Battle of Poison Spring
The Union defensive lines
occupied the ground visible
here beyond the interpretive
shelter.
Allegations of Murder
As the Battle of Poison Spring
ended, Federal troops tried to
flee into the surrounding
woods but were pursued by
Confederate soldiers.
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - The Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - The Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas
Battle of Poison Spring - In Depth
by Dale Cox
During the spring of 1864, the Union launched one of the most ill-conceived campaigns of the
Civil War. Despite the objections of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, thousands of soldiers began an
invasion of northern Louisiana and southern Illinois. Their initial target was Shreveport,
Louisiana, and from there they hoped to advance into Texas.

The main column of the invasion, led by Gen. Nathaniel Banks, moved up the Red River to
Alexandria, Louisiana, and began an advance by land against Shreveport where Banks
planned to join a second column commanded by Gen. Frederick Steele.  Steele agreed with
Grant as to the wisdom of the campaign, but pursuant to orders he moved troops south from
Little Rock and Fort Smith and began his advance on Shreveport.

Hampered by muddy roads and swollen creeks and rivers, Steele reached Arkadelphia on
March 29, 1864, six days after he left Little Rock.  He hoped to link up with reinforcements from
Fort Smith, but they did not join his army for another eleven days.  By that time Steele had
fought outnumbered Confederate defenders at Elkin's Ferry on the Little Missouri River.

The two sides fought again at Prairie D'Ane on April 10-11, 1864, in a noisy but otherwise
inconclusive battle that ended when Confederate Gen. Sterling Price withdrew his men from
the field without the knowledge of the Federals.

Running short on supplies, Steele halted his planned march on Shreveport and turned east to
the Arkansas city of Camden. Price moved quickly behind him and sent forward forces to
harass the rear of the Union column as they made their way over muddy roads. The Federals
occupied Camden on April 15th.

Although the Arkansas column did not know it, the Red River Campaign had turned disastrous
by the time they marched into Camden. Confederate Gen. Richard Taylor had smashed into
the Louisiana column on April 8th, driving the Union advance back. Even though his force was
much smaller, Taylor pursued Banks and attacked him again at Pleasant Hill the next day. The
Federals were able to hold the field this time, but Banks lost his nerve and began a retreat
back to Alexandria.  

Steele had no way of knowing what was going on in Louisiana, despite rumors of a major
disaster, and continued his efforts to carry out his mission. Desperately in need of provisions
for his army, he sent out a train of 200 wagons on April 17th to seize corn twenty miles west of
Camden. The wagons were escorted by 670 men under Col. James Williams. The bulk of this
force was provided by the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers and the raiding party also took along
two pieces of artillery.

Price, however, knew that Steele would attempt such a foraging raid and had stationed cavalry
to watch all of the roads leading out of Camden. He learned the Federals were on the move
almost as soon as they moved out.

As the Union raiders went about filling their wagons with corn and anything else they could
carry away from civilian farms and homes, Confederate Gen. John Marmaduke moved to
intercept them with 3,600 men and 12 pieces of artillery. By the time Williams began his return
to Camden with 5,000 bushels of corn, Marmaduke was waiting for him near a trickling water
source named Poison Spring.

Williams was reinforced by an additional 490 with two more pieces of artillery as he
approached Poison Spring, but the Confederates outnumbered him by three to one in both
men and artillery.  

The fighting began on April 18, 1864, as Williams' vanguard began to skirmish with and push
back Confederate cavalry. When the fighting intensified and it became clear that he was in for
a serious battle, however, Williams took up defensive positions on the Washington-Camden
Road to try to protect the wagons and their vital loads of corn.

The Confederates opened on them with a storm of artillery and then launched attacks on the
Union center and right flank.  Although one charge was repulsed, the Southern assault quickly
proved too much for Williams' outnumbered men and the Federal lines broke.

In the rout that followed the Federals tried to withdraw from the field, but the Confederates
swarmed them. Many of the members of the 1st Kansas Colored (African American volunteers
collected largely from the plantations of Arkansas and Missouri) tried to flee into a swampy
area but were cut down by pursuing Confederates, including the 1st and 2nd Choctaw
Regiments from the 2nd Indian Brigade. It was reported after the battle that the Native
American soldiers killed and scalped many of the black soldiers. Many allegations have been
made of post-battle murders and there can be no doubt that many killings did take place after
the main fighting of the battle was over. It should also be noted, however,  that eyewitnesses
described African American soldiers trying to flee with their weapons still in their hands. To the
Confederates, this could have been seen as an indication that they were still combatants. The
post-battle accounts of the Battle of Poison Spring, in fact, are eerily similar to those of Fort
Pillow in Tennessee.

The Battle of Poison Spring was a devastating Confederate victory. The Southern troops
captured 170 loaded wagons, 4 cannon and 1,200 mules. Confederate losses were reported
at 13 killed, 81 wounded and 1 missing. Union losses were much more severe. The 1st
Kansas Colored alone lost 117 killed and 65 wounded (42%). Total Union losses in the battle
were 204 killed or missing and 97 wounded. A number of Federal soldiers were also taken
prisoner, but ominously Gen. Kirby Smith saw only 2 African American soldiers were among
them when he arrived on the scene during the following days.

The Confederate victory at the Battle of Poison Spring inflicted a damaging blow to Steele's
hopes of remaining active in the Camden area. The battle was followed seven days later on
April 25th by a similar but less bloody Confederate victory at Marks Mill. The two fights left
Steele with no choice but to end his campaign and retreat back to Little Rock. He evacuated
Camden on the morning of April 26, 1864.

The Confederates pursued and there was one more major battle, this time at
Jenkins' Ferry on
the Saline River. The Federals were able to beat back uncoordinated Confederate attacks,
however, and finally escaped across the Saline and to safety.
Poison Spring State Park
The Poison Spring battlefield
is located on Highway 76
about ten miles west of
Camden, Arkansas.
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Copyright 2011 by Dale Cox
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