The 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry at the Battle of Jenkin’s Ferry

Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele

In late March of 1864, Major General Frederick Steel marched two divisions (one of infantry and one of cavalry) of his 7th Corps, Department of Arkansas, south from Little Rock, Arkansas, while Brigadier General John M. Thayer led another infantry division out of Fort Smith. The two columns joined forces in southern Arkansas in early April. Steel’s objective was Shreveport, Louisiana, where he was to support Major General Nathaniel Banks’ Red River Campaign, a combined Army and Navy expedition moving up that river.

Steele marched southwest, crossing the Ouachita River at Arkadelphia and continuing on to Prairie d’Ane, northeast of the town of Washington, fending off Confederate resistance along the way.

Map of Camden Expedition-Red River Area

Steele then turned east and headed for Camden, another Ouachita River town, for the purpose of setting up a base to receive supplies. The Federals reached Camden on April 15th.

Food was running low, so Steele sent out a 198 wagon foraging expedition into the countryside, which found enough food, mostly corn, to fill most of the wagons. But on the trip back to Camden, Confederates attacked and captured the train in a vicious action called the Battle of Poison Spring on April 18th. The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry suffered heavy losses at Poison Springs, including many wounded men who were shot or bayoneted rather than taken prisoner by the Rebels. Steele had also sent a large train of wagons to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to obtain supplies. On the way back to Camden, this train was also attacked and captured at the Battle of Marks’ Mills on April 25th.

With food and animal forage dwindling, Steele decided his command was in no position to make any attempt to reach Banks in Louisiana, and his only choice was to retreat to Little Rock. Banks had been defeated at the Battle of Sabine Crossroads on April 8th, though word of this had not reached Steele. With Banks’ forces retreating down the Red River, more Confederates were sent north to Camden. Steele quietly pulled his command out of Camden on the night of April 26th, marching north to a crossing of the Saline River called Jenkins’ Ferry, reaching that location on the afternoon of the 29th.

Heavy rain had made the retreat miserable, and the river had flooded the surrounding fields, turning everything into mud. Steele’s engineers put a pontoon bridge in place, and with great difficulty due to the mud, wagons and artillery began crossing about 4:00 pm.

Major General Sterling Price’s Confederates weren’t far behind, arriving about 7:30 on the morning of April 30th. Steele’s infantry had not yet crossed the river. Despite the flooding, mud, rain, and poor visibility, the Federals established a strong defensive line manned by the rear guard of two infantry brigades and one section of artillery as the rest of the infantry withdrew across the bridge.

One regiment in this rear guard was the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry. This regiment of African American soldiers was organized in 1863 with Colonel Samuel J. Crawford, formerly of the 2nd Kansas Cavalry, as its commanding officer. The regiment was assigned to General Thayer’s division at Fort Smith, one of two regiments (along with the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry) of Black troops assigned to the 2nd Brigade of that division. The 2nd Kansas Colored was near the pontoon bridge when firing was heard in the rear, where General Samuel A. Rice’s rear guard was engaged with the advancing Rebels. Crawford marched his regiment toward the fighting, and reported to Rice, who ordered the regiment into position on the right of the line, relieving the out of ammunition 50th Indiana Infantry. Crawford’s right reached to a stream called Toxie Creek.

Map of Battle of Jenkin’s Ferry

The 2nd Kansas came under attack from the all Arkansas division of General Thomas Churchill. The two sides slugged it out for some two hours before the Confederates moved a three gun artillery battery into position about 250 yards in front of the 2nd, and began shelling the Federals with canister. Realizing that his position was rapidly becoming untenable, Crawford got permission from Rice to make a charge upon the battery.

Crawford’s men advanced with fixed bayonets, but also fired volleys at the artillerymen and supporting infantrymen. In his memoirs, Crawford recalled this attack:

In passing the battery, the bayonet was freely used, and that seemed to terrorize the Rebel line of infantry, which we would have reached with our bayonets in less than two minutes, had they stood their ground. To say that they ran would not convey a definitive idea of how they left that part of the field. They simply flew, and it was not from a lack of courage, either. It was on account of a guilty conscience. They remembered Poison Springs–and so did we. After the Poison Springs massacre we resolved to take no prisoners. And yet, there lay scores of the Rebel wounded all around us; but we left them as they were, to be cared for by their comrades.

Following the Battle of Poison Springs, Crawford had called a meeting of his officers to “determine as to our future treatment of Rebel prisoners”. It was decided “that in the future the regiment would take no prisoners so long as the Rebels continued to murder our men” and that “no wounded Confederate should be harmed in any way, but left where he fell”.

With the artillerymen dead or scattered, the men of the 2nd Kansas captured the three gun battery and brought the guns back to the Union line. Crawford had his regiment briefly retire from the field to get more ammunition, and then returned to the line. The fighting continued until the Rebels finally pulled back about 2 p.m. The remaining Federals crossed the Saline River, with the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry the last to leave the field. The Federals then pulled up the pontoon bridge and destroyed it to keep it from falling into Confederate hands. The Union troops continued on to Little Rock on the very muddy roads, abandoning supply wagons and equipment that got too stuck to move. The exhausted Federals arrived at Little Rock on May 3rd and a few days later General Thayer’s division returned to Fort Smith. This campaign, known as the Camden Expedition, ended in failure at a cost of 2300 casualties, the loss of 635 wagons, 2500 mules, and nine cannon.

2nd Kansas Colored Infantry Capturing a Battery at the Battle of Jenkin’s Ferry

There was at least one positive element that came out of this debacle. Black troops were still a fairly new element of the Union Army at that time, and there were a still skeptics who questioned their fighting capability or if they would fight at all, this despite such events as the July 1863 assault on Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Crawford would bristle at such suggestions, and had the utmost confidence in his men. In a post war correspondence, Crawford wrote “My regiment, though among the first in action, and having suffered a greater loss than any other, was the last to leave the field. From this time forward until the close of the war, in so far as the Western army was concerned, we heard no more of the question ‘Will they fight?’ The reputation of at least one colored regiment was established, and it stands today, in the estimation of men who served the Western army, as the equal of any other volunteer regiment”.

The 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry lost 17 men killed, 53 wounded, and six missing at the Battle of Jenkin’s Ferry. The regiment had the most killed of the Union regiments engaged, though three other regiments had more wounded and missing and therefore higher total casualties. Later in the war, the regimental designation of the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry was changed to the 83rd United States Colored Troops (USCT).

Colonel Crawford submitted this after action report for the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry (83rd USCT) at the Battle of Jenkin’s Ferry:

CAMP SECOND REGT. KANSAS COLORED INFY. VOLS.,
Fort Smith, Ark., May 20, 1864.

Col. Samuel J. Crawford, 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry

CAPTAIN: I have the honor to report the part taken by my regiment in the battle of Jenkins’ Ferry, April 30, 1864. During the four days preceding said 30th of April my regiment marched from Camden, Ark., to the Saline River, on one-quarter rations, through almost unprecedented mud and rain without tents or transportation. During the night of the 29th, my regiment remained in line of battle 1 mile from the crossing of the Saline River, exposed to a very severe rain-storm. Early on the morning of the 30th, I was directed by Colonel Adams, commanding brigade, to move my regiment forward and halt near the pontoon bridge crossing the river. I executed the order, arriving near the bridge about 8 a.m. Soon after halting I heard scattering reports of small-arms to the rear, which proved to be the enemy advancing and skirmishing with the brigade acting as rear guard under General Rice. The light musketry fire increased rapidly and very soon grew into volleys from the entire brigade, an indication to me that the enemy was advancing in force. Convinced of the fact, I immediately countermarched my regiment for the scene of action. The road over which I had to march was exceedingly muddy, having a deep swamp on either side. Pushing forward, however, as rapidly as possible with my tired and hungry regiment, I soon reached the field and reported with my command to Brigadier-General Rice. On reporting he immediately directed me to throw my regiment in position on the right and relieve the Fiftieth Indiana Infantry, which had been engaged for some time and had expended their ammunition. I at once threw my regiment into line under a very heavy fire of musketry from the enemy, and moved forward to occupy the position assigned me, the Fiftieth Indiana Infantry retiring. Perceiving that the enemy were endeavoring to flank our lines on the right, I detached Capt. Frank Kister with two companies (D and C), directing him to cross a deep slough or ravine on my right, engage the enemy, and check his movements in that direction at all hazards. The order was promptly obeyed by the captain executing the movement under a very heavy fire from the enemy and under circumstances which would try the nerves of older soldiers, effecting the object desired. From the position above indicated I engaged the enemy incessantly for two hours, neither apparently gaining any advantage. I then began to press his lines, when he moved forward a battery of three guns and put in position about 250 yards in advance of my lines and opened fire on my regiment. Seeing this movement and knowing that our lines could not be maintained with the battery in that relative position, I requested permission to charge it. My request being granted, I ordered my regiment to fix bayonets and charge the battery, which order was executed promptly and with a coolness and courage worthy of veterans, the regiment steadily advancing, with continuous and hearty cheering, under a galling fire of musketry and artillery, and keeping up during the charge a steady fire upon the enemy’s lines, principally directed upon the battery, until it was silenced and their lines thrown into confusion, when they precipitately fled from the field, leaving their killed and wounded, together with their artillery and a large quantity of small-arms, in our possession. I continued to advance my lines until I had passed the battery about 150 yards and halted my regiment, detaching a sufficient force to take the battery to the rear, and my men having entirely expended their ammunition, I retired for the purpose of procuring a supply. My purpose accomplished, I was again ordered to the front, and accordingly took position near the center of our lines. From this position I engaged the enemy about an hour, when he retreated, leaving the field in our possession. Having remained on the field about twenty minutes after the enemy had retreated, we were ordered to withdraw and continue our line of march, my regiment acting as rear guard. I was the last to leave the field.

The regiment lost during the engagement 1 officer and 72 men killed and wounded, a list of whom is hereunto appended. Many instances of individual gallantry and daring occurred during the engagement. To particularize or make any distinction between officers is unnecessary; they all did their duty nobly. Capt. Alexander Rush, than whom a truer or braver officer never lived, fell, pierced through the head by a musket-ball while gallantly leading his company into the battle. In him the regiment and army have lost a gallant and faithful officer, and his acquaintances a noble friend. Although it was the first engagement of moment in which the regiment had been engaged, I have not seen, in the many conflicts I have witnessed during this war, troops who displayed a greater degree of coolness, courage, and daring than was displayed by the colored troops under my command during the battle of Jenkins’ Ferry, and although worn out with fatigue and hunger at the close of the engagement, were loath to leave the field. I here accept the opportunity to render justice to two enlisted men attached to my command, viz, Sergt. John P. Mosley and Private George R. Benedict, Thirteenth Kansas Infantry, the former acting as first sergeant Company B, the latter as sergeant-major of my regiment, both of whom were severely wounded near the latter part of the engagement. No need of praise in this respect would sufficiently do justice to their heroic conduct on the field or to their soldierly qualities at all times.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

S. J. CRAWFORD,
Colonel, Comdg. Second Regiment Kansas Colored Infy.

Capt. W. S. WHITTEN,
Assistant Adjutant-General.

Sources:

The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States in the Wars of 1775-1812, 1861-’65 by Joseph T. Wilson

The Civil War on the Border, Volume II by Wiley Britton

Kansas in the Sixties by Samuel J. Crawford

Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau

Official Military History of Kansas Regiments During the War for the Suppression of the Great Rebellion compiled by Josiah B. McAfee

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXXIV, Part 1

One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864 by Gary D. Joiner

Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War by Ludwell H. Johnson

Regimental Losses in the American Civil War 1861-1865 by William Fox

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