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Skirmish at Petit Jean

Location:

Yell County

Campaign:

Price’s Missouri Expedition

Date:

July 10, 1864

Principal Commanders:

Captain John W. Gill (US); Captain [first name unknown] Adams (CS)

Forces Engaged:

Company C, Third Arkansas Cavalry Regiment (US); “Captain Adams’ company,” “Conly’s bushwhacking regiment” (CS)

Estimated Casualties:

None (US); 2 deaths, “several” wounded (CS)

Result:

Union victory

On July 10, 1864, Federal forces of the Third Arkansas Cavalry (Union) engaged Confederate forces of an unidentified unit on the Arkansas River near the mouth of the Petit Jean River. The Union commander reported Confederate casualties.

Previously, by the end of 1863, the western half of the Arkansas River in the state was under Union control following the Confederacy’s loss of Fort Smith (Sebastian County) and Little Rock (Pulaski County). Major General Frederick Steele established Federal garrisons at various points along the north side of the river. Steele also authorized raising local Union regiments, and one of these was the Third Arkansas Cavalry, which served for extended periods at the river port of Lewisburg (Conway County), near the present town of Morrilton (Conway County). From Lewisburg, regimental commander Colonel Abraham H. Ryan sent out patrols to conduct reconnaissance operations north and south of the river, to secure river traffic, and to protect a newly constructed telegraph line along the military road connecting Fort Smith and Little Rock.

Steele launched his ill-fated Camden Expedition in early 1864, and the success of Confederate forces against him gave Confederate leaders some hope of improving their lot in western Arkansas. May 1864 found Confederates on the offensive, planning to follow up on their Arkansas successes with a raid on Missouri by Major General Sterling Price. By the end of May, Confederate cavalry commander Brigadier General J. O. Shelby reported that his forces had driven the Federals from their posts along the Arkansas River above Little Rock, save for Fort Smith, but including Lewisburg.

The Third Arkansas Cavalry regiment spent the rest of May trying to catch Shelby and eventually settled down again in Lewisburg. As Shelby’s cavalry and the rest of Price’s Confederate army prepared for the Missouri raid, operations around Lewisburg consisted mainly of scouting expeditions north and south of the Arkansas River to locate and neutralize resurgent Confederate efforts. A number of small engagements occurred north and south of the Arkansas River during the summer of 1864, and in mid-July Colonel Ryan submitted this report to the assistant adjutant general:

LEWISBURG, July [14], 1864.

CAPTAIN: Lieutenant Williams in from scout to Norristown. All quiet on this side of the river. Great complaints made against Ninth Kansas Cavalry; they robbed men and women, friend and foe, indiscriminately. Captain Gill had a fight on Sunday with Captain Adams’ company on river above Petit Jean, killing two and wounding several of the enemy. He is now after a force reported eight miles back of Dardanelle. Captain Adams’ wife is now in Little Rock arranging to sell and get away cotton. She [has] sold and shipped seven bales already.

The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies contain no corresponding entry by the Confederate commander, so the identities and unit of the two killed and several wounded Confederate soldiers and their commander cannot be ascertained. However, the Union commander involved, Captain John W. Gill of Company C, survived the war to become a businessman in Lewisburg and, later, Morrilton.

The precise location of the skirmish is also uncertain. Since another report by Colonel Ryan that month documented failed Confederate attempts at raising a flatboat below Dardanelle (Yell County), it is likely that local Confederates had no means of waterborne transport. Thus, “on river” meant on the banks along the Arkansas River upstream of the confluence of the Arkansas and Petit Jean, perhaps in the area of Carden Bottoms in Yell County. Ryan’s report of the previous day noted that Gill’s scouting party had been operating in Perry and Yell counties, both south of the Arkansas River.

For additional information:
Lause, Mark A. Price’s Lost Campaign: The 1864 Invasion of Missouri. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011.

Steed, Paul P., Jr. Arkansas Fed: James Scott Nunnally, Jr., and the Third Arkansas Cavalry (U.S.A.). N.p.: Fort Tour Systems, Inc., 1991. Online at http://www.forttours.com/pages/redriver01.asp (accessed February 28, 2011).

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 41, Part 1, pp. 11–14. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1880.

Donald Higgins
Petit Jean Mountain, Arkansas

Last Updated 1/2/2013

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