Friday, May 1, 2009
So what really happened at Poison Spring on April 18, 1864? Was there a brutal massacre of Union black troops? Did hundreds die as some modern writers insist?
A review of the surviving records of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers (later the 79th U.S. Colored Troops), reveals the names of 107 men killed in action, 12 wounded (one of whom was captured) and two prisoners of war, or a total loss of 121 men.
The number killed in action who can be indentified today is remarkably close to the number reported just two days after the battle by Major Richard G. Ward of the 1st Kansas. He reported a loss of 5 officers and 112 enlisted men killed, or a total of 117. He also reported 2 officers and 63 men wounded.
Since the names of men with minor wounds were often not included on regimental reports, especially for African American regiments of that day, there is no reason to suspect that Major Ward's numbers are inaccurate. It is safe to conclude, then, that the total loss of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers at the Battle of Poison Spring was probably around 117 killed, 65 wounded and 2 captured. This represents a total loss for the regiment of 185.
Records of other Union units present at Poison Spring provide the names of another 7 killed, 26 wounded (of whom 17 were captured and 1 listed as missing in action) and 56 captured or missing in action.
This places verifiable Union casualties in the battle at 124 killed, 91 wounded and 58 captured or missing in action. Seventeen of the wounded were also reported as captured and an 18th was listed as missing in action, but they are listed here only with the wounded. This would place the total verifiable Union loss in the battle at 273.
Obviously, this is a severe loss for a small battle, but it is somewhat below the 301 listed by the National Park Service. And the total killed of 124 is far fewer than the 236 or more listed (without names) by some sources.
Part of the confusion seems to originate from the fact that 17 of the wounded were also taken prisoner. They appear to often be listed among both totals, which leads to inaccuracies. Other errors result from the fact that a number of men initially listed as "Missing in Action" eventually returned to their regiments. All eight of the missing in action from the 18th Iowa Infantry, for example, eventually turned back up.
The intial Confederate reports of the battle, while they far overstated Union dead at 400 to 600 (impossible figures since these totals would represent more men lost than reported by all of the Union units present at the battle during the entire war), were more accurate in their statements that roughly 100 Union soldiers had been wounded and around 120 captured. This initial estimate included some prisoners who were released on the day of the battle as well as some wounded prisoners who later died.
The question that remains is whether Union soldiers were killed after they surrendered, especially in large numbers. I will explore the evidence for and against a massacre at Poison Spring in the next post. Until then, you can read more by visiting www.exploresouthernhistory.com/poisonspring.