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Napoleon Expedition

Location:

Mississippi River between Phillips and Desha counties

Campaign:

None

Date:

May 23–26, 1863

Principal Commanders:

Lieutenant Colonel George W. DeCosta (US); Unknown (CS)

Forces Engaged:

First Indiana Cavalry, Thirty-sixth Iowa Infantry, Second Arkansas Infantry (African Descent) (US); Unknown (CS)

Estimated Casualties:

3 wounded (2 mortally) (US); 15 killed and wounded (CS)

Result:

Union victory

By the summer of 1862, Federal forces under the command of Major General Samuel Curtis occupied the city of Helena (Phillips County). After the activation of the Emancipation Proclamation in early 1863, one of the regiments being formed at Helena was the Second Arkansas Regiment (African Descent). In May 1863, an expedition was sent down the Mississippi River to gather additional recruits for the regiment.

Major General Benjamin Prentiss ordered that the steamboat Pike—escorted by a detachment of the First Indiana Cavalry, Thirty-sixth Iowa Infantry, and twenty-five men of the Second Arkansas Regiment (African Descent) with one howitzer—embark upon a recruitment expedition. The force, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George W. DeCosta of the Second Arkansas, left Helena on May 23.

While traveling south, the expedition stayed near the Arkansas bank of the Mississippi River. Arriving approximately one mile above Napoleon (Desha County), the force turned north and followed the Mississippi River bank on the return trip. During the duration of the trip, a number of raids were conducted inland, some up to seven miles. Upon approaching Island No. 65, the Federals were attacked by an unidentified Confederate force of approximately 150 men and two pieces of artillery. A brisk fight ensued. The Confederates were driven back after one of their cannon was disabled. The Federals incurred three wounded soldiers, two of them being African Americans who later died of their wounds. Confederate casualties were estimated as high as fifteen. This constituted the first combat in Arkansas in which black troops participated.

The expedition, which arrived back in Helena on May 26, was deemed a success. Some seventy-five mules and eight horses had been captured, and “subsistence for the whole force” had been gathered. The officers stated that the African-American soldiers’ actions had been “highly creditable.” It was also reported that the area black population had “hailed with joy the appearance of the colored soldiers.” The main goal of the expedition had resulted in the recruitment of 125 new soldiers for the Second Arkansas.

For additional information:
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 22, Part 1. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1888.

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 2. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1889.

Mike Polston
Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

Last Updated 3/21/2012

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