Camden Expedition: April 3, 1864


McLean’s Union contingent arrived overnight, in the pre-dawn hours of April 3rd. A squadron of cavalry crossed the river to act as advance pickets, while the rest of the infantry and the 2nd Missouri Light Artillery bedded down for the night.

As day broke on April 3rd, McLean awoke to firing along the picket line, prodding him to have Lt. Col. Frances Drake cross the Little Missouri River with 4 companies of the 43rd Indiana. Drake’s men drove back the Confederate skirmishers and captured 16 of them.

Could this be the victor at Okolona?

Could this be the victor at Okolona?


Meanwhile, the recombined main Union force was situated at the small town of Okolona, AR. Federal Commander Steele had placed his rear guard in a battle line facing north. Confederate General Jo Shelby began his attack on the morning of April 3rd facing south and drove in Steele’s cavalry pickets, as well as the cavalry units screening the Federal column.

Steele responded by bringing up his infantry units. The skirmish developed into a general engagement. However, Mother Nature interrupted the mayhem.

A fierce thunderstorm struck with hail and rain. Maybe even a tornado hit in the nearby area.  According to an after action report, beehives in the area were turned over during the fight, disgorging stinging swarms of the insects.

Shelby withdrew his Brigade north toward the Military Road and then southwest to Antoine. It was never determined which of possible three reasons were responsible for the withdrawal: bees, thunderstorm or Union infantry.

A contingent of Union Cavalry followed Shelby. They skirmished with Shelby before he crossed the Little Missouri River at Antoine.  The Union Cavalry then went in search of General Thayer’s Frontier Division.



Back at Elkin’s Ferry, Union 2nd Brigade Commander Colonel McLean sent Lt. Col. Frances Drake over to the Little Missouri River’s south bank with 6 companies to reinforce the Union Cavalry and hold the crossing until the rest of the Union Army could arrive.

On the south side of the river, Confederate Division Commander Brigadier General Marmaduke sent Colonel Colton Green’s Brigade, which had arrived from its reserve position north near Antoine,  to attack and assess the strength of the Federals south of the Little Missouri River.

Col. Williams Preston’s regiment was assigned this task. His troops pushed the Iowa cavalry back, but Union Lt. Colonel Drake’s arrival with additional infantry and an artillery section helped stop the probe by the Confederates.

It was late in the day. Drake set his line of defense with pickets and prepared for the fight he knew was coming the next day.  Marmaduke pulled Greene’s Brigade back 8 miles south to Cornelius Farm.


In retrospect, both Union and Confederate commanders failed to take advantage of the situation.

At Okolona, Confederate Jo Shelby’s attack had frozen Steele’s movement south to secure the crossing at Elkin’s Ferry.  Steele barely had an Infantry regiment and a section of artillery holding the crossing.  He needed to get more troops south to hold the crossing.

On the other hand, why the Confederates failed to unite all their forces and push the Union contingent back into the Little Missouri River  river is a mystery.



About Civil War Reflections

Vernon has been a Civil War buff since childhood, but had been inactive in Civil War history for over two decades. However, in the early 1990s his interest was rekindled after watching Ken Burns’ “Civil War Documentary” on PBS. He particularly became interested in the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) and decided to learn more about this epic struggle.
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