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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Battle at Old River Lake

By the summer of 1864 the Confederacy west of the Mississippi was in serious trouble. The Union occupied Missouri and northern Arkansas, rebel presence in the Indian Territory was all but gone, and the campaign to take New Mexico and open a corridor to California was a forgotten dream.

The rebels still had some fight in them, however. While the Union controlled the river after taking Vicksburg the year before, rebel soldiers and guerrillas regularly harassed shipping.

In May of 1864, Col. Colton Greene led 800 Confederate soldiers to Chicot County in the extreme southeast of Arkansas. Here the Mississippi was narrow and took several hairpin turns. Riverboats chugging upstream could only go a maximum of 13 mph and made fine targets. Greene set up his six cannon and pounded away at them.

He proudly reported: “I engaged 21 boats of all descriptions, of which five gunboats and marine-boats were disabled, five transports badly damaged, one sunk, two burned, and two captured. My loss was one subaltern and five privates slightly wounded. No guns or horses were hit. The river is blockaded.”

The Union command quickly sent 6,000 men under the command of General Andrew Jackson Smith. On June 5 they landed and 3,000 troops disembarked. There was a bit of skirmishing that evening but it was too late to start a battle.

The next day under heavy rain, the Union troops advanced. Facing them were only 600 rebels, the rest being sent to guard the line of retreat and another potential target to the north. They were positioned behind Ditch Bayou, now swollen with rain yet not visible to the Union men advancing over what they thought was an open field. The rain turned the field to mud and slowed the soldiers' progress and made it impossible to advance their own artillery.

The bluecoats advanced through a withering fire. Soon they discovered the bayou and realized they were trapped. They hunkered down in the mud, unable to advance because of the bayou and unable to retreat for fear of being cut down.

They were saved by some Union cavalry, who were able to cross the bayou to the south and flank the rebels. Greene ordered a retreat. That night the Union soldiers camped in nearby Lake Village, where they plundered homes for food and broke up furniture and fences to build fires. The next day they returned to their boats, only to have Greene's men snipe at them every step of the way.

Union casualties numbered about 180, while the Confederates lost about 100. Green's men withdrew from the area for fear of another attack but the harassment of steamboats continued until the end of the war. The Battle at Old River Lake was the last significant engagement in Arkansas, yet it's almost forgotten today.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Good post. I'd love to find the time to learn some Civil War history. As a Scot I was not offered that subject in my history classes- the tendency being to teach us UK/ European History. My passion now is Celtic/Roman Britain my A to Z topic. Nancy at Welcome to she said, he said

  2. Great information in your post. Since I lived in No. Va. a long time, I'm more familiar with battles in that area.


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