going down . . . the gun boats came in and took the fort that we was going to. those cavalry companies . . . and a few citizens would lie in ambush. and the transports would come they would fight them until the gun Boats would come back and whip them off. they fought this way until they got up to were we got off the boats. they . . . enquired for Nelson’s Regt. they told them that was going back to Little Rock, but they knew better. . .. they took one of the gun Boats and two of the transports and put one on each side of gun boat and started the other gun in front, but the Texas boys got to bush whackin it with the gun Boats and they turned back. If they had come up to where this Regt was in ambush we would have taken them shure for we had the prettiest place to fight there in the world. So we are now stationed on white river awaiting the movement of the feds. . ..”. Very good. Item #010109
Interestingly, Scales does not mention the destruction of the Union gunboat USS Mound City. Probably, his unit did not witness the explosion while hidden upriver preparing to ambush the flotilla.
(For more information, see Bearss’ “The White River Expedition June 10-July 15, 1862” in The Arkansas Historical Quarterly (Winter, 1962), “Brigadier-General Allison Nelson” in Confederate Military History vol XV online, and Hamilton’s “Tenth Texas Infantry” at the Texas State Historical Association website.)
A rare first-hand confederate soldier’s account of an important, but often forgotten riverine battle for control of the Arkansas rivers that were crucial to the Confederate defense of that state. At the time of listing, there is nothing similar for sale in the trade. The Rare Book Hub identifies one auction of a Union soldiers diary with a brief entry about the battle. There are no similar institutional holdings per OCLC..