Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lincoln: Take II: Jenkins Ferry

At the very beginning of Lincoln, the president interacts with Union soldiers in the rain; two black soldiers recount vicious warfare in Arkansas, including the killing of more than 100 wounded and surrendering black soldiers [from the First Kansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment (Colored)] by Confederates at Posion Spring on April 18, 1864, and retaliatory killing of Confederates at Jenkins Ferry by African American troops [of the Second Kansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment (Colored)] on April 30, 1864.  The stakes are clear: this was a life or death struggle for free black men, with the remnants of slavery hanging in the balance. There are images of Union and Confederate soldiers clubbing and stabbing each other in mud and rain. This is pretty much how it really happened in Arkansas.  

As it turns out, Jeremiah C. France, a younger brother of my great-great-grandfather Samuel France (who served with the Thirty-first Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment), was also there in Arkansas as a Union soldier, member of the Forty-third Indiana Voluneer Infantry Regiment.  Jeremiah's unit had been decimated at the Battle of Marks' Mills (April 25, 1864), with many taken as POWs; as at Poison Spring, scores of surrendering black troops had been killed by Confederates, their bodies scalped and mutilated.  (In Arkansas in 1864, this was civil war at its ugliest -- not unlike the Bosnian War of 1992-1996.)

Elements of the Forty-third Indiana fought at Jenkins Ferry as part of a thrown together remnant called ""the Casual Detachment." William E. McLean, an officer in the regiment who survived Jenkins Ferry, remembered it vividly decades later. Of the night before and the battle itself, he recalled:

Lightning flashed, thunder rolled and rumbled, rain poured down in torrents, and the river bottom became a sea of mud. The battle was a fearful and obstinate contest. Ankle deep in mud and mire, the contesting forces stood for more than six hours, shooting each other down in their tracks and filling the morass with the dead and dying. . . No one who was present . . . is likely to forget Jenkins Ferry. . .

. . . The Arkansas colored regiment, composed wholly of recently liberated slaves, taken from the cotton and corn fields of the state, acquitted themselves splendidly . . . They did . . . noble service, upon this field, charging upon the enemy with a whoop and a yell.  Their charge will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it, astonishing everyone as it did by the cool courage which they exhibited. Here comes your "Iron Clads," they shouted . . . It was probably the last charge made by our troops in that bloody morass of the Saline bottom . . .   

McLean, The Forty-third Regiment of Indiana Volunters. An Historic Sketch of Its Career and Services (Terre Haute: C.W. Brown, Printer and Binder, 1903), pages 25-26. 

I'd love to read Jeremiah France's account of the Arkansas campaign, but he died before the war ended, in his mid-twenties. On the other hand, earlier this year I discovered that the direct ancestor of a friend I've known for more than thirty years was also at Jenkins Ferry, with the Twenty-seventh Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Small world, one that reconnects directly back to the opening sequence of Lincoln.

Today's Rune: Fertility.


Sidney said...

Interesting post.

Charles Gramlich said...

I have visited Jenkins Ferry. Little sign now of the horrors of the battle fought there. But the memory lives on.