Wednesday, June 29, 2011

May 4, 1864 - Another Union Account of the Battle of Poison Spring

Poison Spring State Park
In the weeks and months after the Battle of Poison Spring (April 18, 1864), a steady stream of letters trickled north from officers and men in the Union army.

Most of these came from soldiers in Thayer's column, which had marched south from Fort Smith to join in the Camden phase of the Red River Campaign. Since many of these men were from Kansas or associated with regiments from that state, a number of their letters wound up in newspapers there.

The following, for example, was dated from Fort Smith on May 4, 1864, and appeared in the White Cloud Chief newspaper in Kansas on May 26th:

Interpretive Shelter at Poison Spring
...They fought the rebels nearly half a day, until, overpowered by superior numbers, they were crushed and dispersed. When the officers of the Colored Regiment held up their arms in token of surrender, the enemy took their arms and blew their brains out. The negroes, seeing that no quarter was to be given them, stood and fired as long as they had ammunition, then took what they could from the dead around them; and when this failed, clubbed their guns and waded out. One company went in with 80 men, and was led out by the Orderly Sergeant, with only 11 men left. Most of the Cavalry escaped. About 60 of the 18th Iowa were taken. One-half of the officers of the 1st Colored are reported killed or wounded. Col. Williams escaped. All the trains and guns were of course captured. One Major got in, in the evening. His first words were: “Good God! Why didn’t you reinforce us?” The question was asked by hundreds. They heard the firing at Camden, for hours. Gen. Thayer wanted to send reinforcements, but Gen. Steele was not willing. There he lay, with 12,000 men, in hearing distance of the guns, (about 8 or 10 miles,) when they were not only willing, but anxious to go; and more, he let the dead and wounded lie on the field for four days, without caring for the wounded or burying the dead. The wounded died by inches, and crawled into camp on their hands and knees; and in some instances, not until a flag of truce came in from the rebels....

The writer, who identified himself only by the initials "O.B.G.," appears to have been in Camden during the battle, since he describes such details as the arrival of Union survivors there and being able to hear clearly hear the sound of the guns.

Fought when Confederate forces trapped and overwhelmed a Union foraging force, the Battle of Poison Spring was one of a series of disasters that hit Steele's column as it tried to march to Shreveport to link up with a larger Union army marching up through Louisiana. Federal losses in the fight totaled more than 200 killed and missing and 97 wounded, while Southern forces 13 killed and 81 wounded. The Confederates also captured more than 1,200 mules, 170 wagons, 4 pieces of artillery and all of the corn, furniture and other items seized by the Union forces as they rampaged through the countryside.

To learn more about the battle, please visit

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