Wednesday, September 30, 2009



Frederick Steele is a native of Delhi, Delaware county, New York, where he was born in the year 1819. He was the second regular army officer appointed to a field office from Iowa. Entering the West Point Military Academy in the year 1839, he was regularly graduated in 1843, and appointed a brevet 2d lieutenant in the 2d Infantry. He served with General Scott in the Mexican War, and greatly distinguished himself in the battles of Contreras and Chapultepec. He commanded his company at the capture of the City of Mexico, having been brevetted 1st lieutenant and captain, on account of gallant conduct in the two previous engagements.

On the declaration of peace, he reported, under orders, to General Riley, in California, and was made his assistant adjutant-general, which position he retained for several years. At the outbreak of the war, he was serving in Missouri, and, with the 1st Iowa Infantry, fought under General Lyon at the battle of Wilson's Creek. Captain Steele was commissioned colonel of the 8th Iowa Infantry, on the 23d of September, 1861; but his connection with this regiment was brief; for, his good conduct at Wilson's Creek coming to the ears of the War Department, he was, on the 29th of January, 1862, made a brigadier-general. If we except the time he served with Sherman around Vicksburg, in the spring and summer of 1863, and the time he served under General Canby, at Pensacola and around Mobile, in the spring of 1865, General Steele has, at all other times, held commands in Missouri and Arkansas. He was in command at Helena, Arkansas, in December, 1862, just before joining the expedition under General Sherman, which left that point in the latter part of that month for Chickasaw Bayou. On this expedition he commanded the 4th Division, 13th Army Corps; and, with two brigades of it, led the attack against the bluffs, over the long and narrow causeway that leads to the Walnut Hills from above the mouth of Chickasaw Bayou.

Immediately after this unfortunate affair, General Steele sailed with his command up the Arkansas River; and on the night of the 10th of January, 1863, marched to the rear of Arkansas Post, through the brushy swamps that were well-nigh impassable for infantry, and quite so for the ambulances and baggage-wagons. It is to the patience and valor of General Steele's troops that the country is chiefly indebted for the capture of these formidable works. We next find General Steele with Sherman, in command of his division on the final march against Vicksburg; and, after the fell of that city, on the second march against Jackson, in command of the 15th Corps. General Sherman approached Jackson in three columns, General Steele's command holding the centre, General Ord's the right, and General Parke's the left. On this march, "nothing worth recording occurred till the head of Steele's column was within six hundred yards of the enemy's line, on the Clinton road, when [July 9th, 8 A. M.] a six-inch rifle-shot warned us to prepare for serious work." Indeed, if we except the heedless affair of General Lauman, who commanded a division of General Ord's Corps, and the reconnaissance of Colonel, now General Corse, in command of the 6th Iowa and other troops, nothing of special interest occurred, during the eight day's siege of the city.

On the evacuation of Jackson by General Johnson, and after the destruction of the railroads and the rebel government property in and around the city, General Steele returned to Vicksburg; and, immediately after was appointed to the command of the Department and Army of Arkansas. He arrived at Helena on the 31st of July, 1863.

This was his first distinct and important command; and, for the manner in which he managed some matters of detail, he has been severely criticised. As a fighting-general, he proved himself all the loyal North could ask. It was the policy he adopted in governing the people of a subjugated district — nearly all of them bitter rebels—which lost him much of his early popularity; but, without questioning the wisdom of his plans, it is but just to say that, he was doubtless honest in his motives. He believed that the speedier way to bring a disaffected people back to a love of the Union was to treat them with kindness. He was right in principle: he only forgot that he was dealing with those who were rotten with treason, and totally destitute of principle.

General Steele left Helena for Little Rock, Arkansas, on the 10th of August, 1863, with an expeditionary army, numbering, of all arms, not quite twelve thousand men. On the 10th of September following, after forcing the enemy back step by step from Clarendon and across the Arkansas, he had compelled Generals Price and Marmaduke to evacuate Little Rock; and, on the evening of the same day, he received the city by formal surrender of the municipal authorities.

His successes were brilliant and, by General Grant, unlocked for; for, on the 12th of September, that general dispatched a seventeenth corps' division, (General John E. Smith's) from Vicksburg to reinforce him. News of the fall of Little Rock reached this division at Helena, and it marched to Chattanooga.

By this brief campaign, General Steele had restored to the Government nearly the entire State of Arkansas; for the enemy now disputed the possession of only a few counties in the south-western part of the State.

General Steele's next important move, which was made in conjunction with a similar one under Major-General N. P. Banks, was a failure, though history, I believe, will attribute it to no fault of the general. The object of this grand campaign was the capture of Shreveport, and the dispersion of the enemy in the Red River country, and, had General Banks escaped the serious disasters which overwhelmed his command at Sabine Cross Roads and Pleasant Hill, the object would doubtless have been attained.

General Steele left Little Rock on the 23d of March, 1864, and marching via Benton, Rockport and Arkadelphia, entered Camden at sun-down on the 15th of April. On this march he met and defeated the enemy under Price, Marmaduke, Shelby, Cabell and a score or more of others, of the ragged, epauletted chivalry, at Terre Noir Creek, Elkin's Ford, Prairie de Anne and north-west of Camden. When leaving Little Rock, it was doubtless General Steele's intention to march directly on Shreveport; for he crossed the Washita at Arkadelphia, and was directing his line of march nearly mid-way between Washington and Camden. Why did he enter Camden? On the 10th, 11th and 12th of April, he engaged the enemy at Prairie de Anne, and, from prisoners captured there, or from other sources, learned that the advance of Banks had not only been checked, but his whole command overwhelmed with disaster. The enemy, who at this point were in strong force in Steele's front, soon disappeared; and the general was not long in discovering that they were marching by a circuitous route to occupy Camden, and gain his rear. A race followed between himself and the enemy for Camden, which resulted, in the battle bearing that name. The battle was fought at the cross-roads, some seven miles west-north-west of the city.

Before reaching Camden, General Steele remained incredulous of the reports of General Bank's defeat; but after his arrival there he was convinced of their truth, and contemplated an immediate return to Little Rock. But, a large train of supplies reaching him in safety, he persuaded himself that he could maintain his position, and accordingly ordered the train to return to Pine Bluff for additional supplies. This is the train which was captured just north of the Moro Bottom; and this circumstance, some think, saved the balance of his army.

Having learned of the capture of his train, (and he had just before lost one sent out on a foraging expedition to Poisoned Springs) General Steele prepared for a rapid march back to Little Rock, where he arrived on the 2d of May. To show that fortune favored him, I give the following: After the capture of the train above referred to and the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Drake of the 36th Iowa, the rebel General Fagan was ordered to cross the Saline River, and intrench himself fronting Jenkin's Ferry, at which point Steele was to cross his army. For some reason, Fagan failed to comply with these orders, and, in consequence thereof, was relieved of his command and put in arrest. Had he complied with these orders, Steele must have surrendered to the rebel forces; for, without any enemy in his front, and after having burned the most of his own train, it was with the utmost difficulty he effected a crossing.

After General Steele's return to Little Rock, and during the entire time he was retained in command in Arkansas, he did little worthy of record. In January, 1865, he was relieved of his command, and ordered to report to Major-General Canby, at New Orleans. His last services were performed in the vicinity of Mobile. He was given a command, stationed at Pensacola, Florida, with which he marched against Mobile.

He took a prominent part in the capture of Fort Blakely; but a history of this affair will appear elsewhere.

General Steele is the smallest of the Iowa major-generals, or the smallest of the major-generals who have held colonel's commissions from the State; for he can hardly be called an Iowa man. He has a light complexion, lively, gray eyes, and hair, though originally brown, now heavily sprinkled with gray. He has a slender, wiry form, and a sharp, shrill voice. Nearly all army officers are occasionally profane: I know of but few exceptions, and General Steele is not one of them. He swears with precision, and with great velocity.

The general is passionately fond of a fine horse, and, in civil life, would be called a horse-jockey. It is reported that his horses have more than once appeared on the old race-course at Little Rock, where, competing with the steeds of the cavalry privates of his command, they have always borne off the stakes. The general, in his flannel shirt, would stand by a spectator of the sport, but nothing more.

General Steele is kind-hearted and humane, and easily approached, even by an humble private. It is this same kindness of heart, as I am informed, that tempered his rule while in command in Arkansas, and made him popular with the citizens and camp-followers, and unpopular with many in his army. In the field, he is really a fine officer; but he lacks firmness, and is unfit for a military governor. That which injured him not a little at Little Rock was his lack of judgment in selecting his staff officers. In this respect he was very unfortunate.

But he stands high in the confidence of General Grant, which is no common recommendation. The general is neat and tidy in his dress, and, when on duty, always appears in full uniform.

SOURCE: Addison A. Stuart, Iowa Colonels and Regiments, p. 179-84

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