In the spring of 1864, three Civil War battles took place in south central Arkansas that were part of the Union Army's Red River Campaign. The three state historic parks commemorating these battles--Poison Springs Battleground State Park, Marks' Mills Battleground State Park, and Jenkins Ferry Battleground State Park--and the 1836 Courthouse at Historic Washington State Park, which served as Arkansas's Confederate capitol--comprise the Red River Campaign National Historic Landmark.
Here at Jenkins Ferry on April 29 and 30, 1864, Union troops fought off an attack by the Confederates and, using an inflatable pontoon bridge, crossed the flooded Saline River and retreated to Little Rock.
The land where this Civil War battle took place was settled by Thomas Jenkins, who started the ferry in 1815. It was run by his sons, William and John DeKalb, until the Civil War circa 1861.
In Camden, Union Army General Frederick Steel had to decide what was to be done before his command was immobilized by a breakdown in transportation and the consumption of his few remaining supplies. There seemed to be but one alternative to starvation and capture--an immediate retreat to Little Rock. On April 26, 1864, the day after the battle at Marks' Mills, and under the cover of darkness, General Steele and his men, with what equipment they had left, crossed the Ouachita River at Camden on a pontoon bridge. Steele had gone to great lengths to convince Confederate scouts his troops had spent the night inside the safety of the town. By early morning on April 27 the Rebels realized they had been tricked. Upon learning that Steele had left Camden, the Confederate Army, under Generals E. Kirby Smith and Sterling Price, occupied the city and headed north after the Union column.
Steele and his men followed the Camden Trail which crossed the Saline River at Jenkins Ferry. The road was built before 1836 and served as one of the five main, or "trunk roads," in Arkansas. The Confederates' only hope of catching the fast-fleeing Federal troops was at the rain-swollen Saline River there at Jenkins Ferry, some 50 miles to the north. A torrential rain pounded Steele's troops on April 29. As wagons, horses, and mules bogged down in the quagmire, Steele and his men reluctantly made camp at Jenkins Ferry. Steele spent the night plotting ways to hold off advancing enemy troops while crossing the river at the same time. The first Rebels arriving at Jenkins Ferry on April 30 found themselves facing the full force of Steele's army. Steele's men were backed up to the Saline River, but entrenched and protected from flanked attacks by an overflowing creek and a flooded swamp.
The Battle of Jenkins Ferry, the third leg of the Red River Campaign, began after the first light of the foggy day. Despite their disadvantaged position, the Confederates launched one unorganized attack after another. Rebel commanders knew that letting up the pressure would allow Steele's army to cross the Saline and escape.
By the end of the bloody day, the South had lost nearly 1,000 soldiers and the North nearly 700. But Steele's army managed to cross the river and continue retreating to Little Rock.
Jenkins Ferry Battleground State Park features interpretive exhibits, picnic sites, a pavilion [NOTE: This pavilion is available free-of-charge; however, no electricity is available], swimming area, and a launch ramp on the Saline River. The historic site is located 13 miles south of Sheridan on Ark. 46.
For more information about Arkansas State Parks historic, heritage, and cultural parks, go to: http://www.historystateparks.com/