Beginning with the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, Confederate fortunes in the Trans-Mississippi theater of the American Civil War declined. Less than a week later, on July 9, 1863, Major General Franklin Gardner surrendered the Confederate garrison at Port Hudson, between Shreveport and the confluence of the Red River and the Mississippi River. Gardner’s surrender established Union control of the entire Mississippi River. Two months later, on September 10, 1863, federal forces commanded by Brigadier General Frederick Steele drove Major General Sterling Price‘s Confederate forces out of Little Rock, Arkansas, and occupied the state’s capital for the rest of the war.
Even before Steele’s success in Arkansas, Major General Henry W. Halleck, the Chief-of-Staff of Union armies, began urging his generals in the west to move against Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi theater and bring Texas back into the Union.
By December 1863, Halleck had devised his own three-pronged Union assault against Confederate forces in Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas:
- Major General Nathaniel P. Banks would march 20,000 troops from the area around New Orleans across southern Louisiana and occupy Alexandria, Louisiana, near the center of the state, before moving on to Shreveport.
- Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter would ascend the Red River and join Banks at Alexandria with over thirty warships and an accompanying supply fleet. A land force of 10,000 soldiers, commanded by Brigadier General Andrew Jackson Smith and detached from William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee, would protect Dixon’s flotilla.
- After Banks and Porter joined forces and continued upriver toward Shreveport, Steele would lead another 10,000 Union soldiers out of Little Rock, Arkansas, and approach Shreveport from the north or east. Steele’s part of the operation was known as the Camden Expedition.
Steele Voices His Opposition
By early March, Steele began voicing opposition to his participation in Halleck’s plan for three reasons:
- Road conditions in Arkansas were unpredictable in early spring, thus hindering Steele’s abilities to move and supply his forces.
- Planting season provided little opportunity to forage for food as the army advanced.
- There was a high likelihood of confronting strong partisan resistance along the way.
Rather than launching a full-scale operation into southern Arkansas, Steele proposed a diversionary operation designed to confuse the Confederates and deflect attention from Banks’ and Dixon’s offensives.
On March 15, 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, who had assumed command of all Union armies a few days earlier, ended all discourse regarding the matter when he wrote to Steele:
Move your force in full cooperation with General N.P. Banks’ attack on Shreveport. A mere demonstration will not be sufficient. Now that a large force has gone up Red River, it is necessary that Shreveport and the Red River should come into our possession.
Steele dutifully complied with Grant’s orders. On March 17, Steele ordered Brigadier General John F. Thayer’s Frontier Division to leave Fort Smith with 3,600 Union troops and rendezvous with him at Arkadelphia, Arkansas on April 1. Thayer departed Fort Smith four days later. On March 23, Steele marched 6,800 Union soldiers out of Little Rock, headed south toward Arkadelphia.
During the next forty days, Steele’s soldiers would take part in five engagements and travel roughly 275 miles before returning to Little Rock as the final chapter in possibly the most disastrous Union campaign of the Civil War.
Battle of Elkin’s Ferry (aka Engagement at Elkin’s Ferry): April 3–4, 1864
Despite the Confederate harassment, Steele reached the Little Missouri River on April 3rd. Discovering that the Rebels had destroyed all the bridges spanning the river, Steele chose to cross at Elkin’s Ferry. The next morning, Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke led two Confederate cavalry brigades and accompanying artillery up the road toward Elkin’s Ferry. Following a brief engagement, the Yankees drove off the Confederates. Afterward, Steele marched some of his troops southwest toward Washington, the temporary capital of Arkansas. The Union general hoped to draw Confederate General Sterling Price’s Army of Arkansas away from Camden, leaving the Confederate town and its much-needed provisions vulnerable to attack from the rest of the Union force.
Battle of Prairie D’Ane (aka Skirmish at Prairie D’Ane, Battle of Gum Springs, or Battle of Moscow): April 9–13, 1864
Steele pushed the Rebels he confronted at Elkin’s Ferry back toward Washington. The retreating Confederates halted and erected defensive works at Prairie D’Ane, a large flat area nearly thirty miles square nestled in Arkansas’ rocky terrain and cypress swamps. On April 7, Price reinforced them with soldiers from Camden, and he took field command of the troops concentrating at Prairie D’Ane to stop Steele and defend the Confederate capital.
On April 9, Thayer’s force rendezvoused with Steele’s soldiers and the combined Union force continued on toward Prairie D’Ane. The next day, the Federals reached the Confederate breastworks and mounted an attack that drove the Rebels back about one mile. Both sides settled in and spent April 11 skirmishing. When Steele mounted another assault on April 12, he found that Price had fallen back to prepare a defensive line closer to Washington. Having tricked Price into protecting Washington, Steele turned his men east and marched off toward Camden.
When Price recognized that Steele had deceived him, the Confederate general returned to Prairie D’Ane on April 13 and attacked Thayer’s Frontier Division that was serving as Steele’s rearguard. Following a pitched battle, the Rebels withdrew. Thayer followed briefly before turning and marching all night to catch up with Steele. When Steele occupied Camden unopposed on April 15, he discovered the provisions rumored to be stored there did not exist.
Battle of Poison Spring: April 18, 1864
Desperate for provisions, on April 17, Steele ordered Colonel James M. Williams to lead a train of 198 empty wagons, accompanied by roughly 1,000 soldiers back toward Washington to confiscate a store of corn the Federals had discovered on their march from Prairie D’Ane.
Included among the several regiments under Williams’ command were 438 men of the 1st Kansas (Colored) and their white officers. The volunteer soldiers of the 1st Kansas (Colored) were fugitive slaves who had fled to Kansas from Missouri and Arkansas after the war began.
After foraging (and plundering) the countryside west of Camden, Williams’ Union deployment regrouped near White Oak Creek on the evening of April 17. The next morning, 500 additional cavalry and infantrymen joined them.
Meanwhile, roughly 3,600 Confederate cavalrymen commanded by Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke seized the Camden-Washington Road near the small town of Poison Spring, cutting off the Federals’ return to Camden. When Williams encountered the Rebels blocking his return path to Camden, he formed a defense around his wagon train. Three Confederate assaults broke the Federal lines and forced Williams’ entire command to retreat.
The Confederates briefly pursued the fleeing Yankees into the surrounding swamps before turning their attention to the wounded and captured members of the 1st Kansas Colored regiment. Some Texans and Choctaw Indians in Marmaduke’s command mercilessly shot, bayoneted, and scalped the defenseless wounded and captive black soldiers. The black survivors of the massacre vowed to never again be taken alive by Confederate soldiers. For the rest of the war, the battle cry of black soldiers in the Trans-Mississippi theater became “Remember Poison Springs!”
Battle of Marks’ Mills: (aka Action at Marks’ Mills): April 25, 1864
Following the disaster at Poison Spring, Steele’s circumstances became even more dismal. Confederate Major General Richard Taylor’s victories over Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’ forces along the Red River enabled Lieutenant General Kirby Smith to reinforce Major General Sterling Price’s Army of Arkansas. On April 22, Steele informed General Halleck that:
It is reported that 8,000 infantry joined Price yesterday from Shreveport. Price was undoubtedly re-enforced, to what extent I do not know. They are just opening with artillery upon my outposts.
In addition, Smith had assumed field command of Taylor’s forces and was mounting his own expedition against Steele at Camden.
Even more pressing was Steele’s dwindling supplies for his soldiers and animals. On April 20, the arrival of a wagon train from Pine Bluff to the northeast persuaded Steele that his men might be provisioned from that direction. By April 22, Steele was convinced that he could not sustain his force by foraging. He wrote to General Halleck that:
It is useless to talk of obtaining supplies in this country for my command. The country is well nigh exhausted, and the people are threatened with starvation.
Instead, Steele ordered Lieutenant Colonel Francis Drake to lead a column of 211 wagons out of Camden towards Pine Bluff to resupply his troops. Escorting the wagon train on the seventy-mile trek were 1,200 Union soldiers.
The train left Camden before dawn on April 23, 1864. An additional 520 men of the 1st Iowa Cavalry returning home on furlough trailed the column. Behind them was an entourage of private citizens and contraband blacks seeking asylum farther north. Events went smoothly on the first day, and the caravan camped eighteen miles northeast of Camden that night.
Drake resumed his trek on April 24 and covered seventeen miles on the second day before camping at Moro Creek. His men engaged in some light skirmishes with Confederate patrols during the day. Reports from his scouts suggesting a clear path ahead gave Drake no reason to believe that his mission would not be successful.
After Drake crossed Moro Creek on the morning of April 25, 150 cavalrymen from Pine Bluff joined his command, increasing the Union column to nearly 1,800 effectives (including the 520 Iowans who trailed in the distance).
On the same day that Drake camped at Moro Creek, Brigadier General James F. Fagan led roughly 8,000 Confederate soldiers out of El Dorado Landing on a forced march intent on intercepting the Union train before it crossed the Saline River.
Fagan caught up with Drake’s command on April 25. As the Yankees entered a small clearing known as Marks’ Mills, the Confederates launched a piecemeal attack. The Federals drove off the first enemy assault before being hit on their right flank by a second wave of Rebels commanded by Brigadier General William Cabell. After the Confederates pinned the Yankees down near a few log cabins in the clearing, Brigadier General Joseph Shelby’s cavalry hammered their left flank. Now under attack from three directions, and outnumbered two-to-one, the Bluecoats held on for four hours before surrendering.
Later in the day, west of Marks’ Mills, Confederate patrols encountered the 520 members of the 1st Iowa who were returning home on furlough. After meeting a hail of hot lead as they approached the Iowans, the Rebels had little enthusiasm for prolonging the battle and allowed the Hawkeyes to return to Camden.
The Confederate victory at Marks’ Mills was nearly absolute. The Rebels reported only 293 casualties (41 killed, 108 wounded, 144 missing). Union losses were staggering. Of the roughly 1,300 Federals engaged in the main battle (not counting the Iowans) about 100 were killed and nearly all the rest were captured. Drake later reported that the Rebels captured “a large number” of blacks and pro-Union Arkansans accompanying the column who they subsequently “inhumanly butchered.”
The only positive to emerge from the debacle was that Fagan’s absence from the Camden area opened the door for Steele’s forces to escape Camden before Kirby Smith’s approaching force smashed into him from the south.