Col W H Parsons Texans were doing such a relentless job of denying subsistence to Federal forces around Batesville, that General Samuel R Curtis began pulling back from the Little Red River Line during the early part of the month. On June 4, he informed authorities that unless he received reinforcements of infantry from MO or the rivers, he might have to withdraw even further.
Major Gen Henry Halleck wasted no time in addressing the matter and by June 10, the Secretary of the Navy telegraphed Memphis based Flag Officer Charles H Davis ordering him to “use every exertion in conveying supplies up the White River to the Army of Gen Curtis.
A flotilla cast off on the 13th, led by Commander Augustus H Kilty in his ironclad flagship Mound City, followed by the well armored St Louis, the timber reinforced gunboats Conestoga and Lexington, and the armed tugboat Spitfire.
The war in northern AR had taken on a nasty barbaric aspect with the Confederates being accused of murdering prisoners and other extreme violence. At one point civilians in Izard County were charged with firing on Union soldiers who were attempting to arrest them and it was said Curtis intended to hang them as outlaws. Vowing to “sustain them at all hazards” Maj Gen Thomas Hindman declared it was the duty of all citizens to shoot at Union soldiers as long as the Federal government persisted in the invasion of their homes. Margaret Ross, (Chronicles of Arkansas, Arkansas Gazette, Little Rock Arkansas, June 9, 1962) One example of unprovoked home invasion in the most literal sense occurred in Jackson County near Black River. German troops from Gen Osterhaus Division stripped a residence of everything valuable including china and cutlery then broke up what they couldn’t carry. On leaving, one soldier spitefully slashed a child’s portrait hanging in the living room of the house. Sometimes recent graves in family cemeteries were defiled by villainous troops using sabers to probe for some imaginary treasure. Lady Elizabeth Watson, Fight and Survive (River Road Press, Conway, AR 1974) P 34. Atrocious conduct such as this fueled savage treatment from local irregulars whose families were similarly victimized.
Despite a burden of vexing problems, Hindman didn’t relax his efforts to make productive the poorest state in the Confederacy. A chemical lab was established at Arkadelphia on the Ouachita River, 75 miles south of Little Rock. It was effectively operated in aiding the ordnance department and in the manufacture of medicines such as calomel, castor oil, and the various tinctures of iron. (Ross, Chronicles of Arkansas, June 5, 1962) A foundry was put to work in Camden casting artillery projectiles, machine parts, tools and other valuable items.
Previously Gen Samuel S Roane initiated martial law within a 20 mile radius of Little Rock to enforce lawful conduct and to insure military security. With the breakdown of county government in his district, Hindman proclaimed martial law on June 10th to accomplish more then law and order. A provost marshal (military police chief) was assigned to each county, to arrest and punish violators of assorted regulations besides enforcing the conscript act. Permission had to be given citizens to travel through or from the county by use of a passport system. Such scrutiny made desertion difficult and spy activity especially hazardous. Provost guards (police details) were the long arm of conscription during this trying period.
A large number of conscripts from AR County were assembled into a cavalry company near the Arsenal and commanded by a local Little Rock lawyer and planter, Captain Marian J Clay. They were not sworn into Confederate service until June 14, and hurried off to St Charles on lower White River.
Chief engineer Captain Andrew M Williams had been busy obstructing the river just below the town of St Charles. A detachment of 100 men were detailed from four companies of the 29AR Infantry, then at DeValls Bluff. The unarmed portion (65) rafted timber downstream to form into a barrier. While the constant dull boom of two pile-drivers echoed across the bottomland, another fatigue party hefted two navy 32-pounder rifles (bored with spiral grooves) recently removed from the gunboat Pontchartrain and emplaced them on the bluff. The guns and part of her crew were moved by rail to DeValls Bluff and then St Charles by boat.
Captain John W Dunnington was summoned to Little Rock on the 15th to select additional artillery and crewman. Captain Joseph Fry reached the blockade next morning from Des Arc. After off-loading the Maurepas he sunk the vessel across the channel end to end with two smaller boats. The operation was tricky from having no ballast. Part way through, the Maurepas swirled around and sank parallel with the stream near the east bank.
Dunnington returned on the evening of the 16th with two 3-inch rifled field pieces he found at the Arsenal. Having overall command, Fry assigned a junior officer from his crew to emplace the weapons 400 yards south of Dunnington’s two guns. Toward evening a wisp of smoke rising downriver gradually appeared larger and more ominous in the gathering twilight.