The Battle of Big Creek
In the summer of 1864, Confederate General Joseph O. Shelby decided it was time to break up the plantation lease system in Helena. Shelby sent 1,200 men under Colonel Archibald Dobbins and Colonel Frank Gordon to the Helena area to “ravage and destroy the Government plantations.” Shelby’s plan called for Dobbins to hurt the Federals in any way possible, but the main purpose of the raid was “. . . destroying the farms and driving off the stock and negroes employed on them . . .”
Dobbins brought his cavalry to Phillips County, setting Shelby’s plan in motion. General Napoleon Bonaparte Buford, now in command of the Union forces in Helena, knew that Shelby’s men were in the area but he had no idea why. Buford stepped up patrols and tried to prepare while obtaining as much information as possible.
On July 1, 1864, Buford sent Colonel William S. Brooks with a detachment of 95 men and officers of the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry to check on the situation. Brooks proceeded south to Fort Pinney opposite Island 63. Brooks left a captain and twenty men to guard the Freedmen at Fort Pinney, where there was already a captain and some men, though Brooks’ report did not record how many. Brooks moved on to the Stewarts Plantation. He and fifteen mounted men pursued a Confederate detachment but were unable to catch them. Brooks returned to Helena with cotton collected from the plantations, one prisoner and some livestock.
Later in the month, Buford sent a detachment of the 15th Illinois Cavalry under the command of Major Eagleton Carmichael on a scout in the vicinity of Big Creek. Carmichael’s plan was to capture Lieutenant John R. Swan, a Confederate partisan who operated in the area. Carmichael intended to camp near the creek and, after the moon rose, to try to capture Confederate pickets in hopes of getting information on Lieutenant Swan’s whereabouts. Carmichael was foiled as one of his troopers was too ill to ride. They did capture a Private Derrick, who told them that Swan had been conscripting men into Confederate service. He also discovered that Swan’s company was supposed to unite with Dobbins’ force for the purpose of “gathering all the able bodied negroes through the county to take them west,” which would have been into the Confederacy.
Frustrated by a lack of information, Buford ordered Colonel William S. Brooks to take a detachment of infantry and a section of artillery to Wallace Ferry on Big Creek. Brooks took 360 infantry, 280 from his regiment, 80 men of the 60th U.S. Colored Infantry, and a two-gun section of Battery E, 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery, about 42 officers and men. Wallace Ferry was about twenty miles west-southwest of Helena. Brooks was to rendezvous with Major Eagleton Carmichael and 150 men of the 15th Illinois Cavalry at Big Creek. Carmichael’s men were coming from Old Town, where they had been dropped off by steamer. Buford needed to know how many Confederates were in the area and, if possible, determine what they planned to do. It was up to Carmichael and Brooks to get Buford some answers.
The Confederate column of approximately 1,200 men—Colonel Dobbins’ 1,000 Arkansas cavalry and Colonel Gordon’s 200 Missourians—united at Trenton, a village just north of the confluence of Big Creek and Lick Creek. On July 25, 1864, several of the Confederates stopped at Holly Grove Plantation on Spring Creek Road where they talked to Mary Sale Edmondson, who recorded the visit in her diary. Upon returning from church on July 25, she “. . . found brother Will at the house and quite a number of soldiers calling to get water . . . .I fixed up Will a basket of victuals―ham, corn and potatoes―for him and Col. Dobbins―gave Mr. Keesee a lunch to put in his pocket and they all departed.” With the Confederates and the large column of Union troops in the same vicinity, a conflict was inevitable.
Brooks had been ordered to proceed with caution and to travel at night. As a result, his column reached Big Creek about 3 a.m. on July 26. Once it was light, Brooks took out a patrol to determine if Dobbins was in the vicinity. His men talked with locals and were assured that Dobbins was no longer around. Satisfied that his command was safe, Brooks allowed his men to have breakfast. According to one account, a group of soldiers crossed the creek and went about a half mile down the road to a farmhouse to get a homemade breakfast. As they discussed the highlights of the day with their hosts, they learned that Dobbins had only just passed through. About the same time as their epiphany, Dobbins drove in Brooks’ pickets.
Dobbins almost literally caught the Yankees napping. His dismounted cavalry poured from the woods, hitting Brooks’ detachment from three sides. As Colonel Brooks tried to form up his men he was shot out of the saddle. The surgeon who went to assist him was also killed. With the situation becoming desperate, command fell to Lieutenant Colonel Moses Reed.
At the first alarm, the artillerists had struggled to reposition their guns. Lieutenant Harmon T. Chappel got the rifled gun into position and opened fire on the charging Confederates. Chappel hit them with canister again and again, at last driving them back. The Confederates regrouped and using the bridge abutments as cover drove Chappel’s infantry support off, forcing him to retreat.
Chappel’s gun was positioned on the Union left, Captain J.F. Lembke had a howitzer on the Union right. As Chappel’s men got their gun into position he went to Lembke for orders. Before the captain could reply he was struck in the head and died. Chappel assumed command of the guns. He put Sergeant Joseph Graham, an African American, in command of the howitzer and returned to his gun. The gun crews performed yeoman’s work, servicing the two guns under extreme pressure.
The first half hour at Big Creek was hot and brutal. Just as the battle began, Colonel Brooks and Captain Lembke had been lost, forcing a change of command. The troops did not panic; they held their ground and fought with determination. That the small detachment of USCT stood for several hours against odds of two to one speaks volumes of the men in the ranks. It was not a fight for the faint of heart. Captain George Holibaugh of Co. F, 56th U.S. Colored Infantry acknowledged that there was confusion. He reported that during the engagement the men of various companies got separated and that he took command of a portion of Co. A in addition to his own men.
Two things saved the little column of USCT from Helena—the artillery and the timely arrival of the 15th Illinois. What time the battle started is not recorded in any of the reports but it was probably seven or eight o’clock in the morning. Carmichael heard the artillery and hurried toward the sound of the guns, catching Gordon’s mounted men unaware on the Wallace Ferry Road. The Union cavalry scattered the Confederates and took and held the road. The Major left his detachment in command of Captain Hutchens and rode off to find the infantry.
As for the artillery, Shelby’s biographer wouldn’t even give credit where credit was due. He wrote, “The Federals had two pieces of artillery, with ‘Dubuque’ on the caissons, and these two cannon were well served by whites and gave much trouble.” That’s quite interesting, as the artillery on the field was Battery E, 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery. Regardless, had it not been for the artillery there would have been no one for Carmichael to rescue. Dobbins’ men might not have been whipped by the cobbled together force that marched out of Helena, but they sure knew they’d been in a fight.
Carmichael and Reed conferred and determined that the best course of action was to get out and back to Helena. The artillery had been cut up; Chappel reported that he lost nine horses and was forced to abandon his caissons and one limber. The Illinois cavalry held the road while the infantry disengaged and pulled back. With Carmichael’s cavalry serving as a rear guard, the Union soldiers retreated toward Helena. The last engagement was at the junction of the Little Rock and Spring Creek roads where the Confederates were drawn up in line of battle. The USCT once more proved their mettle— shouting “Remember Fort Pillow!” they charged into the Confederate line and drove the Confederates off.
Dobbins’ report does not survive. Shelby reported that Dobbins had defeated “1,250 white and negroes,” which is over 800 more soldiers than Brooks and Carmichael had. Shelby’s biographer, John Edwards, put the count at 1,400. In a way these over- estimations are a compliment to the tenacity of the soldiers under Brooks’ command. It should also be noted that the Union estimates of Confederate strength were 4,000, another exaggeration. Buford claimed to have evidence that three wounded USCT had been murdered. Mrs. Edmondson recorded a conversation with a Missouri soldier who stopped by her house the day before the battle and told her that he never took a prisoner alive.
The Union detachment lost 19 killed, 40 wounded and five missing. Shelby’s report cited 8 killed and 40 wounded on the Confederate side. Sue Cook recorded the battle in her diary, writing that five Confederate dead were brought back to her farm, where the Confederate column spent the night and where some of the men were buried the next morning.
When all was said and done, Buford failed to protect the leased plantations. Gordon and Dobbins plundered the government plantations, drove off stock, and took Freedmen back into bondage. However, if there was still any lingering doubt, the USCT proved they could and would fight.
How many men were engaged at Big Creek and what were the odds? If Dobbins attacked with 1,000 men, one-fourth would have held the horses, giving him approximately 750 dismounted men in the engagement. Brooks had 360 infantry and about 42 artillerymen. The odds were just less than two to one, and the artillery and timely arrival of the 15th Illinois helped even the odds.