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Skirmish at Bull Bayou

Location:

White County

Campaign:

Expedition from Little Rock to the Little Red River

Date:

August 7, 1864

Principal Commanders:

Brigadier General J. R. West (US); None (CS)

Forces Engaged:

Colonel James Stuart’s Provisional Brigade (US); Unknown (CS)

Estimated Casualties:

None (US); None (CS)

Result:

Union victory

During an expedition to attempt to catch Confederate brigadier general Joseph Shelby in the Little Red River valley, Union forces under Colonel James Stuart engaged in a small skirmish at the bridge on Bull Bayou on August 7, 1864. Defeated, the unidentified Confederate force fled.

Frustrated by the inability of Union troops to catch Confederate brigadier general Joseph Shelby, Union major general Frederick Steele dispatched a third expedition to destroy the Confederate leader on August 6, 1864. Placing Brigadier General Joseph R. West in command of 3,094 men, Steele envisioned a movement toward the Little Red River and possibly beyond until the enemy was defeated. West divided his force into two provisional brigades commanded by Colonel Washington F. Geiger of the Eighth Missouri Cavalry and Colonel James Stuart of the Tenth Illinois Cavalry respectively. Additionally, two sections of artillery from the Fifth Ohio Battery and two mountain howitzers were mixed within these forces.

Beginning on August 6, 1864, West left Huntersville—modern-day North Little Rock (Pulaski County)—sending his provisional brigades on different routes to search for signs of Confederates. Stuart’s force moved northward from Huntersville slowly due to problems with the supply train, a damaged bridge, and patches of swamp between Pulaski and White counties. Dispatching Lieutenant Colonel Elias A. Calkins of the Third Wisconsin Cavalry ahead with an advance guard, the main column under West rendezvoused with Calkins near Stony Point (White County) before pushing onward to Bull Bayou (White County). Going into camp on August 7 at Bull Bayou, West’s men engaged Confederate pickets who were attempting to destroy a bridge near the camp. The larger Union force chased the Confederates away from the bridge before inflicting serious damage. No casualties were reported on either side during the skirmish at Bull Bayou. While at Bull Bayou, Colonel Geiger’s provisional brigade, had marched from DeValls Bluff (Prairie County), arrived.

On August 8, the combined Federal force continued its march to locate Shelby’s command. As the expedition traveled northward, it engaged the Confederates in skirmishes at Hatch’s Ferry on the White River (White and Woodruff counties) on August 9, near Augusta (Woodruff County) on August 10, and near Searcy (White County) on August 13.

West’s report reflects an increasing concern for the weather hampering his ability to move easily across water obstacles and the lack of riverboat support from DeValls Bluff. By August 12, he abandoned the idea of pressing Shelby, who he believed had withdrawn across the White River to Jacksonport (Jackson County) and consolidated his troops, for fear that a river crossing would expose the Federal force. Beginning a retrograde movement, West returned to Bull Bayou by August 15 and arrived in Little Rock (Pulaski County) the next day.

Overall, the failed expedition shows a couple of elements common in Arkansas Civil War movements. First, road condition, rivers, and weather could really determine the success or failure of well-planned movements. Additionally, the force projected by the Federals and the maneuvering of Shelby to avoid direct combat illustrate the ability of the Union army to raid with power, but also demonstrates why Shelby was so difficult to engage and was thus an irritant to Union officers in Arkansas.

For additional information:
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, Vol. 41, Part I, pp. 221–230. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1891.

Derek Allen Clements
Black River Technical College

Last Updated 2/10/2014

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