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. Organized in 1862, it was the first African-American unit to see combat against the Confederacy. Following the Battle of Honey Springs in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), on July 17, 1863, Union Major General James G. Blunt reported:
The First Kansas (colored) particularly distinguished itself; they fought like veterans, and preserved their line unbroken throughout the engagement. Their coolness and bravery I have never seen surpassed; they were in the hottest of the fight, and opposed to Texas troops twice their number, whom they completely routed. One Texas regiment (the Twentieth Cavalry) that fought against them went into the fight with 300 men and came out with only sixty.
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. Marmaduke’s troopers included a Choctaw Indian Brigade and some Texans who believed they had a score to settle with the Kansas Colored soldiers after the Confederate defeat at Honey Springs the previous summer.
When Williams encountered the Rebels blocking his return path to Camden, he formed a defense around his wagon train. Two Confederate attacks against the 1st Kansas Colored regiment failed to crack the Union defenses. A third assault by four Rebel brigades 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. In the fighting’s aftermath, the Texans and Choctaw Indians mercilessly shot, bayoneted, and scalped the defenseless wounded and captive black soldiers.
The Battle of Poison Spring was a Union bloodbath. Of the roughly 1,100 federal soldiers engaged, over 300 were killed, wounded, or missing. The 1st Kansas Colored Regiment bore the brunt of the casualties. Of the 438 men who went into battle, 117 were killed and another 65 were missing (presumedly murdered and mutilated). 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!”
Confederate losses during the Battle of Poison Spring were light, totaling only 114 (killed, wounded, and missing).