The Civil War saw battles fought across the country, from village to farm and mountain to shore. Land and naval forces fought back and forth for four long years. Though far from the ocean, Arkansas became the site of an important, though little-known, naval battle, one that would decide control of the White River.
The spring of 1862 had gone badly for the Confederacy. The South was steadily falling back. Confederate forces were unable to move forward in Virginia. Union forces had taken control of the Cumberland River in southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee, one of the major waterways of the Upper South. The Mississippi River, the great economic and transportation engine of the South, was steadily slipping away. Baton Rouge and New Orleans had been taken by Union forces. And on June 6, Confederate forces lost control of Memphis.
The situation for Confederate Arkansas was not much better. After the loss at Pea Ridge in February, northwest Arkansas was falling away from the Confederacy. The remainder of the state was beset by political infighting and increasing shortages of basic products and rising prices that frustrated the increasingly impoverished civilian population. A large number of Confederate recruits from Arkansas were sent to defend other military theaters in other parts of the South rather than staying and defending Arkansas. In the meantime, Union Gen. Samuel Curtis had pushed across northern Arkansas south to Batesville and to Jacksonport, where the White and Black rivers met not far from Newport.
State leaders saw Arkansas on the brink of collapse by mid-1862. However, for Union commanders, the situation was clear: press their advantage while they still could.
Confederate Gen. Thomas Hindman of Helena plotted ways to stop Union advances across the state and ordered his men to construct defensive gun emplacements along the lower White River, near the small community of St. Charles in Arkansas County, not far from Stuttgart. A small group of troops from the 39th Arkansas Infantry manned the embankment and two small Confederate ships had sailed into the area.
Arkansas had few railroads at the time. Roads were in poor shape. The major waterways, however, provided excellent means of transporting goods and people. Access to a navigable river or port was an important component of a city’s economic success in Arkansas at that time. Though the Mississippi River and eastern Arkansas had yet to be secured by Union forces, Gen. Curtis still intended to use the White River to transport supplies and troops to his position at Jacksonport.
Realizing that Union reinforcements were moving up the White River, the commander of Confederate forces in the area, Captain Joseph Fry, ordered two Confederate steamships sunk to block the river. On June 17, four small Union ships sailed up the White River on their way to meet Curtis when they encountered the Confederate stronghold. Fry immediately attacked. The morning quiet was broken by a fierce volley of cannon and rifle fire, focusing on the Union ship Mound City, a modern ironclad ship powered by a steam engine with a crew of 175. In the opening volley, the boiler was hit and exploded. The ship went up in a fireball, throwing screaming men across the river. Many drowned in the chaos or were shot in the river while they flailed their way toward the safety of the riverbank. One hundred five men from the Mound City were killed, and 44 were wounded. Surprisingly, the ship did not sink.
The other ships in the Union flotilla quickly unloaded their men to the shore to attack the Confederate position directly, with the remaining Union ships firing at Confederate positions and two Confederate ships in the river. The 46th Indiana Infantry charged into the gun emplacement, soon taking it. The 35 men defending it, seeing the superior Union numbers and firepower, quickly fled. With 160 casualties, the battle was bloody enough but paled in comparison to many other Civil War conflicts.
The battle would be one of dozens, both large and small, fought across Arkansas during the Civil War. In spite of the Union victory at St. Charles, its offensive stalled out. While Union forces controlled the White River for the remainder of the war, it would be another year before they were able to take control of Little Rock and begin reasserting control over most of the state.