The rough-hewn 3rd Arkansas made its presence felt in the Eastern Theater

The 3rd Arkansas Infantry arrived in western Virginia truly ducks out of water. It was the only regiment from Arkansas in the entire Eastern Theater, and the men’s coarse appearance made their Virginia comrades view them as “ignorant country boys.” While the regiment would go on to greater fame as part of John Bell Hood’s Texas Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia, it spent much of its first year of service in the foreboding mountains of western Virginia, taking part in fighting at Greenbrier and Camp Allegheny.

Sergeant Major Frederick Lawrence of the 3rd Arkansas penned the following letter describing the October 3, 1861, Battle of Greenbrier River. A Federal force under Brig. Gen. Joseph Reynolds marched from Cheat Mountain intending to break up the Confederate force stationed at Camp Bartow on the Greenbrier River. The 3rd Arkansas formed the left flank of the defending force and kept Reynolds’ column from establishing a lodgment on the Confederate side of the river. The small engagement resulted in 100 total casualties.

Headquarters 3rd Regiment Arkansas Volunteers, Camp Bartow, Pocahontas Co., Virginia

October 1861

I have not written to you since the organization of our regiment because nothing of interest has occurred since we came to Virginia until within a few days. We have undertaken since we came here two months ago to surprise the enemy in his stronghold on Cheat Mountain but without success. We marched over almost impassable mountains, waded ice-cold streams, slept in chilling rains on the ground, in short, suffered every hardship only to find the enemy too strongly fortified to be attacked with any hope of success. On the last expedition on September 12th we skirmished with a considerable body, killing four and taking nine prisoners with a loss of one on our side. The enemy have magnified our loss into 70 killed and taken prisoner.

On the 3rd of October, however, the grand battle of the season came off. About daylight our pickets commenced firing; at first only dropping shots were heard to which we paid but little attention. But soon we heard rapid and continuous discharges of musketry in the direction of the enemy indicating a hot contest between them and our pickets. A runner came in with a dispatch from the officer commanding the pickets that the enemy was approaching in force with cavalry and artillery. Colonel Rust ordered the long roll to be beaten and our regiment formed in order of battle. The right of our position was defended by the Georgia regiment, the center by the Virginians, and the left by the 3rd Arkansas and Anderson’s battery. The enemy came down in fine style with eight pieces of artillery and 6,000 infantry and cavalry. When within range they unlimbered their guns and opened fire, pouring shot and shell from their rifled cannon upon us with the most remarkable rapidity and precision. Our batteries opened in reply and under an arch of shrieking shells and whizzing cannon and Minié balls, the gallant 3rd Arkansas marched to take up its position on the left in the woods.

As anticipated, the enemy attempted to turn our left with his infantry, covering their advance with showers of grape and canister. They crossed the river in three columns some distance below us and throwing out a vanguard, approached us cautiously through the woods not knowing exactly where we were. They soon found out, however, for when within 25 steps the left flank of our regiment gave them a morning salute of about 60 guns which caused the head of the column to fall back in confusion upon the main body. This became panic stricken and the whole force retreated in disorder precipitately down the hill and across the river, taking with them, however, their dead and wounded, leaving some in the shallow stream which we fished out next day. They then made an attempt on the right but were repulsed by the Georgians and Shoemaker’s battery which pitched grape and canister into them in a most feeling manner, killed them by scores.

The 3rd Arkansas’ battle flag, flown later in the war. By 1863, all Army of Northern Virginia regimental flags used this “third bunting” issue design. (Old State House Museum)
The 3rd Arkansas’ battle flag, flown later in the war. By 1863, all Army of Northern Virginia regimental flags used this “third bunting” issue design. (Old State House Museum)

All this time, the mountains reverberated with the roar of 12 pieces of artillery in constant action, while at intervals between claps of thunder in an autumnal storm. The attack lasted four hours at the end of which time the enemy cried out, ‘They are charging us, they are charging us, retreat, retreat!’ They broke ranks and fled in confusion, leaving some of their dead on the field. They hauled off 20 wagons and ambulances loaded with dead and wounded for their share of the spoils. They came down from the mountain fastnesses with a large train of wagons, anticipating an easy victory and an abundance of spoils, but instead of filling their wagons with the spoils of the Secesh as they call us, they filled them with the bloody and mangled bodies of their miserable dunces of a cruel and insensate despot.

The loss of the enemy was at least 250 or 300 and ours about 30. The loss of our regiment was just nine killed, wounded, and missing. I know this number to be accurate because in the discharge of my duties as sergeant major of the regiment I make a full report of the state of the regiment every morning. We acted solely upon the defensive because many of our regiments were so weak from the effects of our terrible campaign in the mountains as to be scarcely able to stand in ranks. Out of a regiment 800 strong we only marched in the field about 350 men. Our whole force did not exceed 3,000 men, scores of whom arose from sickbeds where they had lain for weeks to fight the battles of their country. We had no cavalry at all and never could have caught them on foot. But thanks to the God of battles, we drove the insolent foe back to his den, taking a magnificent U.S. flag and a large quantity of clothing, knapsacks, haversacks, and guns which he abandoned in his inglorious retreat. 

This post first appeared on the Dan Masters’ Civil War Chronicles on January 24, 2021. For more, visit
http://dan-masters-civil-war.blogspot.com.