THE HISTORY OF THE BATTLE OF BROWNSVILLE”
In July and August of 1863, Union forces under Major General Frederick Steele advanced across Arkansas’s Grand Prairie, facing little resistance from Confederate forces as they advanced on the State Capital of Little Rock, Arkansas.
The first major battle between the Union and the Confederate armies occurred on August 25, 1863 in Brownsville, Arkansas. Brownsville was described by Steele as, “a fairly good sized town situated on a broad, flat, extensive prairie, about thirty miles distance in an easterly direction from Little Rock, Arkansas.”
It was on and around the sites of the Brownsville Cemetery and the current Brownsville Baptist church that the Confederate rear guard under Brigadier General John Sappington Marmaduke, outnumbered four-to-one in men and eight-to-one in artillery, attempted to slow down the Union advance to the State Capital.
Confederate Lt. Colonel B. Frank Gordon commanded seven hundred or so men of Brig. General J.O. Shelby’s Iron Brigade when the order came on the morning of the 25th, “ere the men had partaken of their scanty meal,” to form line of battle at Bayou Two Prairie and block the Military Road, including the section at Brownsville. One section of Bledsoe’s battery was placed on the road while Maj. Benjamin Elliott’s battalion moved a mile and a half ahead on the prairie to act as the Confederate advance and skirmish line. Marmaduke’s six hundred men under Col. William L. Jeffers formed on the edge of the Memphis to Little Rock Road, which ran through Brownsville, with Charlie Bell’s battery in place on the right and elements of Burbridge’s and Jeffers’ regiments and Young’s battalion on the left. “The enemy’s lines, extending across the prairie, could be plainly seen advancing, supported by a large body of cavalry with artillery, and when within about 200 yards of our lines Major Elliott, from his entire line, opened fire upon them, which was immediately returned, and the charge sounded by the bugles of the enemy brought their columns sweeping across the prairie and down upon our retiring column like a whirlwind.” Bledsoe’s cannon opened on the Union horsemen “as soon as our men had approached sufficiently near to distinguish them from the enemy.” “A few shots from the artillery drove the enemy’s advance back.” Gordon’s troops lost one man killed and four captured “by their horses and mules falling with them” in this first contact with Davidson’s troops.
Union participants remembered the battle in less grandiose terms. A Trooper named Petty of the U.S. Third Missouri Cavalry, dismissed the entire action with a sentence: “When getting within two miles of Brownsville, Arkansas, we encountered rebel pickets; they were charged and driven in; we soon shelled the dang rebs out of the place and occupied it easily.”
The Confederates fell back through Brownsville to a position on a second prairie some six miles west of their original position. The Union forces approached cautiously, pausing to shell the initial Confederate position, and then a band of timber on the eastern border of the prairie where the Southern horsemen reformed. A Captain named DeMuth of the U.S. Eighth Missouri Cavalry,
remembers that “we shelled him for an hour probably, when our regiment prepared to fight on foot. We went into the brush and searched all round for him, but could not find him, he gave us the slip.”
“On seeing the Confederate cavalry, the Union troops again moved to the attack, and as one column filed right and another left, in the most perfect order, with their banners gaily streaming in the wind, we could but admire their perfect discipline and soldierly bearing,”
Davidson ordered a pair of batteries that then proceeded to throw “a shower of shells” into the Confederate lines, which Gordon claimed “fell harmless.” DeMuth remembers this action like this: “We proceeded some farther, shelled him again, but cannot catch him.”
This action ended the Battle of Brownsville, with the Confederates retreating to modern-day Jacksonville (then called Graystown) along the Bayou Meto Creek at Reed’s Bridge, where another battle would soon take place on August 27. Union forces took over the former Confederate camp located on the current site of Brownsville Baptist Church and rested at Brownsville.
Nevertheless, Marmaduke’s delaying action succeeded in slowing the Union troops’ advance as Davidson halted to wait on the infantry column. Though several other skirmishes took place between the Union and Confederate forces, including those at Jacksonville (The Battle of Reed‘s Bridge), Scott (The Battle of Ashley‘s Mill), and The Battle of the Bayou Fourche (near modern-day Fourche Dam Pike), Little Rock eventually fell to Steele’s Union army on September 10, 1863. This was a major blow to the Confederate Government of Arkansas and, along with the capture of Helena on the Mississippi River, ultimately led to its defeat. And to think, it all started right here in Brownsville, Arkansas, where our church stands today!
Bevis, Carol and Shirley McGraw. Lonoke County: A Pictorial History (Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Company Publishers, 1998).
Burford, Timothy and Stephanie McBride. The Division: Defending Little Rock August 25 -- September 10, 1863 (Jacksonville, AR: WireStorm Publishing, 2000).
Christ, Mark K. Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 1994).
Gordon wrote. When the Union cavalry was about half way across the two-mile-wide prairie, Bell’s battery “mischievously ambushed” the U.S. Second Missouri Cavalry, also known as the “Merrill Horsemen,” a regiment mounted on white horses.