In the Spring of 1864, on a small farm in central Arkansas, Elam Waddell was preparing for planting season. The Civil War was raging across most Southern states but Arkansas, which had joined the Confederate States of America three years earlier, had remained relatively quiet.
However, Elam Waddell and his family would soon learn that they were not immune from the conflict.
The sixty year-old farmer and Cumberland Presbyterian minister had moved his family to Arkansas five years earlier from Mississippi, after selling his land there. We do not know for certain the reasons Mr. Waddell chose to move; however, at the time, many small farms in Mississippi were being acquired and consolidated into larger plantations, to then be worked by slave labor. As a result, productive land was becoming more valuable in Mississippi; so, the move may have been related to an opportunity to obtain a good price for his land. But circumstances suggest that Elam may have also wanted to leave an area becoming more dependent on slave labor.
While there is no record in Elam’s own words of his position on slavery, there is a letter, written by a relative, which reveals that a man who owned two slaves had objected to his daughter marrying into the Waddell family because Elam did not own slaves. Further, the fact that Elam’s son, A.J. (Alex) was given furlough by the Confederate army to help with planting season reinforces the supposition that the Waddell family farmed their land without reliance on the labor of slaves. It seems likely, therefore, that at least on his new farm in Arkansas, Elam and his family worked their fields by themselves; and utilized two old matched mules which were used to pull wagons, plows, and other implements.
That would have been common in Arkansas, where only about one family in thirty owned any slaves; however, there were several large slave-holders in the state and slaves accounted for nearly 25% of the total population of 450,000. Although that proportion of slaves may seem high, it was the lowest of any of the states which seceded in 1861, as Black slaves actually outnumbered the White population in some southern states, including Mississippi.
But, slave-holder or not, Elam Waddell was a Southerner who supported the Confederacy.
He certainly was aware that Union and Confederate forces had been fighting for over two years for control of the Mississippi River from Tennessee to the Gulf of Mexico. While there was all-out war along the Mississippi in a few key locations, such as Vicksburg and New Orleans, his farm was about 100 miles west of the great River and was not in a strategic military area. He would have also known about a large Union garrison which was headquartered near the town of Little Rock, about 50 miles to the north.
However, Elam could not have known that Union Generals were planning to pull nearly 30,000 soldiers from units in Arkansas and Louisiana and consolidate them to attack the city of Shreveport, Louisiana, near the Texas border. One of these Union forces, of about 10,000 men led by General Frederick Steele, was sent from the Little Rock garrison, with over 500 wagons, hitched to several thousand army mules; a major over-land logistical trek.
Because it would have been impossible to hide the movement of such a large army, Elam may have heard that the Union troops from Little Rock were on the move, but their initial path toward Shreveport took them about 40 miles west of the Waddell farm; so Elam may have thought his family’s home would still not directly be in harm’s way.
The Union Generals, understanding that Confederate scouts and/or spies would learn of their destination, believed that the Confederates would amass forces near Shreveport to defend the city. However, they did not expect that Southern units would engage any of the several large Union forces along the way, except possibly for minor harassment actions. It was a grievous error in judgement by the Union Commanders.
Instead, Confederate General Edmund Smith assembled a force of over 20,000 Confederates from Texas, Alabama, and southern Louisiana and attacked General Steele’s army before they could join the other Union forces at Shreveport. With the original plan in disarray, the Union commander ordered a retreat back to the relative safety of Little Rock; but the Confederate army stayed in hot pursuit. At several points along the way, fierce battles erupted, often in the rain and deep mud.
The Union army continued to pull back after each engagement, and, on April 29th, gathered around a defensive position near Jenkins’ Ferry on the Saline River.
Only a few miles from Elam Waddell’s farm!
The weather was terrible, it had rained hard for two days, and combatants and equipment on both sides were mired in mud. Weather, however, does not delay death in war and the two sides began to take a horrific toll on each other, often in hand to hand combat, while slipping and sliding in the ever deepening slosh.
The battle of Jenkins’ Ferry would be brutal. One soldier recalled that, “War is miserable enough, but with mud it is Devil’s ground. Your feet are stuck. Your eyes are blinded by rain and the smoke from many weapons. You slash without seeing who you are striking. You are struck by a man you do not see. Who survives is just chance.”
Elam and his family were still a few miles from the fighting and they occasionally heard cannon fire; however, they had not encountered any troops from either side.
Early one morning, the family realized that the noise from cannons was closer than before and Alex, Elam’s son who was home on leave from his Confederate unit, later recalled that it sounded like thunder. “The noise was constant and it went on all day. We had no way of knowing how it was going with our boys, so we were terribly frightened. We got no work done that day. We prayed a lot.”
As the day wore on, they saw a long line of mule drawn wagons coming up the muddy road, and they probably could see Union flags. The wagons, it turned out, were carrying many wounded Union soldiers back to Little Rock where they could receive better care.
The Waddells noticed one wagon, in particular, being pulled by two mules which were obviously worn out, weak from hunger, and near death. Alex continued the story: “The driver whipped them and yelled at them but they finally just lay down in their harness. They could not get up.”
The family had moved into the woods from their house to keep out of sight, probably to make sure Alex, who could have been identified as a Confederate soldier, was not arrested, or shot, by the Yankees. They watched as two soldiers came up to the corral where Elam’s two old mules were kept, took the animals back to the wagon and harnessed them; leaving the two army mules to die in the mud. The column of wagons with so many injured soldiers then moved on.
But, somehow, the two deserted army mules managed to cling to life.
Alex then said, “After dark, Pa carried some water and feed to the mules. After some time, we managed to get them up and took them deep into the woods and kept them hidden. Pa said, ‘Boys if we can get them through the next day or two, we’ll have us a good matched pair of young mules. Those old mules of mine won’t last long.’ We would go and feed them each day and they were as fine a matched pair as you could find.”
After the battle at Jenkins’ Ferry, the two opposing forces separated and left the area around Elam’s farm; however, for Confederate and Union soldiers, there would be another full year of battles, death, and destruction elsewhere before the Civil War would end.
As the years went by, Alex recalled that his father often bragged about the “Good Swap” and said; “I think we may have won out over those Yankees. They stole our mules, but we got the best of the bargain.”
Of course, the wounded Union soldiers whose wagon was no longer moving due to the two exhausted Army mules, must have thought the two old stolen mules which (presumably) were able to help get them to safety and needed medical care, were a “Good Swap” as well.
Seems to have been a win-win and a “Good Swap” all around.
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