Jenkins’ Ferry Battleground State Park is an area of the Ouachita National Forest in eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas, United States, that preserves a portion of land where Southern Union soldiers fought Confederates in the American Civil War.
Today, there are several historical markers located within Jenkins’ Ferry Battleground State Park, including one dedicated to the members of the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy who assisted in the preservation of the grounds. There is also a memorial marker placed on behalf of the Sons of the American Revolution, recognizing the role the organization played in the creation of America.
Other sites include the grave of John Parker, Jr., the first white settler to die in the county, and the grave of Joe Davis, a slave owned by Dr. Thomas C. Savage, one of the wealthiest residents of the town prior to the war. Visitors can see remnants of the earthen fort constructed by the Union army to protect its personnel in the winter of 1862-1863. Surviving buildings include the old log church, built in 1880, and the mill, dating from circa 1850.
The park features interpretive signs and plaques, trails for hiking and mountain biking, picnicking facilities, and a visitor center/museum. Stargazing is allowed outside the park boundary, and visitors needing a campsite for the night can utilize the rustic cabins or the modern yurts available for rent year round. The park receives high marks for its scenery and for its light pollution level, making it ideal for star gazing.
The park was originally established as a state park in 1957, but reverted to federal ownership in 1995. It is operated by the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation. The site has been designated an International Dark Sky Park and hosts stargazing events. In 1864, General M. Jeff Thompson with his 1st Arkansas Infantry Regiment (The Ozarks) and Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele’s 2nd Missouri Volunteer Cavalry Regiment crossed the Red River from Texas into Louisiana, then marched north through Arkansas, stopping at Little Rock for supplies.
On April 25 they encountered Major William H. Jenks’ Confederate force near Jenkins’ Ferry on Highway 16, about 12 miles (19km) east of Camden. Here they engaged in battle, which became known as the Engagement at Jenkins’ Ferry. Although outnumbered, the Army of Northern Arkansas under Maj. Gen. James F. Fagan attempted to delay the Union advance long enough for more men to arrive from Shreveport, and succeeded in holding the field until dark. At least one regiment remained in action all day, fighting from dawn to dusk, before falling back to Little Rock that evening. Union casualties were heavy, including Col. Thompson, who was killed early in the fight.
Colonel Thompson’s funeral took place on May 3 in Leola, with full military honors. His body was brought home to be buried in Arkansas. The Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry marked a turning point in the war. Not only did it result in heavy losses on both sides, but it also showed the Union forces that the Confederacy could strike anywhere in Arkansas, even after being driven out of the state. As a result, Sherman began his drive across the Delta toward Shreveport, hoping to cut off supply lines to the south. He ordered another offensive by Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele’s cavalry, whose mission would be to prevent any re-enforcements from reaching Jonesboro, if necessary sacrificing itself in the process.
The Battle of Marks’ Mills, fought three days later, resulted in further heavy casualties, though the Union ultimately won when part of Steele’s command ran headlong into a column of infantry and broke apart, enabling Sherman to seize Jonesboro without opposition. Following these victories, the once defiant region seemed ripe for submission.
On June 19, 1864, the people of Phillips County voted to seceded from the Union and join the Confederacy. Two months later, on August 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for 100,000 volunteers to put down what he called “this rebellion.” One hundred thousand men quickly responded, among them many from Phillips County. These “home guard” units were organized primarily along religious and political lines, with some regional loyalties. For example, those from Phillips County formed the First Kansas Home Guards, while those from Montgomery County joined together to form the Second Kansas Home Guard.
The guards were intended to be used locally to suppress disturbances, such as those caused by pro-Confederate elements following the fall of Little Rock to the Union forces, and to fill in for regular troops who were needed elsewhere. Most of the men soon left the guards, however, when mustered out between 1865 and 1877. Only around 500 men from Phillips County ever served in the famous unit. Of those, less than half survived the war; approximately 240 died from disease or injury. Remains of the home guards are still found throughout the county.