On March 23, Gen. Steele’s army of 8500 men left Little Rock, on a disagreeable march toward Shreveport while consuming short rations. The head of the column passed through Benton and made a rainy encampment on the Saline River 26 miles from the Capital City on the evening of the 24th.
The route through the bottoms was so muddy it had to be corduroyed to get the wagon train across. When the advance reached the high ground, they found the road led through a series of steep and nasty red clay hills. The exhausted mules were given several hours rest and then the entire command later encamped near Rockport (Malvern) by the morning of the 26. Here the cavalry and train forded the Ouachita River while the infantry and big guns crossed on a 217 foot pontoon bridge. Flooded crossings plagued the army with more delays at Bayou Roche and Caddo Creek.
At last the Federal Army tramped through Arkadelphia on March 29, where Steele imprtiently waited for Gen. Thayer’s column to arrive from Fort Smith. It turned out the same weather related problems that hampered Steele also created less than ideal marching conditions for Thayer. This cause and effect relationship lent by the weather and a countryside stripped of subsistence, could doom the role Steele was supposed to play in the Red River Expedition.
In a series of dispatches Gen. Kirby Smith, the department commander, described to Gen. Price Confederate strategy and his mission. The District of Arkansas commander was to keep Steele in check with his 6000 man cavalry force until Louisiana General Richard Taylor defeated his upstream rival Gen. Banks. When this was accomplished, sufficient forces would be switched northward to wallop Steele and regain Little Rock. Indeed, Kirby Smith’s thinking was that given Price’s superiority in cavalry, an “advance of Steele into our impoverished and exhausted country must be attended with great risk and should result in the destruction of his command.” He then instructed Price to fall back before the invaders and not risk a major engagement unless he possessed a major advantage. He was instructed further “to embarrass and retard the enemy’s advance by throwing cavalry upon his flanks and rear, interrupting his communications, and destroying his trains, as well as opposing him at every point … and by destroying as you fall back all supplies that might be used by him.” In the coming weeks the result of this strategy would unfold in Smith’s favor.
At Monticello, about 70 miles east of Camden, Brig. Gen. Thomas Dockery had been making preparations to reach Princeton in Dallas County to join Missourians who were about to operate against Gen. Steele. On March 24 Steele ordered Col. Powell Clayton at Pine Bluff to watch his movements toward Camden. Two days later scouts reported to Clayton the enemy appeared getting ready to leave.
The pro-active Clayton quickly fielded an 1100 man strike force that caught Dockery unaware, resulting in an embarrassing capture of 300 prisoners. Clayton’s loss totaled 35 killed and wounded. Though off to a good start, the limited supporting role contributed by Clayton would not insure Steele’s progress.
(Margaret Ross, Chronicles of Arkansas, Arkansas Gazette, March 22 and 25, 1964. Albert Castel, General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West, Louisiana State University, 1968, P. 173-174.)