W. J. Blake was born on December 5, 1830, in Chester District, SC. In 1856, he moved to the Carolina Settlement in present-day Nevada County. On January 22, 1857, he married Emily Terrisa Peden (1833-1892). At the outbreak of the Civil War, he enlisted as a private in Co. I, Fifteenth Regiment, Arkansas Infantry. He fought in the defense of Fort Heiman during U. S. Grant's advance on the forts on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and in the defense of Fort Henry (Feb. 4-6, 1862) and Fort Donelson (Feb. 15, 1862). The Confederate forces were defeated, but Blake escaped during the surrender to Memphis and from there returned to Arkansas where he began to reorganize a new company. This new unit became Company I, First Trans-Mississippi Regiment. The men elected Blake their captain. In late 1862, they participated in the battles of Cane Hill and Prairie Grove in northwest Arkansas. On July 4, 1863, they took part in the assault on federal works at Helena. Blake was wounded, taken prisoner and held in prison camps until June 30, 1864. He served the remainder of the war with Gen. W. L. Cabell's Brigade, finally surrendering in Marshall, Texas, at the close of hostilities. He died in 1905 and is buried in DeAnn Cemetery.
Blake is holding a sword similar to the one on display. The scabbard is visible to the right. As in many Civil War-era photographs, soldiers wanted to appear ferocious and were bristling with arms in their portraits. Blake is no exception. He sports two pistols in his belt. The belt has a brass clasp with a rare snake motif. His uniform is obviously homemade.
General Frederick Steele, the commanding general in Little Rock, was not eager to take up his role in the Red River Campaign, and he makes it evident in this letter to General Halleck written a few days before the expedition embarked into southwest Arkansas. He believed General Banks in Louisiana had enough men to defeat the Confederate commander General Kirby Smith at Shreveport. He reluctantly conceded to the pressure of Generals Sherman and Banks to send his army toward the Confederate state capital at Washington, Arkansas. Steele did not control the State of Arkansas and he knew it. He feared Confederate cavalry cutting him off from his supplies and the inability of the country to provide him with the necessary forage for his men and horses. He preferred to remain in Little Rock and hold the line along the Arkansas River as best he could to prevent Confederate forays into Arkansas and Missouri. His fears would prove well-founded.
Orders were issued for the men to prepare for the coming expedition. They were to travel light, living off the land as much as possible.
It was still very early spring. The roads were wet with the winter and spring rains. The days could be warm, but the nights were frequently freezing. The streams were high with the spring rains. The giant trees of the Arkansas forests and swamps hide the men of Kirby Smith, Sterling Price, Joe Shelby, Holmes, Dockery, Cabell and Marmaduke. Steele's confidence in Banks' ability to defeat Kirby Smith was misplaced. Smith trounced Banks' forces soundly and then turned his attention to Steele. After fighting at Prairie D'Ane, Steele wheeled his column toward Moscow and Camden. He lost hundreds of wagons and men during April and narrowly averted disaster by crossing the swollen Saline River and destroying his pontoon bridge behind him. Steele's expedition lasted forty days. Kirby Smith could claim a victory, but Confederate losses were heavy too. The Union Army returned to Little Rock battered but intact. Southwest Arkansas remained in Confederate hands for the rest of the war. Kirby Smith surrendered his command, the last significant Confederate force, on May 26, 1865.
HDQRS. THIRD DIVISION, SEVENTH ARMY CORPS
Little Rock, Ark., March 12, 1864.
The general commanding directs me to say that in case the division should be ordered on a march the following instructions will be observed: The troops will go in light marching order. Each man will carry in his knapsack his blanket, poncho, one shirt, one pair of stockings, two days' rations in his haversack, and 40 rounds of ammunition. One wagon will be allowed to each regiment for transportation of cooking utensils, &c., and one wagon for brigade headquarters. Such men as are not able to march will be left in camp and one commissioned officer of each regiment will be placed in charge of the camp. Lieutenant-Colonel Mackey, Thirty-third Iowa Infantry, whose health don't permit him to march, will remain in charge of the whole camp of the division.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Captain and Assistant Adjutant-General