Lookin' down Main: The World from an older point of view.

By W. E. Orr [Sept. 1977]

LDM is a little late in telling you — but did you know that there is (or rather was) a Yankee gunboat heading up the Little Red towards Judsonia (or rather, Prospect Bluff)?

In fact, we are exactly 114 years late, but come up the river it did. It not only came up the river, it, quite naturally, had to come back down again. In the interest of truth, it is best to admit that on neither the upstream nor the downstream voyage is there a single item of evidence that there was any show of resistance on the part of our town's residents.

If you did not know about the Federal navy unit which invaded our waters, it is probably because
That's Judsonia, a book which attempted to tell Judsonia's history back in 1957, had very little to say about it. That was not an oversight, but rather because, at that time, the author didn't know much about it. That a Federal gunboat did come up the river is mentioned, but that is about all. After the book was published, there were a number of things that the writer still wanted to know, and just why the boat was here anyway was one of them. He spent quite a lot of time in research of naval department records and old newspapers.

Here's what he found out –

On August 1, 1863, a Federal force under Major G. A. Eberhart left Wittsburg on the St. Francis river, and reached Clarendon a week later. On August 12, orders came to move on Des Arc, Augusta, and Confederate boats on the Little Red. There were three ships in the little fleet: The Lexington, a side-wheel freighter of 448 tons, equipped with an eight-inch gun and five-inch wooden armor; the tinclad Cricket, a 178-ton stern-wheeler, which had been purchased by the Federals only nine months before at Cincinnati, and the tinclad Marmara, 207 tons. Captain Bache of the Lexington was in command of the three vessels. Major Eberhart placed Companies A and D, under the command of Captain DeTeer on board the Cricket, and companies F and G, with himself in command on board the Marmara.

The fleet left at dark, and made its first stop at Des Arc. There they burned a large warehouse, and arrested several citizens. Then, with Major Eberhart now on board the Lexington, they moved on to the mouth of the Little Red, where they tied up for the remainder of the night.

The next morning the boats separated. The Lexington and the Marmara went to Augusta, where the landing party found no Confederate soldiers to interfere with the inspection of the town. The Cricket, selected because it was the smallest of the three boats, started up the Little Red in search of two steamers reported to be on the river.

It was not an easy assignment for Lieutenant A. R. Lanthorne, commander of the Cricket. The little stern-wheeler's deck was covered with soldiers as it sailed up the strange stream. The banks were uncomfortably close - even a rifle shot from the woods could find an easy target. The six 24-pound howitzers with which the craft was armed could not be expected to hold off a heavy attack from the land. The faces of Langthorne and DeTeer were grim as they moved farther and farther upstream. The soldiers of companies A and D were silent as the crouched on the deck.

A group of blacks was sighted on the left bank, and Lieutenant Langthorne pulled up cautiously to get some information. He discovered that one of the Confederate steamers had gone up the river ahead of him only a short time before. It had also been tied up near the mouth of the river during the night, only a short distance from the fleet that was searching for it.

They passed West Point in safety, then Prospect Bluff. A few miles farther up the river they came to a big bend, and when they rounded it success lay spread out before them. There were the Kaskaskia and the Tom Sugg, which before the war had been said to be one of the most elaborate ferry boats in the South. Owned by W. H. Harvey, it had been built in the Cincinnati yards at a cost of $7,500. Too, there was a pontoon bridge, spanning the stream at Searcy Landing.

The Federals quickly went into action. Lieutenant Ackerman took Company A and set fire to the bridge. Company D divided its men to board the two Confederate boats, and they accomplished it without resistance. With Company A back on the Cricket, Lieutenant Langthorne was ready to move his prizes back down the Little Red.

By this time the Confederate force near West Point was fully aware of the Cricket's position. Major M. W. Smith had arrived with his men at West Point only a short time after the boat had gone up the river. Smith stationed his forces just above the town. Colonel G. A. Gilkey arrived with more soldiers in time to get into line with Major Smith. By this time the Confederates had approximately 500 men, all eagerly awaiting the return of the little tinclad.

Suddenly a burst of fire from Gilkey's section of the line announced the arrival of the three boats. From behind trees and stumps a whole broadside poured down on Lieutenant Langthorne's convoy. The pilot of the Kaskaskia stumbled back from his wheel with wounds in an arm and hand. The steamer began to swing around, and head straight for the enemy. For a moment it looked as if the craft would run aground at the very feet of the enemy. Langthorne had the howitzers going by now. Their merciless barrage drove the Southerners back, and he was able to get a rope across from the Cricket to take the Kaskaskia in tow. The fleet moved downstream, out of the range of the ambush.

Both sides had a few minutes to count their casualties. Company D of the Union forces had six men wounded. The Confederates had eight men hurt, Colonel Gilkey and Major David Shanks among them. Gilkey appeared to have a mortal injury. It was miraculous that so few were wounded. Hundreds of shots had been fired at a distance of 30 yards, and the fight had lasted approximately 20 minutes. Major Smith quickly reorganized his ranks, and dashed away to head off the convoy downstream.

By way of discouraging an attack at West Point, Langthorne ordered his gunners to fire on the town as they passed. One ball struck a house, where it remained as a landmark for many years.

Ten miles farther on, a cheer went up from the decks of the escaping craft. Upstream came the Lexington. The Marmara and the Lexington had returned to the mouth of the Little Red at 3:00 p.m. With the Cricket still absent, the Lexington had started up the river in search of her. The Marmara anchored to await their return.

Five miles downstream from the meeting place of the Lexington and the Cricket, the convoy was fired on again. The Confederates had pushed their horses hard to regain their position. However, this time the odds were too much in favor of the fleet. The Lexington's eight-inch gun was now added to the Cricket's howitzers. Major Smith was forced to call his men back.

Colonel G. W. Thompson, who made the report of the skirmishes to his headquarters, bemoaned the Confederates' failure to get their battery up at either stand.

"If we had good horses in our battery, we could have captured them easily," he said.

The boats once again anchored for the night at the mouth of the Little Red. That evening George Fox, one of the wounded, died. The next morning they moved on to Clarendon.

One marvels at how easily men forget. They must have talked about the battle all up and down the river for years after 1863. Yet, when I was a kid here in Judsonia I never heard it mentioned. How much do you and I really know about our great-grandfathers? Each generation fails the one who follows it in many ways, and not the least of those failures is that so much is forgotten and lost to history every time we cover the grave of an old man or woman.