Sunday, September 28, 2008

Alexander Asboth's "other" Battle

This is a photograph of Brigadier General Alexander Asboth, a key figure at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas and the administrative force behind much of the organization of the Union army in Missouri at the beginning of the Civil War.
A freedom fighter during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, Asboth had been forced to flee his native country when the effort to establish an American styled republic there failed.
Evacuated to the United States aboard the U.S.S. Mississippi, he settled in New York where he worked as an engineer and surveyor. In the years before the war, he is best remembered for his surveys of what is now Central Park in New York City.
When the South fired on Fort Sumter, Asboth volunteered his services to the Lincoln Administration. He was given the rank of general and sent to Missouri where he served as adlatus or chief of staff to Major General John C. Fremont. In this role, Asboth provided administrative structure to Fremont's efforts to establish a Federal army to preserve Missouri as a Union state.
He commanded a division at Pea Ridge, where he was wounded while helping to hold back Van Dorn's attack until the Union army could be turned around and faced in the right direction.
By 1863, Asboth had been assigned the command of the Union District of West Florida with headquarters at Fort Barrancas near Pensacola. At the time he was sent there, it was feared that Sherman's march on Atlanta might fail and the Union army would be forced to cut its way through to the Gulf of Mexico. Asboth was a competent officer and it was expected that he would be able to assist greatly in such an effort should it prove necessary.
On September 27, 1864, General Asboth was severely wounded while leading troops in a cavalry charge at the Battle of Marianna, Florida. Confederate home guards ambushed his force and the general was shot in the arm and cheek. Even so, the bloody little battle was a Union victory and culminated the deepest Federal penetration of Florida during the Civil War.
Greatly weakened from his wounds, Asboth returned to active duty before the end of the war. He subsequently became a U.S. diplomat to South America and died a few years later in Argentina from the injuries sustained at Marianna. His wounds had never healed. He is buried today at Arlington National Cemetery.
If you would like to learn more about General Asboth's "other battle," the Battle of Marianna, Florida, please visit

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas - Part Eight

This is the final part in our series on the Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas.
A small portion of the battlefield is preserved today as the Poison Spring State Park. Located about ten miles west of Camden, Arkansas, the park features an interpretive display, monument, nature trail and picnic area set in the beautiful countryside of southern Arkansas.
Although the surrounding battlefield is not developed at this time, it is preserved by the state and artifact hunting is prohibited.
The interpretive panels (seen here) provide visitors with a good overview of the battle and provide a good orientation of the setting. The nature trail also carries visitors down into the steep ravine created by Poison Spring and Poison Spring Branch and is quite beautiful.
If you would like to learn more about the Battle of Poison Spring, please visit

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas - Part Seven (Ghosts?)

The site of the Battle of Poison Spring is one of a number of Civil War battlefields that are reputed to be haunted by the ghosts of long forgotten soldiers.
I visited Poison Spring on the late afternoon of a stormy summer day and noticed an odd yellow glow through the trees near the spring. Although my mobility is limited, I walked a short distance down the path into the woods and could no longer see the strange light, but when I returned back to the cleared area at the parking lot it was once again visible.
I took a quick photograph before heading to the car to get out of the approaching lightning and, surprisingly, it showed up. This photograph to provide a better view, but the light I saw is clearly visible in the background behind the tree. The other "orbs" are, I think, just light effects from the weather conditions, but notice that one small white one is visible in front of the yellow light, showing that it was at a depth into the woods.
What was it? I have no idea. It is the first time I have encountered something like this in my various visits to battlefields and historic sites. It was clearly visible to the eye during the afternoon from a distance, but could not be seen from locations closer to its apparent position. If you have any thoughts, I would love to hear them!
You can see other "ghost" photos from Poison Spring State Park and read more about the battle at

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas - Part Six

By the time the firing stopped at the Battle of Poison Spring, the scene was apocalyptic.
The Union forces had sustained losses estimated at 204 killed or missing and 97 wounded.
The Confederates also reported the capture of around 120 prisoners, only four of them black soldiers from the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry.
In addition, Southern troops took all four pieces of Union artillery, several hundred stand of small arms and 1,200 mules.
Of the wagons filled with supplies or stolen goods, the Confederates captured them all, although nearly 30 had to be abandoned and burned because they were either damaged or there were insufficient teams left to haul them away. Eyewitnesses on the scene reported that the wagons were filled with everything from corn to personal goods stolen from houses and even the meager possessions from slave cabins.
Confederate losses, by comparison, were small. Official reports listed 13 killed, 81 wounded and 1 missing. Although the disparity in losses is often used to demonstrate post-battle killings by Southern troops at Poison Spring, it should also be remembered that the Confederates had superior artillery on the ground and struck the Union line from both the front and flank.
Confederate troops pursued the retreating Federals for some distance from the battlefield, but were eventually halted by order of General Maxey who was more concerned with getting the massive haul of captured supplies to a safe position.
Our series on the Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas will continue. Until the next post, you can read more by visiting

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas - Part Five

This is a view of the trickling stream that flows from Poison Spring in Arkansas. It can be viewed along the nature trail at Poison Spring State Park.
At the time of the Battle of Poison Spring, the stream or "branch" was flowing with much greater force due to heavy rains that had deluged the area over previous weeks.
As the Union retreat at Poison Spring degenerated into a rout, many of the Federal troops fled the battlefield in any direction possible. It was at this stage of the fighting that alleged murders of Union black soldiers took place.
According to Federal accounts, many men from the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry were shot down by Confederate troops as they were either taken prisoner or tried to flee. The eyewitness accounts are silent as to how many such incidents allegedly took place, but the allegations do surface in a number of the post-battle reports and accounts.
Confederate accounts also indicate that Union black soldiers were killed as they tried to flee the battlefield. Southern eyewitness accounts generally alleged that the men of the 1st and 2nd Choctaw and Chickasaw Regiments were responsible for these actions, noting that the families of these men had suffered greatly at the hands of these same Union troops prior to the beginning of the Red River Campaign.
The latter fact was definitely true. Outrages visited on Choctaw and Chickasaw homes and farms by Union troops had caused a massive flood of refugee men, women and children to flee south from their lands to the areas along the Texas border where they could be protected by Confederate forces. Many of these refugees were family members of Choctaw and Chickasaw soldiers that fought on the Southern side at Poison Spring and there can be little doubt but that they held grudges over the treatment of their loved ones.
Several of the Confederate accounts also note that as the black Union soldiers attempted to flee at the end of the battle, they did not throw down their weapons, but "shuffled" along carrying their firearms with them. This is strangely similar to the accounts of Southern troops describing the alleged massacre at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.
Could there have been something in the pysche of Union black troops that made them unwilling to surrender their weapons? It is certainly possible, considering that for the most part they had been slaves prior to the war and ownership or use of firearms was generally forbidden to them. The possession of a musket or rifle to a black soldier certainly would have been a powerful symbol of his new found freedom and it is reasonable to think that he would have been extremely relunctant to part with it.
It is interesting to contemplate whether the refusal of men from the 1st Kansas Colored to throw down their weapons at Poison Spring might have contributed to alleged post-battle killings there.
It is also worth noting that Colonel James Williams, the commander of Union forces during the battle, reported that nearly half of the men in the regiment had either been killed or wounded during the actual fighting and before the beginning of the retreat. The regiment was stationed in a position where it received massive fire from superior Confederate artillery and the main infantry battle lines of the Southern forces.
Our series on the Battle of Poison Spring will continue. To read more about the battle before the next post, please visit

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas - Part Four

When the Confederate attacks broke the Union lines at Poison Spring, the battle quickly devolved into a bloody rout.
Pressed from three sides, the Federals began to fall back away from the coveted wagon train and tried to escape across a steep ravine and into swampy areas to the rear of the main battlefield.
The ravine proved impossible to cross with artillery, so the four Union field pieces were abandoned and fell into Confederate hands.
The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry had already sustained heavy casualties by this time of the fight, so it is difficult to determine how many of its men fell during the retreat phase of the battle. The subsequent reports of Union officers indicated that "half" of the regiment had been killed or wounded on the main battle line by Confederate artillery and musket fire.
When the regiment began its attempted retreat, it did so under heavy Confederate pursuit, particularly by the 1st and 2nd Choctaw and Chickasaw Regiments. These Native American soldiers were irate with the Union cause because of the suffering inflicted on their families by these same soldiers prior to the beginning of the Red River Campaign. Union treatment of Choctaw and Chickasaw families near Fort Smith had forced them to flee their homes by the hundreds and many now lived in refugee camps near the Texas border. The Choctaw and Chickasaw warriors struck back with a vengeance at Poison Spring.
According to Union and some Confederate reports, soldiers from the 1st Kansas Colored were killed as they fled from the scene of the fighting and much controversy about murders has swirled around the Battle of Poison Spring.
When our series continues, we will look closer at this phase of the battle and the evidence on murders at the battlefield. Until then, learn more about this fascinating and controversial fight by visiting

Monday, September 8, 2008

New Review of Battle of Massard Prairie Book

Just a quick note to say thanks to the folks with the Northwest 15th Arkansas Infantry for the very kind review of my latest book, The Battle of Massard Prairie: The 1864 Confederate Attacks on Fort Smith, Arkansas.
They featured a review of the book on the front page of their September newsletter and were very kind in their remarks.
The organization is involved in WBTS reenacting in Arkansas and Oklahoma and you can learn more about them by visiting their website.
If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the book, it is available in the museum at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park in Northwest Arkansas and at the Fort Smith Museum of History in Fort Smith.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas - Part Three

When the Confederates began their main advance, the Union wagon train was in tight formation along the road (visible here beyond the interpretive shelter) and the Federal troops were positioned beyond the road to defend the train.
Maxey and Marmaduke's plan was to push against the main Union force to divert their attention while a surprise assault was launched against their right flank.
The flank attack was not really a surprise because Col. Williams and his men were able to see the Southern troops moving into position through gaps in the underbrush, but even so it proved highly effective.
As the firing between the two sides reached a peak, the Confederates moved forward. Williams estimated his effective force at the beginning of the battle at around 1,000 men and Maxey later reported that, although his command was much larger, only about 1,500 of his men were actually engaged. Much has been said about the overwhelming size of the Southern force during the Battle of Poison Spring, but in truth the forces actually engaged were closer in size than has generally been stated.
The Confederates did have a major advantage in field artillery during the battle and employed it to good use. The twelve Southern guns devastated the Union lines and had inflicted heavy losses on Williams' command even before the main attack began.
When the Confederates moved forward against their front and right flank, the Federals quickly realized that they were in serious trouble. Williams tried to bring forward additional men from his rear guard to help, but found out that the Southern lines were overlapping him in all directions.
He and his officers would later report that they beat back three distinct Confederate attacks, but the reports of Generals Maxey and Marmaduke do not agree. The Confederate generals describe one constant push that ultimately drove the Federals beyond their wagons and broke their lines.
Our series on the Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas will continue. Until the next post, you can read more and see battlefield photos by visiting the new Battle of Poison Spring website at

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas - Part Two

On the morning of April 18, 1864, the Union raiding party began its return to Camden.
Commanded by Col. James Williams of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers, the Federal force numbered nearly 1,200 men with four pieces of field artillery. As they moved forward on the Washington-Camden Road, however, they soon began to encounter Confederate pickets. Pushing the Southern horsemen before them, the Federal vanguard advanced roughly one mile before a stronger line of Confederate skirmishers suddenly halted the advance.
Colonel Williams quickly realized he was in trouble and pulled the 198 wagons loaded with stolen supplies into a tight formation on the road and then placed his troops into a position to defend the train as well as possible. The Confederates were concealed by the thick undergrowth and timber of the battlefield and the Federals had difficulty determining what kind of a force they were up against. To better unveil the situation, Williams felt from his right flank with detachments from the 2nd and 6th Kansas Cavalry and opened fire with his artillery. To his chagrin the Confederates responded with massive volleys of musketry and artillery fire and began to show themselves in force both in his front and on his right flank.
The Confederates had devised a plan of action that called for them to push strongly against the main Union line while also striking hard at the Federal right flank. As Williams began to realize the difficulty he was in, Maxey and Marmaduke ordered their troops forward, accompanied by the crash of 12 pieces of Confederate artillery.
Our series on the Battle of Poison Spring will continue. Until the next post, you can read more and see photographs of the battlefield by visiting the new Battle of Poison Spring site at

Friday, September 5, 2008

Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas - Part One

During the spring of 1864, Union forces engaged in one of the most ill-conceived campaigns of the Civil War.
Despite the objections of Gen. U.S. Grant, two armies were sent to invade northern Louisiana and southern Arkansas. Their target was the strategic city of Shreveport, Louisiana, and the ultimate goal was the establishment of a foothold in Texas.
The Louisiana wing of the invasion was turned back at Battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill. The Arkansas phase began to unravel here at the Battle of Poison Spring.
Following smaller engagements at Elkin's Ferry and Prairie d'Ane, the Union army of Gen. Frederick Steele occupied Camden, Arkansas on April 15, 1864. The Federals were desperately short of supplies, so three days later Steele sent a force of 670 men with nearly 200 wagons to confiscate corn from private farms about 20 miles east of Camden. This force was reinforced by around 500 additional men as it returned from its raid, giving the Federals 1,190 men and four pieces of artillery as they leisurely escorted the slow-moving wagons on their way back to Camden.
The Confederates, however, were aware of their activities. After Union troops had occupied Camden, Southern Gen. Sterling Price sent out cavalry forces to observe all of the roads leading in and out of the city. When the wagon train emerged and began to move west, Price's forces began to prepare a surprise for the enemy raiders.
The surprise came on April 18, 1864, near a trickling water source named Poison Spring.
We will continue our look at the Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas in our next post. Until then you can read more by visiting our new Battle of Poison Spring website at

Monday, September 1, 2008

Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas

I hope you are having a good Labor Day.
Beginning tomorrow I'll start a series of posts on the Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas. An important part of the Red River Campaign, this engagement was a controversial and bloody Confederate victory.
A portion of the battlefield is now preserved as the Poison Spring State Park near Camden and much of the rest is protected in a natural state.
Be sure to check in tomorrow for part one on this new series!