James W Erwin


Thomas Nast, "A Negro Regiment in Action." (Library of Congress)

                                          “Will They Fight? Ask the Enemy!”: The Battle of Wallace’s Ferry

   In May 1864, General Napoleon B. Buford complained that his forces at Helena, Arkansas were stretched too thin. The only troops he considered reliable were seven companies of Illinois cavalry. A battalion of Missouri soldiers were poorly led and of little use. Four companies of Tennessee cavalry didn’t even have horses, and were “raw” and “undisciplined.” The black soldiers were untested.
   Buford was convinced that “the entire people of this place and the adjoining counties” were hostile. The Confederates had 1,200 cavalry in the area who, if they did not attack Helena,

will raid upon the leased plantations, where there are large stores of provisions, 500 mules, and 3,000 negroes. I have had two forts, each with a strong block-house, built to protect them. . . . [The black troops] have inexperienced and incompetent officers. If attacked by infuriated free-negro haters what are they to expect? If I withdraw them, what will become of the leased plantations for the protection of which they were sent here?[1] 

   The “leased plantations” Buford worried about were one of the local consequences of the Second Confiscation Act passed by Congress in1862. The statute not only freed rebels’ slaves who managed to get to Union lines, it also authorized the seizure of real and personal property of any person in the Confederate military or who provided aid to the rebellion. Subsequent legislation authorized the leasing of plantations in seceded states deemed to have been abandoned owned by these Confederates. In addition to beginning the recruitment of black soldiers along the Mississippi River, General Lorenzo Thomas implemented this program in the Mississippi River valley by leasing properties to both Northern businessmen and freed slaves themselves.[2]
   Union authorities confiscated 8,000 acres in the Helena area, three-quarters of it owned by one man, the colorful and controversial General Gideon J. Pillow. Northern lessees paid able-bodied African American men $7.00 per month, women $5.00 per month, and children aged 12-15 half of the adult rate. Freedmen lessees paid no rent, but were taxed $2.00 per 400-pound bale of cotton and 5 cents per bushel of corn. Over thirty freedmen leased plantations under this system, making an average profit of $50.00 per acre. Some of them saved enough money to buy the land. The government’s motivation was not only to provide employment or ownership to former slaves, but also to use private enterprise to get thousands of them to move out of places like disease-ridden Helena.[3]
   Despite Buford’s personnel problems, Helena itself was protected by substantial fortifications which had proved their worth in 1863 when a different and larger Union force had repelled an attack on the town. Therefore, Confederate General Joseph O. (“Jo”) Shelby decided to send a regiment of Arkansas Cavalry and a battalion of Missouri horsemen under Colonel Archibald Dobbins (about 1,200 men) to “ravage the Government plantations . . . with fire and sword.”[4]
   In the meantime, Buford received reinforcements, but they were of little use. The 47th Iowa Infantry was a 100-day regiment with hardly any training, composed mostly of teens 16 to 18 years old. Many of them were suffering from the usual illnesses that plagued newly recruited regiments in the Civil War – measles, dysentery, and smallpox. The 6th Minnesota Infantry was a veteran of the Indian Wars in that state, but it was laid low by disease as well, with nearly 75% of its strength affected. Buford was going to have to rely on the African American troops regardless of his doubts.[5]
   Buford considered building earthworks, a fort and a bridge on Big Creek, about twenty miles southwest of Helena to provide protection for the leased plantations in that area. To further that purpose, Buford decided to conduct what today would be called a “reconnaissance in force” “to ascertain the force and design of the enemy” and to have his men “explore the creek as far as practicable to see a fit place for the establishing a fort and a brigade [bridge?].”[6]
   Major Eagleton Carmichael was to take 140 men of the 15th Illinois Cavalry downriver on steamboats to a place called Gillen’s or Old Town. From there Carmichael was to march west, cross Big Creek, and swing back north. In the meantime, Colonel William S. Brooks was to take six companies of his 56th United States Colored Infantry (about 360 men), two companies of the 60th United States Colored Infantry (80 men), and a two-gun section of Battery E, 2d United States Colored Artillery (Light)(40 men) on the Little Rock Road to advance directly to Big Creek overland.
   Brooks’ men took the standard 40 rounds in their cartridge boxes, and an additional 7,000 rounds in their baggage wagons. They had five days of rations and forage for the horses, and spades, shovels and axes to clear away brush and cut the banks of the creeks they encountered. Regimental Surgeon John C. Stoddard and an ambulance accompanied the march. After linking up with Major Carmichael, Brooks and his men were authorized to proceed as far as Trenton, a village southwest of Helena. Because it was to be their first foray into the countryside unaccompanied by white troops, Buford told Brooks to leave at night and “go slow and in the night judiciously.”
   Brooks got underway at 4:30 p.m. on July 25, 1864. After a rest and meal halt at 9:00 p.m., the column arrived at a point three quarters of a mile east of Wallace’s Ferry on Big Creek at 3:00 a.m. on the 26th. Brooks led a party across the creek at daylight, but there was no enemy to be found. They had been there the day before but according to the locals had ridden north in the direction of Cotton Plant. Brooks returned, set out pickets, and ordered the rest of the men forward to the ferry crossing. There the men began to prepare their breakfast and to feed and water the horses. Captain Jonas F. Lembke and Lieutenant Harmon T. Chappel from Battery E positioned their guns about two hundred yards from the creek, Chappel put a rifled cannon on the left flank and Lembke a howitzer on the right. Fifteen infantrymen from the 60th USCI under Captain Henry Brown and 25 men under Captain Alden Patten from the 56th USCI joined Chappel to provide support.[7]
   The information Brooks received was only partially correct. Dobbins had been in the area very recently. He stopped at nearby Holly Grove Plantation. Mary Sale Edmondson wrote in her diary that, upon returning from church on the 24th, her brother – a member of Dobbins’ regiment showed up at the house with friends and fellow soldiers. She “fixed up a basket of victuals – ham, corn and potatoes – for him and Col. Dobbins . . . and they all departed.” But rather than ride to Cotton Plant, fifty miles north, Dobbins led his men to Trenton, where he united his 1,000 men with Colonel Frank Gordon’s 200 Missourians on the 25th. From there, they crossed to the east side of Big Creek.[8]
   Dobbins discovered the Federals eating their breakfast, all but Lieutenant Chappel unaware that an overwhelming force lurked nearby. Dobbins dismounted his troopers and, under cover of thick timber, got to within 150 yards of Chappel’s gun. The rebels rushed out of the woods with a yell. Chappel, however, alertly opened fire with canister. Chappel’s black cannoneers worked rapidly and held the rebels off for about a half an hour. After Dobbins’ men fell back into the woods, they began to work their way around to the right of the Union position. From behind a low berm that bridged the low ground the Confederate cavalrymen fired into the Union infantry’s flank, forcing them back. Without infantry support, Chappel had to withdraw his gun to Brooks’ main line near Wallace’s Ferry.
   Brooks formed his men in a semicircle around the ferry landing on a low hill, with rebels on three sides and the creek at their back. The Confederates had them trapped with no escape route.  Chappel reported to Captain Lembke for instructions but before Lembke could utter a word a minié ball struck him in the temple, killing him instantly.[9] Chappel ordered Quartermaster Sergeant Joseph Graham to take command of the rifled cannon on the left while he assisted the men with the smoothbore on the right.[10] The 56th’s command group came under intense rifle fire. First Colonel Brooks was shot off his horse, a ball through his left side and out the right, his stomach and lungs pierced. Lieutenant Samuel J. Clark, the 56th’s adjutant, rushed to Brooks’ side. Clark sent for Dr. Stoddard. As Stoddard knelt to examine Brooks’ wound, he was shot in the chest, staggered back a few steps, and died.[11] The column was left in the command of Lieutenant Colonel Moses Reed. At one point, the rebels captured one of the artillery caissons. Chaplain Joseph Brooks, Sr. – Colonel Brooks’ brother – led a squad of men recaptured the caisson and its horses.[12]
   By 10:00 a.m., the two sides had exchanged a “severe and continuous fire” for four hours, in some places not more than fifty yards apart. The Union forces were on the verge of exhaustion facing an enemy three times its strength. Then, from the south Carmichael’s 15th Illinois Cavalry burst through the Confederate lines. The Union troopers had crossed to the west side of Big Creek on the road to Trenton. They came across the remains of Dobbins’ camp. Carmichael realized from what he saw that the rebels were significantly stronger than Brooks’ force. The cavalrymen heard cannon fire coming from the north. As they approached within a mile and a half of Wallace’s Ferry, musketry from the firefight increased the urgency of their march. Carmichael led his men back across Big Creek to the east side. The Illinois troopers cut through the left of Dobbins’ regiment and took up the firefight against the rebels.
   Carmichael and Reed conferred about the best course of action. They decided to fight their way back to Helena. Captain William D. Hutchens led a cavalry charge that cleared the road. The Federals conducted a fighting retreat. Hutchens occupied several delaying positions that allowed the slower moving infantry to get away. Dobbins’ men circled around the Federals and established a blocking position about eleven miles from Helena while other rebels pressed the retreating column from the rear. Reed said his men “immediately engaged them in front, driving them handsomely for two miles, when they withdrew and did not again molest us.”[13]
   After the bloodied detachment returned to Helena, it was time to tote up the casualties. The 56th lost two officers killed on the battlefield – Colonel Brooks and Surgeon Stoddard – and one wounded, Lieutenant Addison B. Crane, who died two months later from gangrene. Captain George W. Holibaugh was slightly wounded. The regiment lost 11 enlisted men killed on the battlefield, 24 men wounded, and three men missing. (The latter were undoubtedly killed by Dobbins’ men.) The 60th lost one officer and three men killed, and 10 men wounded. The 2d Colored Artillery lost one officer and one man killed, three men wounded and one man missing (also likely killed). Carmichael reported that the 15th Illinois Cavalry one man wounded and one man (a scout lent to Colonel Brooks) missing. The scout later made his way to DeValls Bluff, where he reported that the rebels killed all the wounded black soldiers they found on the field. The total number of Union casualties was 64.[14]
   The battle took a toll on the senior enlisted men of the 56th Infantry as well as it officers. At least two Orderly Sergeants (or First Sergeants – the highest-ranking enlisted man in an infantry company) were casualties. James Baldwin, Company G, was shot in the neck, with ball traveling through his body to become lodged behind his shoulder blade. Doctors successfully removed the ball and, after two months recovering in the hospital, Baldwin returned to his company. John Yaw, a twenty-three-year-old from Jefferson City, was killed. Someone – probably his company commander, Captain Holibaugh – wrote on the company muster roll: “Braver man never lived he was ordly Sergt of Co F for eleven months discharged his duties well with honor to hisself and all company.”
   Lieutenant Colonel Reed’s report of the battle not only mentioned the officers who were killed or wounded or who distinguished themselves – this was typical – but also singled out wagon master Henry Jackson of Company F “for bravery displayed upon the battlefield.” Reed did not elaborate on what Jackson did, but the fact that he was mentioned at all was extraordinary for any enlisted man, let alone a black soldier. Jackson suffered a gunshot wound to “muscles of the right hip” which plagued him for months (and perhaps the rest of his life). He was mustered out in May 1865 because he was no longer able to perform his duties.[15]
   Dobbins did not file a report. Our only Confederate perspective of the battle comes from the bombastic, sarcastic, and frequently inaccurate pen of John Edwards in Shelby and His Men. Edwards suggests that the firefight was a brief one – not a battle where the Rebel cavalrymen were held off by black troops for four hours. He claims that the Federals twice tried to make a break for Helena, “but were rallied by the heroic exhortations and examples of their officers [who were, of course, all white], who insisted that every one would be killed unless they fought to the death – a fact that no one among the Confederates doubted for a moment.” The men of the colored infantry and artillery probably agreed on that point, given what had happened at Poison Springs and Fort Pillow three months before.
   Edwards credited the Federal artillery with giving Dobbins’ men “much trouble,” but erroneously said the guns were “well served by whites.” He claimed that the Federal force was 1,400 strong, more than three times its actual size. Whether Edwards received incorrect information from Dobbins’ men, whether the fight was so ferocious that the Confederates believed the black troops must have equaled or outnumbered their own, or whether he inflated the number because it would not do to concede that 400 black soldiers could fight 1,200 white soldiers to a standstill for the better part of a morning can’t be known. Edwards claimed that the Union troops lost well over a hundred men killed and wounded. (A letter from General Sterling Price’s assistant adjutant, who was not present at the battle, gave a more accurate estimate of 70 casualties on the Union side.) Finally, Edwards mistook Captain Lembke for Colonel Brooks when he wrote that the “negroes [] were commanded by a Swedish or Norwegian officer, who spoke but little English, but, perhaps, splendid African.”[16] Although Union officers estimated Dobbins’ loss at 150 men, plus a handful of men captured by Carmichael’s cavalry, his actual loss was probably about 30 men killed, wounded and missing.[17]
   Despite the Colored Infantry’s stand at Wallace’s Ferry, Dobbins was only delayed, not deterred, from wiping out the leased plantations as “clean and clear as a saber cut.” At one plantation, his men burned “cotton, houses, plows, harrows, dry goods, negro quarters, storehouses, and everything that eye could rest upon bearing any impress of the United States Government.” A second plantation quickly suffered the same treatment. At a third plantation, the Confederates found fifteen black soldiers hiding in a hospital. Edwards says the negroes were returned to their masters. Perhaps so, but General Buford later reported that some black soldiers detailed to guard the plantations were found murdered.[18]
   By the end of July 1864, the fortunes of Union forces everywhere were suffering. A division of black troops was slaughtered at the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg; Sherman’s frontal attack at Kennesaw Mountain was repulsed with disastrous results; Nathaniel Banks’ Red River expedition was a failure; Confederate General Jubal Early swept Union troops from the Shenandoah Valley, threatened Washington, and burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania; more than 150 African American soldiers were killed at Fort Pillow – many after being wounded or while trying to surrender – and in Arkansas itself, Frederick Steele’s Camden Expedition met defeat and disaster at Poison Springs. The staunch conduct of the 56th USCI at Wallace’s Ferry was a small bit of welcome news. Newspapers in Midwest and East cheered it as a much-desired example of the ability of former slaves to stand up successfully in combat to white Confederates.[19]
   Both Carmichael and Chappel commended the black soldiers. Carmichael wrote in his report that “The officers and men of the Fifteenth all unite in awarding the highest praise to the officers and men of the colored troops for their stubborn bravery in every action of the day.” Chappel said that “the colored men stood up to their duty like veterans, and it was owing to their strong arms and cool heads, backed by fearless daring, alone that I was able to get away with either of my guns. . . . Never did men, under such circumstances, show greater pluck or daring.”[20]
   General Buford joined in the compliments, issuing a General Order celebrating the action. Although he mourned the loss of the officers and men who fell at Big Creek, Buford noted that “we rejoice in the glory acquired on this well disputed field by our colored troops. Will they fight? Ask the enemy.”[21] 


[1] The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies [hereafter cited as OR], ser. I, vol. 34, pt.3, 481-482.

[2] United States Statutes at Large, vol. 12, 589-592 (July 17, 1862); ibid., vol. 12, 820-821 (March 3, 1863); ibid., vol. 13, 375-378 (July 2, 1864); William A. Dobak, Freedom by the Sword: The U. S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. 2013), 170.

[3] Dobak, 169-170; http://civilwarhelena.com/history/abandoned-lands/ (accessed February 8, 2018). Gideon J. Pillow was a wealthy Tennessee planter and lawyer, owned five plantations in Phillips County (near Helena) totaling 6,788 acres and more than 300 slaves. During the Mexican War he served as Winfield Scott’s second in command. He tried to take credit for two American victories in the campaign through an anonymous letter to the newspapers. Scott instituted court-martial proceedings against Pillow that were ultimately dropped when he got President Polk to intercede on his behalf. Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr. and Roy P. Stonesifer, Jr., The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, pap. ed. 2011), 116, 142.

  Pillow is best known for slinking out of Fort Donelson by night to leave a junior general to surrender the post to Ulysses Grant. According to a Grant biographer, he did so because, as a Confederate officer told Grant, Pillow rather pretentiously considered himself one of the most wanted men in the Confederacy, to which Grant replied: “Oh, if I had got him I’d let him go again. He will do us more good commanding you fellows.” Edward G. Longacre, General Ulysses S. Grant: The Soldier and the Man (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006), 117. Fort Pillow, the site of the controversial action and massacre of black troops. was named after Gideon Pillow and retained its name even after the Union army occupied it.  

[4] OR, ser. I, vol. 41, pt. 2, 1027. Archibald Dobbins was nearly as colorful and controversial as Pillow. Like Pillow, he owned substantial property in Phillips County before the war. He got caught up in a feud between his commander, General Lucius Walker, and Missouri General John S. Marmaduke. Walker challenged Marmaduke to a duel and was killed. Dobbins refused to serve under Marmaduke, was court-martialed and dismissed from the service. President Davis remitted his sentence, and Dobbins returned to his command under Missourian Jo Shelby. Dobbins mysteriously disappeared in 1869. There were two explanations, neither ever proven: he was murdered by his employees or he fled to South America. Archibald Dobbins, http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=6965 (accessed February 8, 2018); Lucius Walker, http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=8521 (accessed February 8, 2018).

[5] OR, ser. I, vol. 34, pt. 4, 517; ser. I, vol. 41, pt.2, 501.

[6] OR, ser. I, vol. 34, pt. 4, 580; OR, ser. I, vol. 41, pt. 1, 16; OR, ser. I, vol. 41, pt. 2, 384.

[7] OR, ser. I, vol. 41, pt. 19-23. There are discrepencies as to the number of men in Brooks’ column. Buford directed him to take six companies of 60 men, or 360, from his own regiment plus the men from the 60th USCI – a total of 440 – and the 2d US Colored Artillery. Lieutenant Colonel Moses Reed’s report of the battle says the colored infantry totaled 315 men (implying there were only 235 from the 56th USCI). In one post-battle report Buford counted 368 total infantrymen with Brooks (thus, 288 from the 56th USCI), and in another he said it was 360 men (or 280 from the 56th USCI). Any of these numbers could be correct because companies were almost never at full strength of 100 men. Note that Chappel took his gun forward of Brooks’ main line. It was not unusual for artillery to be positioned on or ahead of an infantry line of battle during the Civil War.

[8] http://civilwarhelena.com/history/battle-of-big-creek/(accessed February 8, 2018); John N. Edwards, Shelby and His Men: The War in the West (Cincinnati: Miami Printing and Publishing Co., 1867), 343.

[9] Captain Jonas F. Lembke was born in Ystad, Sweden (the setting for the popular Wallander mystery novels) in 1838. He emigrated to Chicago, Illinois, where he married Maria Ekstrom in 1861. Lembke first served in the 1st Illinois Artillery and fought at Belmont, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Chickasaw Bayou, Arkansas Post, and Vicksburg. He became commander of the 3d Battery, Louisiana Artillery, African Descent, later designated Battery E, 2d United States Colored Artillery (Light). Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Belonging to the Artillery Units Organized for Service with the United States Colored Troops (USCT) [hereafter cited as CMSR], National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 94, M1818, roll 288, available at Fold3.com.

[10] Graham was apparently white. His service record says he previously served in an Illinois infantry regiment. He refused to be formally mustered into the 2d US Colored Artillery as its quartermaster sergeant and was discharged when he was found unfit to serve as an artillery officer. CMSR Colored Artillery, roll 285.

[11]  The deaths of Brooks and Stoddard are described in Brian K. Robertson, “‘Will They Fight? Ask the Enemy’: United States Colored Troops at Big Creek, Arkansas, July 26, 1864,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 66, no. 3 (autumn 2007), 320, available at http://questia.com/. 

[12] The 56th was something of a family affair. Chaplain Brooks’ son, Joseph Brooks, Jr. was a second lieutenant in Company A. He was on leave in July 1864 and missed the battle. CMSR, 56th USCI, roll 4.

[13] The description of the Battle of Wallace’s Ferry from the Union perspective is based upon the reports of Lieutenant Colonel Moses Reed (56th USCI), Major Eagleton Carmichael (15th Illinois Cavalry), and Lieutenant Harmon T. Chappel (2d US Colored Artillery) in OR, ser. I, vol. 41, pt. 1, 19-23. The exact location of the Wallace’s Ferry battlefield isn’t known, but archaeologists believe they may have recently discovered the site. http://arkansastoothpick.com/2016/07/archeology-battle-big-creek-wallaces-ferry-update/ (accessed January 28, 2018).

[14] OR, ser. I, vol. 41, pt. 1, 20; vol. 41, pt. 2, 621. The officer from the 60th USCI was Lieutenant Theodore Pratt, the regimental adjutant.

[15] Jackson was listed in his military records as free on or before April 19, 1861. After the war, Willie Hays of Saline County, Missouri claimed that he bought Jackson from Charles Bondurant on May 1, 1863, just before Jackson enlisted, and sought compensation under the statute of February 24, 1864. (See the prior article for a discussion of this statute.) Henry Jackson, CMSR, roll 18. Hays’ application was notarized by – Charles Bondurant – and claimed he paid Bondurant $300, exactly the amount of compensation allowed by the statute. It seems possible that this was a fraud, particularly if Bondurant could not sign an affidavit attesting to his loyalty which was a prerequisite for payment. As noted in the prior article, Congress suspended payments under the program and never funded it.

   Lieutenant Colonel Reed also praised Sergeant William Ward of Chappel’s command in his report for the “gallant manner in which [he] served [his] piece [] in keeping the enemy at bay. OR, ser. I, vol. 41, pt. 1, 20.

[16] Edwards, 343-344; OR, ser. I, vol. 41, pt. 2, 1036.

[17] OR, ser. I, vol. 41, pt. 2, 1036.

[18] Shelby, 344-347; OR, ser. I, vol. 41, pt. 1, 190.

[19] Chicago Tribune, July 30, 1864; Pittsburgh Daily Commercial, August 2, 1864; Philadelphia Inquirer, August 4, 1864; and New York Times, August 7, 1864. The Tribune noted: “No prisoners were taken. The colored troops keep only one list – dead. They remember Fort Pillow, even if the Government does not.”

[20] OR, ser. I, vol. 41, pt. 1, 22-23.

[21] OR, ser. I, vol. 41, pt. 1, 18-19.