The small town of St. Charles, Arkansas is most remembered as the site of what some historians call “the deadliest shot of the Civil War.” To understand what occurred, we have to go back to that fateful day on June 17, 1862.
Two weeks earlier Major General Thomas C. Hindman, anticipating the fall of Memphis, ordered the White River to be obstructed at St. Charles. This site was chosen because the first bluffs above the mouth of the White River are located here. Confederate resources were so limited though that they could only send a small detachment of navy and infantry to man the defenses.
On June 8th the Confederate gunboat Ponchatrain commanded by Lieutenant John W. Dunnington arrived at St. Charles. The small community only consisted of a few houses and stores then. Dunningtonn brought two 32 pounder cannons for defense of the town. He began building fortifications at a bend in the river.
The two guns were placed about 200 feet from the shore and 75 feet above the water. This gave them the ability to fire both up and down the river. Dunnington was soon joined by Captain Andrew M. Williams of the Confederate engineers. As his defenses were nearing completion Lt. Dunnington departed for Little Rock with his ship to obtain more equipment.
On June 15th the C.S.S. Maurepas reached St. Charles from Jacksonport, which is just up the river. It’s commander Captain Joseph Fry assumed command. He was rejoined by Dunnington who had traveled back to the small river town by an overland march bringing with him two 10 pound parrot rifled cannons and 35 crew members form the Ponchatrain.
A small contingent of infantry arrived at the same time from Pleasant’s Regiment. These 35 men were placed under Captain Williams’ command.
Just then, Confederate scouts saw smoke coming from down river signifying Union gunboats. These gunboats had been sent southward from Memphis to supply General Samuel Curtis’ Army of the Southwest which was marching across Northern Arkansas and in dire need of help. This expedition consisted of several gunboats and transports carrying the 46th Indiana led by Colonel G.N. Fitch. The naval vessels were led by Captain Augustus Kilty on the gunboat Mound City.
Time had run out for the Confederates. Captain Fry decided to sink his ship, the Maurepas, along with two small steamers in order to obstruct the river. Quickly his crew of about twenty men brought two more cannons on shore and set up another battery below the original site. Fry left Lt. Dunnington to command the upper battery. He would station himself at the lower battery with three cannons under the command of Midshipman L.M. Roby. Fry then ordered Captain Williams and his infantry along with a small howitzer cannon to set up further south of his lower battery to act as sharpshooters. Confederate fortifications at St. Charles now consisted of two batteries and an infantry position with 6 cannons and about 95 men.
Union forces consisted of the gunboats Mound City, St. Louis, Lexington and Conestoga along with transports carrying supplies and the 46th Indiana infantry regiment.
At 6 o’clock on the morning of the 17th the Union fleet approached the hidden batteries at St. Charles. First came the Mound City, then the St. Louis followed by the Lexington, Conestoga and transports. Suddenly the Confederate guns belched forth a terrific fire. Northern gunboats then returned fire and the small village of St. Charles shuddered from the blasts.
Passing the lower battery, the Mound City and St. Louis began to exchange fire with Dunnington and his 32 pounders. At the same time Colonel Fitch landed with his regiment and began to advance pushing Williams and his men backward toward the lower battery.
The Mound City advance to within about 600 yards of the enemy when a well directed shot penetrated her lower casemate a little above and forward of the gunport killing three men and exploding her steam drum. The massive explosion wrecked the Mound City as wounded sailors leapt into the river in order to escape. Captain Kilty who had been proudly pacing his deck just moments before with enemy shot and shell whizzing past him, was left scalded and suffering. Many thought his wounds were mortal, but he survived with losing just a leg.
Confederates on shore began to fire into the swimming sailors before they themselves were pushed back to the upper battery by Colonel Fitch and the 46th Indiana. This allowed the Mound City to float southward and to safety. It also allowed the other ships to save those still left alive in the waters of the White River.
Meeting at the upper battery Captain Fry and his officers ordered his men to scatter as Union soldiers surrounded them. Unfortunately Fry was wounded in the leg and captured. Casualty reports for the Confederates were not located, but Federals state that eight enemy soldiers were buried and another 29 taken prisoner.
Nearly all of the Union casualties came from the Mound City. Of the crew of 175 officers and men, 82 were killed in the casemate, 43 were killed or drowned in the river and 25 were severely wounded including Captain Kilty. Only 3 officers and 22 men escaped injury.
The Battle of St. Charles was a limited Union victory, but it failed to get supplies to the Army of the Southwest. After no communication General Curtis turned his command toward Helena and the Mississippi River. After a short occupation Colonel Fitch and his men were reloaded back aboard the transports and the small fleet departed.
Today there are several markers to the battle located in St. Charles. These included an historical marker along the river, a small museum and a larger monument to the men lost at the Battle of St. Charles.