Poison Spring State Park
Today's state park contains a
portion of the battlefield and
helps orient visitors to the
tactics of the battle.
Ravine at Poison Spring
A walking trail leads down
into the deep ravine at Poison
Spring. Natural features like
this prevented the Federals
from saving their cannon.
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - The Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - The Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas
Battle of Poison Spring - Union Report
Report of Col. James M. Williams, 2nd Kansas Colored
Camden, Ark., April 24, 1864.
…At a point 1 mile east of this my advance came upon a picket of the enemy, which was driven
back for 1 mile, when a line of the enemy’s skirmishers presented itself. Here I halted the
train, formed a line of the small force I then had in advance, and ordered that portion of the
First Kansas Colored Volunteers which had previously been guarding the rear of the train to
the front, and gave orders for the train to be parked as closely as the nature of the ground
would permit. I also opened a fire upon the enemy’s line from the section of Second Indiana
Battery, for the double purpose of ascertaining, if possible, if the enemy had any artillery in
position in front, and also to draw in some foraging parties which had previously been
dispatched upon either flank of the train. No response was elicited save a brisk fire from the
enemy’s skirmishers. Meanwhile the remainder of the First Kansas Colored Volunteers had
come to the front, as also those detachments of cavalry which formed part of the original
escort, which I formed in line, facing to the front, with detachment Fourteenth Kansas Cavalry
on my left, and detachments Second and Sixth Kansas Cavalry on my right flank. I also sent
orders to Captain Duncan, commanding Eighteenth Iowa Volunteers, to so dispose of his
regiment and the cavalry and howitzers which came out with him as to protect the rear of the
train, and to keep a sharp lookout for movement upon his rear and right flank. Meanwhile a
movement of the enemy’s infantry toward my right flank had been observed through the thick
brush, which covered the surface of the country in that direction. Seeing this, I ordered forward
the cavalry on my right, under Lieutenants Mitchell and Henderson, with orders to press the
enemy’s line, force it if possible, and at all events to ascertain his position and strength,
fearing, as I did, that the silence of the enemy in front was but for the purpose of drawing me
on into the open ground which lay in my front. At this juncture a rebel soldier rode into my lines
and inquired for Colonel De Morse. From him I learned that General Price was in command of
the rebel force, and that Colonel De Morse was in command of a force on my right. The cavalry
had advanced but 400 yards, when a brisk fire of musketry was opened upon them from the
brush, which they returned with true gallantry, but were forced to fall back. In this skirmish
many of the cavalry were unhorsed, and Lieutenant Henderson fell, wounded in the abdomen,
while gallantly urging his men forward. In the meantime I formed five companies of the First
Kansas Colored Volunteers with one piece of artillery on my right flank, and ordered up to their
assistance four companies from the Eighteenth Iowa. Soon my orderly returned from the rear
with a message from Captain Duncan, stating that he was so closely pressed in the rear by
the enemy’s infantry and artillery that the men could not be spared.
At this moment the enemy opened upon me with two batteries, one of six pieces in front, and
one of three pieces on my right flank, pouring in an incessant and well directed cross-fire of
shot and shell. At the same time he advanced his infantry both in front and on my right flank.
From the force of the enemy, now for the first time made visible, I saw that I could not hope to
defeat him; but still I resolved to defend the train to the last, hoping that re-enforcements would
come up from Camden. I suffered them to approach within 100 yards of my lines, when I
opened upon them with musketry charged with buck and ball, and after a contest of fifteen
minutes’ duration compelled them to fall back. Two fresh regiments, however, coming up, they
again rallied and advanced against my lines, this time with colors flying and continuous
cheering, so loud as to drown even the roar of the musketry. Again I suffered them to approach
even nearer than before, and opened upon them with buck and ball, their artillery still pouring
in a cross-fire of shot and shell over the heads of their infantry, and mine replying with vigor
and effect; and for another quarter of an hour the fight raged with desperate fury, and the noise
and din of battle of this almost hand-to-hand conflict was the loudest and most terrific it has
ever been my lot to listen to. Again they were forced to fall back, and twice during this contest
were their colors brought to the ground, but as often raised.
During these contests fully one-half of my infantry engaged were either killed or wounded.
Three companies were left without an officer, and seeing the enemy again re-enforced with
dresh troops it became evident that I could not hold my line but little longer. I directed Major
Ward to hold that line until I could ride back and form the Eighteenth Iowa in proper form to
support the retreat of this advanced line. Meanwhile, so many of the gunners having been shot
from around their pieces as to leave too few men to serve the guns, I ordered them to retire to
the rear of the train and report to the commanding officer there. Just as I was starting for the
line of the Eighteenth Iowa my horse was shot, and caused a delay long enough to obtain and
mount another one, which done, I rode to the rear and formed a line of battle facing the
direction in which the enemy was advancing. Again did the enemy hurl his columns against
the remnant of men which formed my front and right flank, and again were they met as
gallantly as before. But my decimated ranks were unable to resist the overpowering force
hurled against my line, and after a check had been given their advance, seeing that our line
was completely flanked on both sides, Major War gave the order to retire, which was done in
good order, forming and checking the enemy twice before reaching the rear of the train. With
the assistance of Major Ward and other officers I succeeded in forming a portion of the First
Colored Regiment in rear of the Eighteenth Iowa, and when the enemy approached this line
they gallantly advanced to the line of the Eighteenth Iowa, and with them poured in their fire.
The Eighteenth Iowa maintained their line manfully, and stoutly contested the ground until
nearly surrounded, when the retired, and, forming again, checked the advancing foe, and still
held their ground until again nearly surrounded, when they again retired across a ravine which
was impassable for artillery, and I gave orders for the pieces to be spiked and abandoned.
After crossing this raving I succeeded in forming a portion of the cavalry, which I kept in line in
order to give the infantry time to reach the swamp which lay in our front, which they succeeded
in doing, and by this means nearly all except the badly wounded were enabled to reach camp.
Many wounded men belonging to the First Kansas Colored Volunteers fell into the hands of
the enemy, and I have the post positive assurances from eye-witnesses that they were
murdered on the spot. This action was commenced at 10 a.m. and terminated at 2 p.m. I was
forced to abandon everything to the enemy, and they thereby became possessed of this large
train, two 6-pounder guns, and two 12-pounder mountain howitzers. With what force could be
collected I made my way to this post, where I arrived at 11 p.m. of the same day.
At no time during the engagement, such was the nature of the ground and the size of the train,
was I able to employ more than 500 men and two guns to repel the assaults of the enemy,
whose force I estimate at 10,000 men and twelve guns, from the statements of prisoners. The
columns of assault which were thrown against my front and right flank consisted of five
regiments of infantry and one of cavalry, supported by a strong force which moved upon my left
flank and rear. I have named this engagement the action of Poison Spring, from a spring of
that name in the vicinity….
The conduct of all the troops under my command, officers and men, was characterized by true
soldierly bearing, and in no case was a line broken except when assaulted by an
overwhelming force, and then falling back only when so ordered. The gallant dead, officers
and men, all evinced the most heroic spirit, and died the death of true soldiers.
Col. First Kansas Colored Vols., Comd. Escort.
Poison Spring Branch
The stream flowing from
Poison Spring is normally
little more than a trickle during
late summer, but the battle
was fought during a time of
|Copyright 2011 by Dale Cox
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