Red River: The Poison Spring Engagement

April 17, 1864 – Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas ran into trouble trying to collect supplies outside Camden, Arkansas.

Maj Gen Frederick Steele | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Steele’s Federals, now holed up at Camden, were originally supposed to go to Washington, and then to the Red River to link with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf at Shreveport. Steele explained to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck why he went to Camden instead: “Our supplies were nearly exhausted, and so was the country. We were obliged to forage from five to 15 miles on either side of the road to keep our stock alive.”

Situated on the Ouachita River, Camden had a port where Federal steamers could deliver supplies to Steele’s exhausted, hungry troops. However, an accident had occurred between two steamers, delaying the arrival of the much-needed provisions. This threatened to starve both the soldiers and civilians in the town.

Steele responded by directing Colonel James M. Williams to seize corn stored on White Oak Creek, about 20 miles up the Prairie d’Ane-Camden road. Williams led 695 Federals, including 438 men of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers, with two guns and 198 wagons they hoped to fill. After traveling 14 miles down the road, Williams directed his men to bivouac for the night while a detachment continued the last six miles to seize the corn.

The detachment returned around midnight with full wagons. At dawn on the 18th, Williams and his men began their return to Camden. They were joined by about 500 reinforcements and two more guns, giving Williams a total of about 1,170 men and four guns.

When Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke learned of Williams’s expedition, he mobilized his 1,700 Confederate cavalry to stop him. Brigadier General Samuel Maxey’s infantry division reinforced Marmaduke, increasing the force to about 3,335 men. The Confederates left Lee Plantation and took positions on either side of the road near Poison Spring, about 10 miles from Camden. Maxey took up positions to the left of the road, while Marmaduke’s men held the right.

At 10 a.m., skirmishing began about a mile east of Williams’s main column heading back to Camden. Williams ordered his men to form a defense line, with the 1st Kansas in the center and cavalry on both flanks. The Federals opened with their artillery, but the Confederates did not respond to avoid revealing their strength.

Maxey’s Confederates advanced around 10:45 a.m., but the Federals pushed part of his line back. Marmaduke’s men rushed forward to fill the void, and both sides traded fire for nearly an hour. During this time, Williams did his best to guard the wagon train, but he was greatly outnumbered.

Suddenly, six Confederate guns opened on Williams’s rear, catching the Federals in a murderous crossfire. The survivors of the 1st Kansas fled, with some finding protection in a nearby marsh before eventually fleeing back to Camden. Fighting ended around 2 p.m. Marmaduke wanted to pursue and destroy the Federals, but Maxey, the ranking officer on the field, overruled him.

The Confederates seized all 198 wagons which, according to a soldier, were “laden with corn, bacon, stolen bed quilts, women’s and children’s clothing, hogs, geese, and all the et ceteras of unscrupulous plunder.” This enraged the Confederates and led to witnesses accusing them of killing Federal troops, particularly the black men of the 1st Kansas, after they surrendered.

Some alleged that the Choctaw Indians under Maxey’s command had taken the scalps of their victims. According to Colonel Tandy Walker, commanding the Choctaw brigade in Maxey’s division:

“… the train fell into our hands, and soon a portion of his artillery, which my troops found concealed in a thicket near the train. I feared here that the train and its contents would prove a temptation too strong for these hungry, half-clothed Choctaws, but had no trouble in pressing them forward, for there was that in front and to the left more inviting to them than food or clothing–the blood of their despised enemy. They had met and routed… the despoilers of their homes, and the murderers of their women and children.”

The Confederates asserted that the 1st Kansas suffered a large casualty percentage because they bore the brunt of most of the fighting, and many of the soldiers had refused to surrender upon demand. The Federals sustained 301 casualties, or about 26 percent of Williams’s command, as well as all four guns. The 1st Kansas suffered a 42 percent casualty rate, with 117 blacks killed and 65 wounded. The Confederates lost 114.

This was the first Confederate victory since Steele’s Federals had begun this campaign last month. It greatly boosted Confederate morale, which had been crippled by all the past defeats in Arkansas. It also prevented much-needed supplies from reaching the Federals, who remained hungry in Camden. Steele learned soon after this disaster that Banks had abandoned his drive on Shreveport, leaving him isolated in the hostile territory of southern Arkansas.

—–

References

Davis, William C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 106-07; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 394; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 588-90; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 1445-75; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420-21; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 486-87

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