The Battle at Bayou Cache and Historical Interpretation

Arkansas, July 7, 1862, near Hill’s Plantation and Cache River a small battle took place. On the afternoon of July 6, 1862, Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis’ Army of the Southwest was strung out along Clarendon Road when it was discovered that the Confederates had fallen enough trees in front of James’s Ferry to halt their advance. At that point, where the swampy bayou and cypress trees choked the road, it would be impossible to circumvent the obstacle; they would have to cut their way through the barricade. This meant they were there for the night. There was a brief skirmish between the 3rd Iowa Cavalry and about fifteen or so Confederate irregulars. In command of the advanced division was Brig. Gen. Frederick Steele. That night scouts were sent across the river to the other side of James’s Ferry while work on the blockade commenced.

The next morning Curtis instructed Steele to send out a reconnaissance while a bridgehead was established as they finished up clearing the road. While the Army of the Southwest floundered on Clarendon Road, Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman was hurriedly trying to get his ragtag group of Texas (Rangers) and Arkansas troops to Cache River in time to strike Curtis’ army while it was still bogged down.

At about 6:00 a.m., on the 7th, Colonel Charles E. Hovey, in command of Second Brigade, was ordered by Steele to take his men and form the bridgehead as well send out part of his force in reconnaissance. Once across Hovey sent Colonel Charles L. Harris of the 11th Wisconsin ahead with 8 companies (D,I, H, and G of the 11th Wisconsin and, A, E, I, and K of the 33rd Illinois) along with a small cannon. Harris led his men down Clarendon Road to a fork at the edge of a cornfield where Hill’s Plantation resided. Once there his men stopped for a short time as skirmishers headed down Des Arc Road (to the South) where they ran into a group of Confederates who fired a single volley and fled.

Long story short, for this introduction as I will get into more detail later, Harris would be instructed by Hovey to rapidly move down Des Arc Road in an attempt to “rescue a prisoner just captured by the Confederates. At a turn in the road near a swamp, the four companies of the 11th Wisconsin ran smack into 2,000 Confederates and were nearly engulfed along the road.

According to official records, “[as] Union Col. C.L. Harris moved forward with elements of the 11th Wisconsin, 33rd Illinois, and the 1st Indiana Cavalry, he blundered into an ambuscade.”This is repeated countless times virtually wherever you find a description of the initial stages of the battle which was won by the Federals.

My mission is to investigate the battle and see if there might be some flaws contained within the accounts and documentation. Let’s briefly look at the documents involved. How about the Official Records, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

There are only 6 reports concerning the fight. The first one is a short introduction by Curtis, who was miles away. The second one is from Steele, who also was not present. The third one, yup, Brig. Gen. William P. Benton who also was not there. The fourth was from Hovey, who was not present during the initial phases of the attack, and the fifth from Col. Conrad Baker, commanding Fourth Brigade, who was also not in attendance. The last one was from Lieu. Colonel William F. Wood, who was not present during the initial attack but came on later to play a crucial role.

Colonel Harris of the 11th Wisconsin either did not file a report or one did not survive. He was severely wounded and that may be the reason for a lack of representation on the part of 11th Wisconsin. Strangely, there were other officers in the 11th who were either not allowed to file a report or none survived, including Lieu. Colonel Charles A. Wood (not to be confused with Wood, 1st Indiana Cav.).

There are not many significant accounts of the battle that I could find. William L. Shea’s “The Confederate Defeat at Cache River,”published in The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol. LII, No. 2, Summer 1993, represents the most modern account. Numerous books on the Civil War in Arkansas briefly mention the event, such as “Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas”(University of Arkansas Press, 1994), but as the chapter that covered this fight was by Shea, it did not different from his above article. Also, Glenn T. Nelson and John D. Squier, “The Confederate Defense of Northeast Arkansas and the Battle of Cotton Plant, Arkansas, July 7, 1862,”Woodruff County (Ark.) Historical Society, Rivers & Roads & Points in Between, (Spring, 1989). The battle has also been called “Cotton Plant,”"Round Hill,”and “Hill’s Plantation.”

Shea’s article essentially follows the narrative given by Hovey in his official report. Shea also cites Elloit and Way’s “History of the Thirty-Third Illinois Regiment…,”as well as a report by William Fayel, a Civil War journalist who Shea calls “unusually reliable.”And I do agree that journalist, as opposed to regiment correspondents, are far more objective. But the main problem here is that it appears Fayel was also not present during the fight. (Still investigating this.) So we have a bunch of reports from folks who were not even there. And on top of that, not all of them agree on what happened.

Shea’s cited sources seem slanted to the 33rd Illinois and this perhaps makes his research flawed. For example, he sites Elloit and Way’s regiment history 8 times while never citing the 11th Wisconsin Regimental history (granted it does not cover the battle in great detail). The lone representatives of the 11th Wisconsin in Shea’s research are: Edward B. Quiner’s “The Military History of Wisconsin”(Chicago, 1866), the memoirs of Calvin P. Alling who served in the company D but was not present during the fight, and a letter from J.C. (Shea incorrectly calls him “I.C.”) Metcalf of the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry, which he cited from the Quiner Papers. The quality of the sources is important, and I understand that, however there are several good sources that represent the 11th Regiment’s point of view that Shea does not include.

Shea seems to largely ignore (for lack of better wording as I do not know) the dozen or so correspondences found in the Quiner Papers, along with several other accounts written by members of the 11th Regiment including one who was involved in the fight (McCarthy, Company D) and was wounded. Regimental correspondents and histories often forget to mention the acts of other regiments during battles and thus reliability is an issue. However, Shea has no problem citing ones that favored the 33rd Illinois Regiment, or at least that’s the impression. Also, he largely ignored the 1st Indiana Cavalry who played a crucial role in securing the victory. I have already request diaries and letters from Indiana archives. Shea comes to the conclusion that Hovey and the 33rd Illinois saved the day. He also contends that parts of the 11th Wisconsin fled the field. Additionally, there is some controversy centering on Wood and the 1st Indiana Cavalry who I feel deserve more respect than has been given to them. I feel Hovey’s exploits are over-rated and maybe even false. All this I will get into later in more detail.

So I plunge forward and see if I can find enough evidence to redeem what appears to be a gross misrepresentation of Colonel Harris and the 11th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. I will keep you informed, cheers!

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23 Responses to The Battle at Bayou Cache and Historical Interpretation

  1. John Ludwickson says:

    Hi – I left a message on “Mike’s” page re: this article, but I’m confused who is presenting this analysis. Anyway, to repeat some of that comment: I’ve been researching the First Indiana Cav., and I am looking forward to the continuing comments on the ‘Battle of the Cache’. Could I get ‘heads-ups’ when installments are published?
    Thanks !
    John L.

  2. admin says:

    John I am doing this analysis, when you say “Mike’s” who do you mean? What’s the link?

  3. Very interesting posting. Coincidentally, I just found my photocopy of the Shea article yesterday while rearranging things. I think I’ll try and get that other article you mention (btw, I found a different citation than yours–is “River & Roads…etc.” a journal of the Woodruff County Historical Society?) :

    Nelson, Glenn T. and John D. Squier. “The Confederate Defense of Northeast Arkansas and the Battle of Cotton Plant, Arkansas, July 7, 1862.” Rivers & Roads & Points in Between, XVI (1989), 5-27.

    Are you intending to publish an article yourself?

  4. admin says:

    Drew my citation was cut off and not correct, you are correct. I actually wrote a manuscript about the 11th Wis. that is being consider for publication. We’ll see. And yes I am working on an article taken from the manucript to publish. Thank you for posting!

  5. Mark Dewing says:

    I would be intrigued to read more about this battle and the 11th Wisconsin. Thanks for this article. I’m very glad to see somebody is taking an interest in the 11th’s exploits. They seem to have been overlooked. My great-great grandfather, Mahlon Birdsey Dewing was a corporal in the regiment, in Co H. He enlisted at Camp Randall and served until the Veterans were mustered out in Sept 1865. He fought in every one of their battles, including a two day stint as a POW. I would be most glad to know where I can learn more about the regiment.

  6. admin says:

    Mark – I wrote a history of the regiment that is currently out to a couple of publishers. I will make announcements here with what happens. But it will be published even if I have to fund it. Did your ancestor leave any letters behind?


  7. Mark Dewing says:

    Hi Chris. Regretably my ancestor left no letters. I wish he had. Have you come across any surviving letters from NCO’s in the 11th? Before he was as soldier he was a farmer, and apparently didn’t keep any correspondence. We have a photograph portrait of him in uniform, and that’s about it. He died young, probably due to diseases & stress of the war – in his 40′s – in 1879, and his wife’s pension request and acceptance is on file.

    I have just started on a book about my family and their connection to American wars. My direct ancestor – 11 generations ago – fought in the King Phillip’s War in 1676, and his grandson’s fought at Lexington and New York. Another direct ancestor was in the War of 1812, and my great-great grandfather’s three brothers all joined other Wisconsin Civil War regiments along with him, as did their brother-’s- in-law. Their first cousin was a captain killed at Stones River leading a charge. Two of the great grandchildren of the Civil War Dewing brothers were KIA in WWII. One in the 9th Armored Divison during the approach to the Remagen Bridge, and another was one of the very first soldiers killed on Omaha Beach on June 6th 1944. My father was an air gunner on B-17′s on daylight bombing raids over Germany. His second cousin was a survivor of the shark infested waters he floated in after the USS Indianapolis was sunk. I’m sure you’d agree that’s a lot of history for one American family, and I’ve only just started my research.
    Mark Dewing

  8. John L. says:

    Chris- It took me a couple of tries to get the right person (not Mike Koepke!). The fight on Cache R. was published soon after the “Seven Days” battle accounts, and again the West provided a little good news to the North. One thesis I have is that the fight (news-paper accounts of which were copied nation-wide) made the participants somewhat ‘famous’ albeit briefly. An edited account was published by the end of the year in Frank Moore’s THE REBELLION RECORD: A DIARY OF AMERICAN EVENTS. Another aspect of the fight was the graphic depiction of the gore of the battle.

  9. Andrew Bradley says:

    Hi Chris, My great great grandfather, John T Bradley was wounded at Bayou Cache with the 11th Wisconsin Regt. Unfortunatly that is all i know about the battle. He then went on to be a Color Sgt with the unit. I would sure be grateful for any additional information you discover regarding this unit/battle.

    Andrew Bradley

  10. Mark Simpson says:

    I am interested in any information on the Battle of Cache River that you may have. My wife’s great-great grandfather was the orderly Sgt of company A, 33rd Ill infantry and earned the medal of honor when he saved a cannon from capture. We are trying to locate exactly where this event took place.

  11. David Maggio says:

    Do you have any biographic information about Col. Charles L. Harris. I believed he moved to nebraska and was elected a Senator in the State, and there is a relief dedicated to him in the Vicksburg national Military Park.

  12. Ronnie Ladd says:

    Currently I am doing research on the Civil War in Woodruff County. I live approx. 4 miles from James’ Ferry where contact was made. I live within 10 to 15 miles of where the Battle of Cotton Plant, Hill’s Plantation and Cache River Bridge was fought. I have not started looking for these sites as of yet, but will start soon. If anyone has any battle maps, other maps of the time period or descriptions of places where events took place it would help in locating the sites for confirmation.

    If I can be of any help please let me know. My email is:

    Take Care,
    Ronnie Ladd

  13. Pingback: 11th Wisconsin Civil War Regiment » Historical Interpretation and the Battle at Bayou Cache, Ark., 1862, Part II

  14. rsb says:

    My Great grandpa was in Co B of the 11th. I travelled to Cotton Plant last summer to view the battlefield and stumbled across a local historical magazine with a more local flair to the battle. I talked to local land owner who had a relative who was in it. He pointed out locations to me. Today the area is mostly a big soybean field.

  15. Chris says:

    rsb please contact me would love to hear more about it…

  16. Jack S. Caperton says:

    I am a desendant of the Shelton listed in this battle and possibly more of them. Our farm is in this area and when it rains you can see trenches that were dug during that time frame. There was some info handed down about a armored boat was sunk in what now is nothing but a creek at best that runs to the Cache River. Our land in next to the Black Swamp. My sister has many family papers and is looking to see if we may have something on this. We have found a cannon ball on our land too.

  17. John says:

    I have been reading “from a Soldieer’s Jornal” by Albert O. Marshall. He was an infantryman in Comapny A of the 33rd Illinois. He recounsts his experience in the battle of Cache River in Chapter VI. He recounts the recovery of the artillery piece (Pg 123) referred to by Mr. Mark Simpson in his post.

  18. Chris says:

    John, yes he does. And what I beleive is that the piece was lost and recovered twice, once by the 11th Wisconsin very earlier on, and later by the 33rd.


  19. HL Hanna says:

    I am doing research on the battle for an archaeological field survey in the spring, when the high water goes down, in order to register a site form with the Arkansas Archaeological Survey in order to give some protection to the battlefield.
    The information that I have been ferreting out doesn’t jibe with the OR in regards to Confederate casualties, which seem too high, and the intensity of the action. One of the goals we have for the survey is to find the site of the Confederate burials in order to find the truth of this matter.
    Do you know of any sources, other than the OR, which mentions the locations of mass graves?

  20. HL Hanna says:

    Please use this e-mail.

  21. Chris says:

    I do not, but I did not pay attention to that. I will look through some of the letters again as I seem recall at least one Union soldier mention something about the burial of the dead Confederates.

  22. C. King says:

    Hello…just a few quick lines….some years ago I was fortunate enough to acquire a CS flag upon which was penned, “taken at the battle of Round Hill, Ark by the llth Wisconsin Infantry. I looked the battle up in a little book I had at the time,..sort of a dictionary of the war, and found the various names for the battle, and some reference to two Texas Cav. outfits…the flag is cavalry size, so I tried to find out which cav units participate, and the book gave me either the 12th and 14 Texas Cav, or the 11th and 12 th….do you have any information on these units(assuming my info is correct) I’d like to know from whom the flag was taken. Good luck with your research…Chuck King

  23. I am a former resident of Cotton Plant, Ar and have followed this site with great interest. In years previous my brother and I metal detected the area around the old Hill homestead and picked up a picket pin, officers coat button and what may have been a pistol bullet. All of these articles were found within a hundred yards of the Hill home site. Local legend has it that the Hill home was used as a field hospital which would account for the metal relics. My brother once related that he had interviewed an elderly decendant of one of the areas original families. He related that he had taped the interview and had gleaned some anecdotal references to the battle. Tales of the woods littered with military hardware and piles of mini balls found around the Hill house were of interest. We did run the detectors over the old house site but, as this is now someone’s front yard, we did not dig the area out of respect for the homeowner’s wishes. As this appears to have been what amounts to a running gun battle, I have always been interested in the roads named in the Official Records. I have made some limited efforts to locate a contemporaneous map of the area with little success. I was able to find some line drawings of postal routes submitted by the,then,postmaster in the Arkansas State Archives. If not previously studied, they may be of some interest to a professional researcher.

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