Chalk Bluff Battlefield, Part 1

Time to step away from this Gettysburg stuff for a bit and file a few trip reports from vacation.  Let me start with Chalk Bluff, a small battlefield that straddles the St. Francis River on the Arkansas-Missouri state line.  The site witnessed much activity during the war, being an important river crossing site.  For you “Easterners” this spot was perhaps the “Kelly’s Ford” of the Trans-Mississippi theater, and was used by regular and irregular alike.

A bit of geographic and geologic background explains the activity somewhat.  The major geologic feature in the area is a long, narrow line of hills collectively known as Crowley’s Ridge.  This Ridge extends from around Cape Girardeau, Missouri in a wide arc to the south all the way to Helena, Arkansas, easily 150 miles long.  The 200 to 300 foot elevation contrasts sharply with the surrounding delta bottom land – which at the time of the war was a practically impenetrable swamp, although today, with the swamp drained, is farmland.  At first glance on the topographical map, this ridge appears to be a large spur from the Ozark Mountains to the north.  Geologists have debated the origin for some time, but one fact is clear, since the ridge is made of loess deposits, not limestone, the formation is not directly related to the Ozarks.   (Now days the loess mixture of sand and gravel is processed into cat litter, of all things!)  The St. Francis river cuts through the Ridge just west of modern day Campbell, Missouri, north of the aptly name town of St. Francis, Arkansas.  Over the centuries, the river has exposed the white loess from which the name “Chalk Bluff” is derived.  The St. Francis River is contained through the cut, but still has wide river bottom.  The channel is noticeably narrowed, and deeper as it passes down the ridge.

View of Crowley's Ridge From South of the Battlefield

Early settlers were attracted to the ridge as it offered pasture lands well above the adjacent swamps.  The loess made good pasture land.   During the “frontier” days, the army cut what was known as the “military road” down the ridge line.  Typical of settlement patterns elsewhere, communities sprang up along the ridge also.  Sort of hard to determine which came first, the road or the communities, but regardless the ridge was “settled” well before the Civil War.  And one of those communities was at Chalk Bluff.  A ferry operated at Chalk Bluff, supporting this route from the Mississippi River into Northeast Arkansas.  To the southwest was Piggot, Arkansas.  And to the northeast was the town of Four Mile, standing four miles on the Missouri side of the river.  (Insert your Mark Twainism here if you would…)

St. Francis River at Chalk Bluff

Southeast Missouri sat between two rather active theaters of war in 1863.  To the east, Gen. U.S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign used the Mississippi River as a base line of operations.  To the west Federal forces in Southwest Missouri were preparing for a campaign aimed at Little Rock, Arkansas.  Any Confederate force loose in Southeast Missouri would disrupt these important campaigns, somewhat like a mirror image of the damage done by General N.B. Forrest in west Tennessee.

That said, the local Federal commander, General John McNeil, launched a raid in March 1863, reaching as far as Piggot, Arkansas, to disperse Confederate forces.  The 2nd Missouri State Militia Cavalry (not to be confused with Merrill’s 2nd Missouri Cavalry) constituted the large part of the Federal force.  The raid included a three hour fight at Chalk Bluff on March 10.  Later on March 24, both sides clashed at the town again as the Federals made their withdrawal north.

McNeil’s gains were small and short lived.  Within weeks a large cavalry force under Brig. Gen. John S. Marmaduke assembled in Northeast Arkansas.  Marmaduke’s goal was indeed to disrupt the Federal operations.  He crossed the St. Francis at Chalk Bluff, capturing a Federal detachment there on April 18.  Marmaduke focused his wide ranging forces on Cape Girardeau, a major Federal supply base.  After a repulsed attack on April 26, Marmaduke fell back across Crowley’s Ridge toward Chalk Bluff.

Marmaduke had sturred up a hornet’s nest.  Several Federal columns began converging on his force.  Worse yet, his retreat was blocked by a rain swollen St. Francis River.  What Marmaduke needed was a little time… and a bridge.  For a bridge, he tapped Brig. Gen. M. Jeff Thompson to construct a bridge, sending him and a work detail in advance of the main body.  To gain time, Marmaduke ordered a set of defensive lines thrown across the Military Road.

Thompson’s bridge was truly a improvisational engineering masterpiece.  Using logs, ropes, vines, and what ever else they could find, Thompson’s crew built a foot bridge.  A pontoon supported the center section.  For artillery and wagons, they built a raft.

On the morning of May 1, a Federal advanced guard from McNeil’s command encountered Marmaduke’s forward line at the town of Four Mile along the Military Road.  The 1st Iowa Cavalry (Maj. Joseph Caldwell) ran into Col. George Carter’s Texas Cavalry Brigade.  Both sides developed the battle, and 3rd Missouri Cavalry (Union), under Lt. Col. Robert Carrick was fed into the fight.  Both sides had single batteries of artillery deployed and the skirmish soon became a full fledged engagement.  Around 10 a.m. Marmaduke ordered Carter to pull back toward Chalk Bluff as more Federals arrived.

Carter assumed a new position near the town of Gravel Hill, about a mile down the road from Four Mile, where Col. Colton Greene’s  and Col. Joe Shelby’s (commanded by Col. G.W. Thompson) Missouri (CS) Cavalry Brigades had constructed a line of breastworks.  Pursuing Carter’s Texans, the 1st Iowa and 3rd Missouri (US), joined by the 3rd Iowa ran directly into this line and were handily repulsed.  For the next two to three hours, both sides sparred, with the superior numbers on the Federal side blunted by the restricted battle-space.  (I’m oversimplifying the fight somewhat, as all told probably 6,000 men were involved at this time.)

Around 3 p.m. Marmaduke again ordered his line back, again to another position a mile before Chalk Bluff, which was prepared by Col. John Burbridge’s Cavalry Brigade.  By 5 p.m. the fighting along this line developed into a full fledged battle.  Eight to ten pieces of artillery on each side were engaged.  And when reports of participating regiments are matched, the number of men engaged probably reached over 8,000.  Still the terrain prevented the Federals from using their superior numbers to outflank the Confederates.  And the Confederates were able to use ravines on either side of the road to pester McNeil’s flanks.  The battle continued, with neither side gaining advantage, until nightfall.

During the night, Marmaduke finally extracted his command across Thompson’s Bridge.  Artillery pieces were actually dismounted from carriages, as the combined weight would overload the rafts.  That Thompson was able to perform this operation in such a remote location, under threat of the enemy, is noteworthy.  By morning, all save a Confederate rear guard had passed into Arkansas.  Lt. Col. William Baumer’s 1st Nebraska Cavalry pressed the Confederates back to the bridge.  When the last Confederates had crossed, the makeshift bridge was untied to drift downriver.  Now with a swollen river between him and the enemy, Marmaduke made his escape.

This effectively ended Marmaduke’s raid and the threat to the Federal supply lines supporting Grant.  Casualties figures are somewhat misleading (if not speculative).  Marmaduke reports a total of 15 killed and 85 wounded for the entire raid.  Of which only four total casualties were lost at Chalk Bluff.  On the opposite side estimates 23 killed and 45 wounded for the Federals are often cited.  But there are no definitive numbers.  Marmaduke claimed over 4,000 men in his command at the battle.  McNeil’s numbered 9,000 counting artillery batteries.  Just seems either the casualty numbers are low, or less fighting occurred than claimed in the official returns.

In part two of this discussion, I’ll put the battle in context with the other operations in theater and the scope of the war overall.  And I’ll offer up some photos and a suggested tour route should any readers wish to stomp out on the grounds.


Sources Consulted:

United States War Department. War of the Rebellion: A compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.  Series I, Volume 22, (Serial 32), pages 251-305.

Jerry Ponder.  The Battle of Chalk Bluff:  An Account of General John S. Marmaduke’s Second Missouri Raid.  Doniphan, Missouri:  Ponder Books, 1994.

Robert Sidney Douglas.  A History of Southeast Missouri.  Volume I.  New York:  The Lewis Publishing Company, 1912.

Stephen B. Oates.  Confederate Cavalry West of the River.  Austin:  University of Texas Press, 1961.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

8 thoughts on “Chalk Bluff Battlefield, Part 1

  1. OUTSTANDING post Craig. It reminds me of the little-known Standard’s Mill area here near the Ni River (or is it the Po?). Either way, great investigative reporting and sources.

    1. Thanks Michael.

      I debated including the background information about the battle at first. But as very little on this fight is on the web, I opted to discuss it in more detail. I’ve got to clean up the second half of the trip report tonight and post it. That should make the minutia discussion about the soil more relevant.

  2. I am trying to find out where my great grandfather died and it might have been at Chalk Bluff. He was with the First Wisconsin. Name is James Foley. Is there a record of who was killed or captured at this battle?

    1. Yes 1st WI took at minimum 25% casualties the first afternoon of the three day fight. The union camp also stayed for a minimum of three days. Herron was not going to show up with a train of wounded back at Cape Girardeau. And a report of major repulse in the era immediately before the wins of Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Look at Herron’s division at Vicksburg – those are all the survivors of chalkbuff.

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