Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas - Part Three

This is part three of a series of posts on the Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas. To read the previous posts, please scroll down the page or check the Archives section.

The Battle of Poison Spring unfolded much better than either Marmaduke or Maxey could have hoped. The "L" shaped position taken by the Confederate forces (see map in previous post) gave them an immediate tactical advantage.

Colonel Williams formed his men into a line of battle facing Maxey's men, who were all but invisible in the woods and underbrush south of the road. In doing so, he allowed himself to be drawn into a trap exactly as Marmaduke had hoped. The Union colonel's report, in fact, describes an extremely confusion situation for the Federal soldiers even with the benefit of post-battle hindsight. It appeared to them that Confederates were coming from all directions and, in truth, they were.

As Williams was moving men back and forth and trying to make some sense of the situation, the Confederates suddenly opened on his lines with artillery. The Union commander reported that batteries fired on him from the front (Maxey's position) and his right flank (Marmaduke's position).
Simultaneous with the opening of artillery fire, the Confederates under Maxey advanced their line. Heavy fighting followed as the Union forces, anchored by the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers, tried to hold off the motivated Confederate attackers. It did not take long for the 3 to 1 numerical superiority of the Southern forces to show.

Although the Union line was able to beat back attacks, Colonel Williams reported that this was achieved at great cost. He later reported that in short order half of his command had been either killed or wounded.

The attack by Maxey was designed to focus the attention of the Union troops and in this it achieved its goal spectacularly. When Marmaduke ordered forward his brigades against the Union right flank, the battle quickly turned into a debacle for the Federal forces. Initially fighting hard as they went, the Union troops began to retreat in the face of the Confederate attack on their flank. Realizing the critical moment was at hand, Maxey once again advanced his men as well.

Although Colonel Williams' tried to withdraw his men from the battlefield in order, the crushing attack prevented this effort. The retreat turned into a route and by the time it was over, the Confederates had pursued the scattered Union command for over two miles.

Union losses at Poison Spring were shocking. An estimated 204 Federal soldiers were reported killed or missing following the battle, while another 97 were listed as wounded. The exact number killed is somewhat difficult to determine. Williams claimed that a number of wounded soldiers from the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers were murdered on the spot by Confederate forces. There is some confirmation of this in the writings of Southern participants, one of whom noted that killings were carried out by members of 1st and 2nd Choctaw regiments. The men of these units had a particular grudge against the soldiers of the 1st Kansas because of the harsh treatment dealt on homes and families in the Choctaw Nation by that regiment prior to the Red River Campaign. One eyewitness reported that the outraged warriors retaliated at Poison Spring and "did kill and scalp some."

General Marmaduke's report listed 100 wounded and 120 non-wounded Union soldiers as having been taken prisoner at Poison Spring, while he estimated the number of dead on the ground at an impossibly high 400-600. He also reported the capture of 195 wagons, 4 pieces of artillery and 1,200 mules while listing his own losses at 13 killed, 81 wounded and 1 missing.

I will have more on the Battle of Poison Spring in the next post. Until then, read more by visiting

Map of Poison Spring Battlefield, Arkansas

To help you better visualize the tactics of the Battle of Poison Spring, I prepared the map below using information from the forms submitted for the Red River Campaign National Landmark designation.

The troop positions shown here are approximate and are merely intended to provide an idea of how the battle unfolded, so they are not scale and are generalized. The gray lines represent the positions of the Confederate troops as the battle developed. The blue line represents the position of the Union wagon train during the battle. As with most maps, north is up, south is down, west is left and east is right.

The Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas - April 18, 1864

As Colonel James Williams and his force of Union raiders tried to make their way back to Camden on the morning of April 18, 1864, with nearly 200 wagons loaded down with confiscated corn and stolen goods, a Confederate force of roughly 3,600 men with 12 pieces of field artillery moved to intercept them.

Williams and his men were following the Washington-Camden road, which ran along the route of today's Arkansas Highway 76. Moving slowly due to their heavily laden wagons, the Federals approached a small water source known locally as Poison Spring at around 10 a.m. Their vanguard was met there by Confederate troops led by General John S. Marmaduke.

Marmaduke reacted boldly, driving back the forward elements of the Union column and seizing a ridge that would prove a critical position in the coming battle. The Washington-Camden Road led up and over this ridge, so Marmaduke positioned his force directly across it. Cabell's and Crawford's brigades of dismounted Confederate cavalry formed the main Southern line, with Greene's brigade (also dismounted) held in reserve. Marmaduke's personal escort was placed in advance of the main line to serve as skirmishers.

The main Confederate position was near the eastern edge of today's Poison Spring State Park, while the Union wagon train stretched down the road from roughly the area of the state park west to the vicinity of the Poison Spring Lookout Tower, a distance of nearly two miles. Virtually the entire battlefield is now preserved in either the state park or the adjoining state forest.

Just as the battle began, Marmaduke was reinforced by the arrival of his commanding officer, General S.B. Maxey, with additional men and artillery. Although Maxey was the senior officer on the field, he declined Marmaduke's offer to accept command because the latter general had already initiated the battle and was more familiar with the ground.

After a brief conference, it was decided that Marmaduke would hold his position astride the road, while Maxey would move off to the left (opposite the road from today's state park) and form his men at a right angle to the initial Confederate line. This resulted in an "L" shaped line with Marmaduke at the base and Maxey to the left.

The Confederate plan was for Maxey to engage the Union forces that were moving into position to protect their wagons and convince them that the main Confederate attack would come from the pine woods to the south of the road. Once the Federals deployed to meet this anticipated attack, Marmaduke would then storm forward with Crawford's and Cabell's brigades and overrun what he expected would be the right flank of the Union line.

To help you better visualize the positions of the troops, I will include a map in the next post. Until then, learn more by visiting

Friday, April 17, 2009

Williams' Raid before Poison Spring

Colonel James Williams left Camden on the morning of April 17, 1864 (145 years ago today) with 670 men, 200 wagons and 2 pieces of artillery.

The Federals marched 20 miles out from Camden, striking plantations and farms to the west of the city. By the end of the day, they had confiscated an estimated 5,000 bushels of corn as well as livestock and other supplies. Stories handed down in local families also indicate the soldiers raided homes for clothing, furniture and any other valuables they could fine. According to some eyewitnesses, they even stole items from the slave cabins, taking from those with little to offer.

Although they did not encounter resistance on the 17th, the Confederates knew the Federals were on the move. General John Marmaduke learned from scouts and local citizens of the Union raid and decided to intercept them on their way back to Camden. Accordingly, he set out with 3,600 men and 12 pieces of field artillery on a road that would intersect the route by which Williams had marched.

In Camden, General Steele became concerned that his raiding party might not have enough men to fend off a Confederate attack, so he sent out an additional 490 men and 2 more cannon to link up with Williams and assist in getting the confiscated provisions safely back to camp.

By the evening of April 17th, the stage was set for the Battle of Poison Spring. The fighting would begin the next day.

I will have details about the battle in the next post. Until then, you can read more by visiting

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Prelude to the Battle of Poison Spring, Arkansas

After he moved his forces into the fortifications of Camden on April 15, 1864, Union General Frederick Steele assessed his situation.

Faced with growing Confederate resistance and a severe shortage of supplies, Steele also heard rumors from local citizens that the Louisiana advance under General Nathaniel P. Banks had been badly beaten and was retreating. He decided that his best option was to keep his men under the cover of Camden's defenses until he could learn more of Banks' fate.

His first priority was to obtain food for his men. If he could not do so, the campaign would end in disaster do to starvation.

Learning that there was a large supply of corn stockpiled on farms about 20 miles west of Camden, Steele began assembling a force on April 16th to march out and retrieve it. With a total strength of 670 men, the bulk of the force was made up of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers. The 1st Kansas was a seasoned regiment that had fought extremely well at the Battle of Honey Springs, Oklahoma, the previous summer. The force was augmented by two pieces of field artillery.

Colonel James Williams was assigned to command the raid, which would leave Camden on the morning of the 17th. The soldiers assembled a train of 200 wagons, all of which they hoped to fill with confiscated corn.

Our look at the Red River Campaign will continue in the next post. Until then you can read more on the events surrounding the Battle of Poison Spring at

Monday, April 13, 2009

Red River Campaign leads to Occupation of Camden

After the inconclusive fighting at Prairie D'Ane on April 10-11, 1864, Union General Frederick Steele realized that he was facing a growing Confederate force and running low on supplies at the same time.

Turning his army to the city of Camden in southern Arkansas, he took up positions there on April 15th.

Steele apparently still planned to continue his advance to Shreveport as soon as he could round up additional supplies. He had no way of knowing that the Louisiana phase of the campaign had already ended in disaster. Confederate General Richard Taylor had smashed the army of Union General Nathaniel P. Banks at Mansfield on April 8th and then pursued him to Pleasant Hill where the two forces had fought a bloody battle the next day. Despite the fact that he outnumbered Taylor, Banks began to withdraw in the face of the Confederate attacks.

Camden was strongly fortified and Steele settled his men camp protected by earthworks such as Fort Sutherland, shown above. The forts had originally been built by the Confederates, but were not manned when Steele moved on Camden. He strengthened the positions and was relatively secure, but his supply situation was beginning to grow critical.

With no other option for obtaining provisions for his army, Steele decided to send out strong raiding parties to gather corn and other supplies from farms and plantations in the area. This strategy would soon lead to major disaster for the Union forces.

I will continue to look at the Red River Campaign in Arkansas through the coming week, so be sure to check back for additional posts.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Red River Campaign in Arkansas

This month marks the 145th anniversary of the Union's disastrous Red River Campaign.

In Arkansas, the campaign resulted in a series of battles between Confederate forces and the Union army of General Frederick Steele. Although the Arkansas phase of the campaign is best noted for the Battles of Poison Spring, Marks Mill and Jenkins Ferry, there were a number of other encounters as well.

It was 145 years ago today, for example, that Steele faced General Sterling Price in a noisy but otherwise inconclusive battle at Prairie D'Ane, Arkansas. After considerable long range firing, Price withdrew his outnumbered army from the field without the Union forces detecting the movement.

Realizing that he was facing growing opposition and growing critically short on provisions and other supplies, Steele decided to temporarily halt his advance to Shreveport and took up positions behind the fortifications of Camden, Arkansas. The coming week would see one of the bloodiest fights of the campaign, the Battle of Poison Spring.

We will begin retracing the movements of the Red River Campaign in Arkansas over coming days, so be sure to check back in throughout the next couple of weeks for the latest updates.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Queen Wilhelmina State Park Temporarily Closed

News outlets are reporting that Queen Wilhelmina State Park near Mena has been temporarily closed due to a power outage from a tornado that struck the area, killing three people.

The park is without power, but did not suffer other damage. If you are planning a visit over the weekend, you should check with them at (479) 394-2863 before heading out. Mena, where the worst of the damage has been reported, is a few miles from the park, but has experienced a major disaster.

Damage was also reported at Mt. Magazine State Park near Paris, where shingles were blown from the roofs of the lodge and visitor center. If you are planning a visit there this weekend, you might contact them at 1-877-MMLodge to check on conditions before heading out.

You can learn more about Queen Wilhelmina by visiting or Mount Magazine by visiting