Occupation of Camden and the Battle of Poison Springs
Union leaders in the fall of 1863, boldened by recent successes, turned their attention to the Trans-Mississippi West. A winter campaign to destroy the Confederate forces in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas was led by General-in-chief, Henry W. Halleck.
Brigadier General Frederick Steele directed the Arkansas prong of the Union plan. He had won some fame as the conqueror of Little Rock. Leaving Little Rock on March 23, 1864 he traveled with his troops to Arkadelphia to meet another Federal contingent from Fort Smith, under the command of Brigadier General John M. Thayer. Thayer's Frontier Division was delayed and did not meet up with Steele's 9,000 troops until Steele reached the Little Missouri River on April 9th. Thayer added 5,000 troops to Steele's strength.
Steele's strategy called for him to proceed to Shereveport, Louisiana by way of Arkansas' strongest Confederate point Camden in Ouachita County. Confederate General Sterling Price had worked diligently to fortify the City of Camden. There were nine forts constructed strategically and commercially. The forts were arranged in a semi-circle around the town, beginning and ending at the Ouachita River. Each were of earthen construction, consisting of rifle trenches and redoubts, cannon and field-gun emplacements.
Events as Steele's army neared Camden, forced General Price to leave his impregnable position at Camden and relocate near Prairie d'Ane, near Prescott, just east of Washington, the Arkansas Confederate Capital, to defend it. When the Confederates evacuated Camden in the face of the Federal advance, the cannons were removed from the forts to keep them from enemy hands, for no determined defense of the town was planned. Behind a covering screen of Cavalry, Steele slipped into Camden on April 15, 1864. Steele and his troops were greatly surprised to find so formidable a group of fortifications without proper armaments when they arrived.
The Union General headquartered in the home of Colonel John T. Chidester. Soon after he arrived, word came that General Nathaniel P. Banks, his partner in the Shreveport Campaign, had been defeated at Pleasant Hill, Louisiana. Next came word that two Federal steamers, loaded with provisions for him and his troops had collided and sunk, with the loss of all supplies. To make matters worse, the residents of the area had purposely destroyed all the forage and food they could find to prevent the Union troops from gaining much needed provisions.
Confederate General Price and his staff quietly surrounded Camden with the intent to starve out Steele's army rather than drive it from the City. This left Steele with only one remaining known resource for provisions, scouring the country-side for food and forage. On his march to Camden from Prairie d'Ane, his men had discovered a great quantity of corn near Poison Springs, west of Camden. So, on April 17, 1864, he sent a train of approximately 200 wagons, and a heavily armed escort, after it. The guard was taken from General Thayer's Frontier Division, and Colonel James M. Williams was selected to head the mission. His command included 438 men of the First Kansas Colored Volunteers, 195 troopers from the Second, Sixth, and Fourteenth Kansas Cavalry units, and one section of two guns from the Second Indiana Battery, served by the thirty-three artillerists. Total aggregate troops numbered almost 670 men, more than half of which were African American.
Apparently from Steele's preparations, he had not determined the location of Price's cavalry, and the train was under constant surveillance by Confederate scouts from Colonel Colton Greene's brigade from the moment it left Camden. Greene reported to his commanding officer, Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke, who immediately foresaw the possibilities of an ambush. Price sent the forces of General Cobell and Maxey to join him for reinforcements.
Colonel Williams detached Major Richard G. Ward with half of the wagons to load 5,000 bushels of corn, and the Confederate scouts watched as he loaded them. The other half of the train was to be loaded the next day from smaller concentrations of forage along the return route to Camden.
On the morning of April 18, 1864, Williams started back to Camden, dispatching groups of wagons to retrieve isolated caches of corn in the rural countryside. Near Cross Roads about two miles from Poison Springs, the train was gathered together and was met by a supplementary guard of about 500 men under the command of Captain William M. Duncan.
The heavily-laden 200 wagon train, guarded by its 1,000 soldier strong guard and minor artillery then left Cross Roads for Camden. At Poison Springs, Marmaduke had laid his trap and waited. (The Springs bore no poison, but had received its name because a parched and weary frontiersman had quaffed too deeply of its cold, clear waters when too hot and had become ill from over-indulgence.)
The Confederates were spread across approximately two miles at Poison Springs, completely blocking any route to Camden. Maxey's troops were on the left wing. The forces commanded by Cabell were in the center, and a rear guard was placed just in case the noise of battle brought a force of Steele's men from Camden to aide the Federal troops. Marmaduke's men were on the right wing.Taking a huge gamble, Marmaduke had his Calvary dismount and placed to fight as infantrymen with the exception of Greene's 500 men.
The wagon train, with its armed escort reached Poison Springs about 9:30 A.M., and promptly spotted Maxey's forces, who nevertheless launched their well-planned assault. The Union forces, aided somewhat by the protection of timberland that secluded them during much of the battle, fought back valiantly and relied heavily upon their artillery, hoping Steele would hear the battle sounds and send out reinforcements.
After Maxey launched his attack, Cabell and Hughey's batteries lay a heavy cannonade against the enemy, then he moved his center, and Marmaduke moved his right wing against the enemy. At exactly the propitious moment, Greene's 500 cavalry were called in to deliver the final blow with a charge that completely defeated the Union troops, causing them to flee in utter disorganization, abandoning their wagon trains to the Confederates and leaving many dead and wounded on the battlefield.
The Union loss at Poison Springs numbered 301 killed, wounded, and missing, 26% of their total strength. Confederate casualties were slight, totaling 114 men or 3% of their full strength. The Confederates captured 198 wagons loaded with forage, though thirty were beyond repair, and four field pieces.
General Steele, who had gambled successfully throughout his military career, did indeed hear the noise of battle at his headquarters in Camden. Had he sent a sufficiently strong force to the relief of Colonel Williams, he would have caught the South Arkansas troops in a crossfire and could have wiped out the last military force in Arkansas. He did not send such reinforcements, thus paving the way for his ultimate retreat back to Little Rock, and the South Arkansas troops remained the sole surviving military force of Arkansas until the close of the war.