Chalk Bluff Battlefield, Part 2

The last post looked at the Battle of Chalk Bluff in the context of Marmaduke’s Cape Girardeau Raid with the emphasis on the tactical level.  In terms of numbers involved, 13,000 by some counts, the battle was among the largest fought in Missouri.  However, as noted at the closing of yesterday’s post, likely many of those troops were never directly engaged as the casualty numbers seem rather low.  The restricted battle-space likely had much to do with this.

Moving up from the tactical level, looking at both the raid and the battle from an operational perspective, one could see the action as a side operation associated with the larger Vicksburg Campaign.  Events in that campaign matching the Marmaduke Raid’s time line include Admiral Porter’s running of the Vicksburg defenses, General McClernand’s Corps crossing the Mississippi, and, on May 1, the battle of Port Gibson.  Clearly the operations of Marmaduke did not slow Grant’s advance into Mississippi.

However, the reaction in Missouri to Marmaduke did cause enough concern to slow the transfer of troops to Tennessee.  Major General Samuel Curtis, commanding the Department of Missouri,  saw the Confederate raid as a serious threat, and delayed previously scheduled troop transfers.  Brigades which had been directed to take part in the Vicksburg operations, Rosecrans’ central Tennessee campaign, and to Southwest Missouri were detailed instead to contain Marmaduke.  This created a gap between the requirements for and the presence of the troops, not realized until the later half of the summer.  While I could not argue that Grant’s capture of Vicksburg was delayed significantly, I might make the case that the Army of the Cumberland was deprived of additional forces needed in the advance on Chattanooga. Curtis and General Halleck at Army Headquarters conversed by dispatches throughout the campaign with regard to troops destined to reinforce Rosecrans.  Curtis stressed the danger of the situation, even as late as May 4.   Curtis’ tone did not endear him to his superiors.   Curtis, who’d had a falling out with the Missouri governor, was later reassigned.

On the other side, Marmaduke’s command was certainly much worse for the wear.  It is a bit outside this blog entry’s scope, but the entire raid was mismanaged.  Marmaduke brought along several batteries of artillery and a wagon train of supplies.  And when confronting fortifications around Cape Girardeau, complete with heavy artillery, the cavalry was just not prepared for the task.  After escaping by way of Chalk Bluff, the Confederate column slogged through the Arkansas swamps for several days, perhaps losing more material and horses there than to enemy action.  Recovery and remounting took some time.  Even a couple months later, Marmaduke’s command had not fully recovered when engaged in the Battle of Helena (July 4, 1863).

Of course the actions in the West did not occur in a vacuum.   While Marmaduke was heading north and Grant turning south around Vicksburg, the Chancellorsville Campaign was underway in the East.  What I find coincidental, reading the reports, is the weather.   Considering the prevailing winds and normal course of storm fronts from west to east, it is possible the same storm systems that flooded the St. Francis those last weeks of April also delayed the start of Stoneman’s Raid in Virginia.   April showers didn’t just bring May flowers that year.

Today Chalk Bluff is partially preserved, but the landscape has seen some drastic changes since the war.  To start with, the swamps that confined movement to the ridge were drained in the early 20th century.   Levees further constrained the St. Francis to control flooding.  And military road no longer runs the ridge line.    Enough remains, however, to afford an interested battlefield stomper a few sites to consider.  For those interested, I’ll describe a tour (with map here).  The total driving distance is about 16 miles, requiring about an hour.

I suggest starting any tour of the battlefield at Campbell, Missouri (waypoint A on my map), which sits at the intersection of US Highway 62 and Missouri Highway 53.   Head north out of Campbell on Missouri 53.  About a mile from town, the road climbs Cowley’s Ridge (a noticeable incline in the otherwise table top flat surrounding countryside).  Towards the crest, notice on the left an electrical substation and take the dirt road leading beside it (waypoint B).

Four Mile
Four Mile

The town of Four Mile stood here at the time of the war.  Carter’s Texas Cavalry Brigade stopped the lead elements of McNeil’s column here on the morning of May 1.  Looking back north along Missouri 53, here Caldwell’s 1st Iowa ran into the Texans.

Crest of Crowley's Ridge
Crest of Crowley’s Ridge

I can only guess where the old Military Road passed, but following the gravel road a short distance is the Four Mile cemetery.

Four Mile Cemetery
Four Mile Cemetery

Oral tradition says Federal soldiers were buried in the cemetery.   If so, no stones mark the burials.  One alibi here also.  You’ll notice a lot of downed trees in the photos, the result of this winter’s major ice storm that hit Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky.   Also on the ridge at this point is a wartime structure known as the Taylor House or Hotel, which was used as a field hospital.  It stands on private property, and with the downed limbs I could not take a good photo from the public road.

As the gravel road only loops back to the main road, the visitor can backtrack to Campbell, taking a right on North Avenue (waypoint C).  After a few blocks, turn north (right) on Woodlawn Drive.  Woodlawn Drive turns west (left) and becomes County Route 228.  After just over a mile of ruler edge straight road, CR 228 climbs up Crowley’s Ridge and assumes the course once used for the Military Road. About another mile on CR 228, on the left (south) is Gravel Hill Cemetery, with a small parking area (waypoint D).

Gravel Hill Cemetery
Gravel Hill Cemetery

Marmaduke’s second line formed across the ridge here.  Again, local lore holds that Federals were buried here, but I’ve never seen any headstones.

Marmaduke's Second Line
Marmaduke’s Second Line

Looking east down CR 228, the Federals advanced into breastworks built across the top of the ridge.  No trace of breastworks here stand today (or at least none anyone speaks of).  Both sides sparred here until about mid-afternoon.

Continue west on CR 228 through a couple sets of elbow turns, for about a mile and a half.  At the second elbow turn, traces of Federal earthworks are said to stand north of the road.  The remains, if they are that, are on private property and not easily seen from the road.  At about two miles from Gravel Hill Cemetery, on the right, is a parking area and overlook for the St. Francis River boat ramp.  A marker and sign stand at the west edge (waypoint E).

Missouri Side Interpretation
Missouri Side Interpretation

Marmaduke’s last line formed just to the east of this parking area.   The fighting continued here from about 5 p.m. until dark.   The marker actually stands on one of the “chalky bluffs”, and in the ground below the Confederate dismounted artillery to make the river crossing.   But I’ll say up front, the Southeast Missouri version of “bluff” is not exactly a “Cliffs of Dover”:

The "Bluffs" from the River Bottom
The “Bluffs” from the River Bottom

A boat ramp at the end of the road is the only access to the river on the Missouri side close to the site of Thompson’s Bridge.  The actual crossing site was further downstream, and better viewed from the Arkansas shore.

St. Francis River from Missouri Shore
St. Francis River from Missouri Side

From the boat ramp, return east for about mile on CR 228, and turn south (right) on CR 232 (waypoint F).  After a left turn to the east for a short distance, then turn south (right) onto CR 217.  Follow CR 217 south to US 62.  At any point on CR 217 you may want to stop and look back at Crowley’s Ridge (a view seen in part 1) to appreciate the terrain.

At the intersection with US 62 (waypoint G), turn west (right) and cross the St Francis River into the town of St. Francis.  In the town turn north (right) on Church Street (waypoint H), then turn west (left) onto Cleveland Street.  At the west end of town, turn north (right) onto CR 340 (waypoint I)  and follow as it skirts the edge of the river.  After about a mile, turn north (right) again on CR 338, and follow that road through a turn west.  After a mile, turn north (right) onto CR 347 (waypoint J), which passes back up onto Crowley’s Ridge, and near the course of the Military Road.  Just over a mile, enter Chalk Bluff Battlefield Park (waypoint K).

Chalk Bluff Battlefield Park
Chalk Bluff Battlefield Park

Technically speaking, very little of the May 1-2 action occurred on the Arkansas side of the river.  But as discussed in part 1, the crossing site saw a lot of activity before the battle.  Several state historical markers detail the history of Chalk Bluff, with emphasis on the Civil War.  A trail loop, of a few hundred yards, circles out from the parking area down to the river to the crossing site.

St. Francis River from Arkansas Side
St. Francis River from Arkansas Side

From the old ferry site, the military road passed up a defile to the top of the ridge.  Marmaduke had a defensive line constructed on the ridge line to defend against any sudden Federal rush across the river.

Defensive Line on Arkansas Side
Defensive Line on Arkansas Side

As you can see from this view, the damage to the ice storm was extensive.  Several depressions have from time to time been cited as remains of wartime earthworks.  I don’t doubt some traces exist, but are not easily identified even for a frequent visitor.  A fortification stood just south of the park boundary, used by both sides from time to time.  But the area today is a cow pasture, and often visitors mistake a nearby cow pond dam for the traces of the fort.

That concludes a tour of the battlefield. While Chalk Bluff was a small, minor engagement compared to the major battles occurring at the same time in Mississippi and Virginia, it was one of the largest in Southeast Missouri.   Likewise, while the battlefield is not as well preserved as others, it is the only site even partially protected in Southeast Missouri.  As such, if you are in the area, and have some time, the short excursion is worth it.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

5 thoughts on “Chalk Bluff Battlefield, Part 2

  1. Interesting pictorial article. While visiting relatives in SE MO this summer (2009)I noticed a roadside marker for Chalk Bluff Park, but did not have time to go by there. After reading your article, I will definitely take time my next visit to that area.

  2. Hello, First I want tp say thank you for such a great explaination of the events. To introduce myself I am the youngest child of Donald and Marietta Hughes of Four Mile MO. I had the blessed life of growing up in the Given Owen House,or Taylor Hotel and hospital. You truly did a great job. P.S. I am part owner of that private home I bet I have some pull to get you closer to the house, and we have cleared the road since then.

  3. My great great grandfather , William Briggs Lee (a member of the 19th Texas Cavalry) was killed on May 1, 1863 in the Battle of Chalk Bluff . No record of his gravesite. Were Confederate KIAs buried on site or were the bodies returned to family?

    1. Other than stories of Union graves in Gravel Hill Cemetery, I do not recall any other battlefield burials. And I’m not familiar with any post-battle communication regarding the dead, as often occurred between commanders. You raise a good question. I’ll look into it more and pass along any information I find. Thanks.

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