The 34th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry formed in the fall of 1863. Men from Mercer, Salem, Burlington, and Camden counties filled the ranks (along with some from New York and Philadelphia). The regiment left Camp Parker, outside Trenton, in mid-November that year, heading to the front lines. Instead of an assignment to the Army of the Potomac, as one might logically presume, the 34th went west as part of the surge of forces sent to Nashville and then towards Chattanooga in the aftermath of defeat at Chickamauga (with the 34th posted around Bridgeport). After that crisis passed, the 34th moved down the Tennessee River to garrison western Kentucky, and part of west Tennessee, through the winter of 1864. (Hat tip here to my friend Jim Lamason for helping track down the background on this regiment.)
Following a brief stay at Union City, Tennessee, and a foray chasing Confederate Major-General Nathan B. Forrest, Colonel William Hudson Lawrence moved the regiment at Columbus, Kentucky as part of the District of Cairo (Illinois). The main threat to that sector were guerrilla bands. So one company of the 34th was mounted as a mobile force. Furthermore two companies of the regiment went down river to Island No. 10 to help control the area around Kentucky (New Madrid) Bend. There Captain Robert M. Ekings commanded Companies B and C of the regiment, comprising of 4 officers and 170 men, with seven heavy guns and one field piece.
Throughout the winter, Ekings operated against the irregulars from his base on the river. On March 6, he sent a detachment of twelve men under First Sergeant John Connor (Company C) to “arrest a gang of 3 men who were reported to have murdered a negro the day previous; and also one Joseph Malady, a notorious guerrilla and horse-thief.” After moving seven miles upriver, the detachment found Malady and other parties had escaped. On their way back, a guerrilla force under Captains Parks and Bradford (no first names offered) ambushed the detachment. Connor estimated the guerrilla force at 75 to 125 men in strength. Late that evening, Connor and his men made their escape using a raft and reached Island No. 10 that evening.
The action on the 6th promoted Federal authorities to mount a larger operation to clear out these guerrillas under Parks and Bradford, with Ekings leading. On this day (March 18) in 1864, Ekings left Island No. 10 with a force charged with scouting the area around Tiptonville, Tennessee and clearing out these bands:
I have the honor to report that in obedience to orders from district headquarters, bearing date March 11, 1864, on the evening of the 18th instant I embarked on the steamer John Rowe, and crossing the river landed on the Tennessee shore, opposite the island, 60 colored troops, under the command of Capt. J.B. Rogers, Company C, Seventh Louisiana Infantry, of African descent, with orders to scour the country between Island 10 and Tiptonville. With the remainder of my force, 40 men of Company C, Thirty-fourth New New Jersey Infantry, I proceeded to New Madrid, Mo., where I was re-enforced by 30 infantry of the Second Missouri Heavy Artillery, and 20 men of the First Missouri Cavalry ordered to join me, at my request, by Major Rabb, commanding that post.
I disembarked at Riley’s Landing, 7 miles below Tiptonville, and commenced a northward march, carefully examining the country as I advanced. I could discover no guerrillas, with one exception. A certain Obadiah Green, a brother-in-law of the guerrilla leader Bradford, was captured by us at Bradford’s house. We reached the island about sunset on the 19th instant. From the best information I could obtain I should be inclined to the opinion that the guerrillas under Parks and Bradford had left Madrid Bend about a week previous to the scout under my command.
I would point out, as seen with the notation of earthworks on the fortifications on the map, the area patrolled was that fought over in April 1862 when Island No. 10 fell. Ekings’ scouting netted far shy of the 75 to 125 suspected in the area, possibly because those men had withdrawn to join with a large raid led by Forrest, which was just kicking off at that time.
But let’s take a few steps back and look at the big picture here. Over the last month, I’ve posted sections of Colonel Charles Wainwright’s diary in which he asks, “Why don’t they send the men to the [Army of the Potomac]?” And here we see New Jersey men, who I think Wainwright would argue should have been in the Army of the Potomac, posted to Virginia, sitting on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. Not just any island, but a location well behind the front lines, fought over some two years before.
The activities of Ekings and the 34th New Jersey were not the stuff which historians reference often in the “big books.” Boring, mundane, and inconsequential, you might say. But the posting of Ekings’ two companies speaks to the problem facing Federal leaders in the spring of 1864 – how to put enough men on the front lines to prosecute the war, while at the same time retaining enough force in the rear areas for security, law, and order. Why didn’t they send the men to Wainwright in Virginia? Because the the army needed them elsewhere too.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 32, Part I, Serial 57, pages 491-2 and 623-4.)