One hundred and fifty years ago this week, the 33rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment found itself on the march through the swamps and canebrakes of eastern Arkansas, hungry and exhausted, harassed by the enemy and hated by the local population.
It was during this grueling march that the 33rd and two other Union regiments beat back a larger force of Texas cavalry in a small but bloody clash. Although mostly forgotten today, the July 7, 1862, Battle of Cotton Plant (also known as Hill’s Plantation or Cache River) led to the Union occupation less than a week later of Helena, Ark., a strategically located town on the Mississippi River. Brigade-level engagements like Cotton Plant not only accounted for much of the Civil War’s fighting and dying, but they were essential to the success of larger operations and campaigns — in this instance, Ulysses S. Grant’s siege of Vicksburg, Miss., the following summer.
The 33rd is often referred to as the “Teachers’ Regiment,” because it had its start as a military company comprised of Normal University teachers and students. In August 1861, the “Normal Rifles” became Company A in the newly organized 33rd Illinois, with Normal University President Charles E. Hovey serving as the regiment’s colonel.
The 33rd spent most of the war (save a veteran furlough and regimental reorganization in early 1864) deployed in the South, often in hostile territory. As with most Illinois regiments, the 33rd was ordered “West,” grinding out the months in the humid, swampy, malarial backcountry of Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Alabama. Dysentery and other camp-borne illnesses were an ever-present killer, though the 33rd experienced its share of grisly action and losses to enemy fire.
In the spring and summer of 1862, the 33rd was part of the Army of the Southwest commanded by Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis. In late June, a force that included the 33rd left Batesville, Ark., for Helena, the object being to reestablish supply lines to Curtis’ under-provisioned army. Taking advantage of the enemy’s desperate situation, Confederates under Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman skirmished and harassed the Federals before making a stand near the hamlet of Cotton Plant on July 7.
The battle began when outnumbered elements of the 33rd, 11th Wisconsin and the 1st Indiana Cavalry, about 400 men altogether, encountered two or three regiments of Texas Rangers. Caught unawares, the bluecoats retreated a quarter mile before making their stand. Rallied by a fearless Hovey, they repelled several ill-conceived cavalry charges. Sgt. Edward M. Pike, also of the 33rd, earned the Congressional Medal of Honor rescuing a field piece from enemy hands, pulling it back to Union lines by hand “as if it had been a baby wagon.”
Routed “Johnny Reb” then fled toward the Cache River. “We followed him about four miles, shelling him through the cornfield and killing and capturing a number in the road, till night put an end to further pursuit,” recounted Lt. Col. Edward R. Roe of the 33rd. “Over this whole line of their flight, the ground was strewed with dead men and horses, guns, saddles, &c.” Confederate casualties, including killed, wounded and captured, numbered about 245, while Union losses were reported at 63.
Roe also noted that Col. Hovey “fought like a tiger, receiving a buck-shot in his breast.” According to another account, Hovey “coolly” removed a spent ball from his chest before quipping that, “The rebellion did not seem to have much force in it.”
On July 9, the 33rd was back on the march and headed south toward hoped-for supplies in Clarendon, Ark. After a miserable 30-plus-mile march in scorching heat, choking dust and no potable water, they reached the town at 2 a.m., only to learn that a supply flotilla on the White River had departed the day before.
The bedraggled procession then struck for Helena, 60 miles to the east, reaching the Mississippi River town on July 12 or 13. “Three-fourths of the command were lying sick and exhausted along the roadside for 30 miles in the rear,” noted Isaac H. Elliott, a 33rd veteran and author of the regiment’s official history. “It required days for them all to come up, many having to be brought in wagons sent for them.”
In “distance traveled and results obtained,” this nightmarish slog fell far short of Gen. William T. Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” acknowledged Elliott, though he was quick to add that “for difficult marches and downright hardships, Sherman’s march was a mere play day and picnic as compared with it.”