April 25, 1864 – Confederates tried to intercept a force searching for supplies to feed the hungry Federal troops isolated at Camden.
Major General Frederick Steele, commanding the Federal Army of Arkansas, had been ordered to move south and join forces with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf at Shreveport. However, Steele was holed up at Camden after being defeated at Poison Spring, and he was still unaware that Banks had ended his drive on Shreveport and retreated back down the Red River.
General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, reacted to Banks’s retreat by transferring three divisions from Lieutenant General Richard Taylor’s Confederate army in Louisiana to Major General Sterling Price’s force in Arkansas to increase the pressure on Steele. The arrival of Confederate reinforcements, which were positioned between Camden and Little Rock, indicated to Steele that Banks’s campaign had failed.
On the 20th, Steele’s Federals received much-needed supplies from Pine Bluff, which would keep the army going another 10 days. This convinced Steele that he could get even more supplies from Pine Bluff if he sent a wagon train to collect them. He dispatched 240 empty wagons, guarded by nearly 1,600 infantry and cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel Francis M. Drake.
Three days later, Steele received a message from Banks written from Grand Ecore, urging Steele to join him there: “If you can join us on this line, I am confident we can move to Shreveport without material delay, and that we shall have an opportunity of destroying the only organized rebel army west of the Mississippi.” To Steele, this officially confirmed that Banks’s drive on Shreveport had failed.
Steele replied, “Owing to contingencies, it is impossible for me to say definitely that I will join you at any point on the Red River within a given time.” As Confederates from Louisiana continued moving into Arkansas, Confederate Brigadier General James F. Fagan learned that Steele had sent out a wagon train, and, “I made quick preparations for a move against it.”
On the morning of the 25th, Fagan’s 4,000 cavalry under Brigadier Generals William L. Cabell and Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby moved out. They took positions along the Saline River, overlooking a clearing called Marks’ Mill. Drake’s Federals entered this clearing at 8 a.m., and Fagan’s dismounted troopers attacked their front.
The Federals repelled the attack, but then Cabell’s Confederates hit their right flank. This sent the Federals reeling back toward their wagons, with both sides trading artillery fire in the process. Suddenly, Shelby’s troopers appeared and struck the Federal left, and Drake now faced assaults from three sides. After holding out for about four hours, the Federals surrendered. According to Fagan:
“The enemy’s lines could not sustain the combined attack. They wavered and showed signs of giving way. Our brave troops moved upon them with terrible and crushing effect. It was not long before the enemy’s forces broke in disarray and confusion, completely routed. Our victory was decided and complete.”
Fagan estimated that his men captured about 1,300 Federals, “their entire train of 300 wagons, a large number of ambulances, very many small-arms, and 150 negroes.” The remaining Federals were either killed, wounded, or escaped back to Camden. Many Federals accused Drake of “leading them straight into ambush by his dithering indecisiveness.”
Colonel Powell Clayton reported to Steele: “At that time our force, acting as escort for the train, was surrounded and over a hundred of the wagons in the hands of the enemy. The rebel forces were under Shelby and Fagan, and at least 5,000 strong. He thinks the entire train and artillery is captured, and the escort… are probably captured.”
This became known as “the slaughter at Marks’ Mills,” and it left Steele even more dangerously isolated. Ironically, had Fagan followed Smith’s orders and simply isolated the Federals at Camden, he might have starved Steele into surrendering his entire force. But instead he merely captured a detachment and left the bulk of Steele’s army intact.
Steele held a council of war that night, where he explained that without the Pine Bluff wagon train, supplies would soon run out. It was therefore decided to end efforts to get to Shreveport and turn back to Little Rock. As Steele’s chief engineer wrote:
“Our scouting parties in the front had succeeded in capturing prisoners who claimed to belong to infantry divisions of the enemy. Our spies, deserters coming into our lines, and stories told us by the residents of the country, all coincide that General Kirby Smith in person, with re-enforcements of infantry, had joined Price. Our position was by no means a safe one. It was evident that a crisis was at hand.”
The Federals began moving their remaining supply wagons and guns across the Ouachita on the 26th, and the troops began crossing that night. By next morning, they were marching through Princeton and crossing the Saline River at Jenkins’ Ferry, farther upstream from Marks’ Mills. Confederates quickly reclaimed Camden, and the “Camden expedition” of the Federal Red River campaign was over.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 106-07; 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 1465-84; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 422-24; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-65; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 488-89; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 252