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A view of Poison Spring Historic Battlefield Site.  Photograph by A.C. Haralson, courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

At the outset of the Civil War, Camden, Arkansas, was a bustling commercial center on the Ouachita River roughly 120 miles south of Little Rock. Rows of trim white houses sheltered 2,219 people, making Camden the second largest city in the state.1          

Yet when Major General Frederick Steele approached Camden with a Union army in April 1864, the place took on the appearance of a ghost town. Many of the city’s young white males had gone off long ago to fight for Southern independence. The remaining white residents cowered in their homes, wondering what punishment the invaders might inflict on a community so firm in its support of the Confederacy. Such terror was a new experience for Camdenites, as no other large Union column had penetrated that far into southwestern Arkansas. As Private Wiley Britton of the 6th Kansas Cavalry gloated: “Our rapid advance caused almost a complete panic among the rebel civilians. . . . so much so that they seemed to think the whole country was flooded with Yankees.”2

That blue flood surged into Camden near dusk on April 15. “The awful day of all days-the dread event feared for years,” local merchant John W. Brown scribbled in his diary. “About 6 O clock, an enemy infuriated by combat & hunger came rushing down our main street and diverging into the cross streets. . . . Northern muskets, swords & bayonets glittering with the last rays of the setting sun with fierce imprecations and hideous shouts of exultation.”3

Steele, the commander of the Union Department of Arkansas and VII Army Corps, drew his army from two sources. Nine thousand men grouped in one infantry division and one cavalry division accompanied Steele when he left Little Rock on March 23, 1864. Brigadier General John M. Thayer had already marched from Fort Smith two days earlier with the Frontier Division, just under five thousand troops in two infantry brigades and one of cavalry. The two Federal columns rendezvoused on the Little Missouri River south of Arkadelphia on April 9.4

Thayer’s 2nd Brigade included the 1st and 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry, the first black regiments ever committed to an active combat role in a major Union offensive in Arkansas. That fact infuriated Confederate soldiers and civilians alike. “Only one thing stirred my Southern blood to heat,” admitted a Camden housewife, “was when a negro regiment passed my home going to fight our own dear men.”5

Steele’s ultimate destination was Shreveport, Louisiana, on the Red River, where he planned to join a larger Union army and a gunboat flotilla under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks. Banks wanted Steele to assist in an invasion of Texas and the seizure of vast supplies of cotton for profit-hungry Northern speculators.

Steele’s route south was not an easy one. Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith, the commander of the Confed-eracy’s Trans-Mississippi Department, concentrated much of his strength in Louisiana to oppose Banks, but he left six thousand cavalry behind to defend southern Arkansas. Most of these Rebel troopers were well-mounted and armed with long-range Enfield and Richmond rifle muskets, which enabled them to function as potent mounted infantry. Beginning on April 2, the Confederates subjected Steele’s main column to constant harassment, contesting river crossings and pressing his rear guard. “I don’t think there was a day passed without some one being Shot,” claimed one Union infantryman. The Confederates continued their hit-and-run tactics even after Steele and Thayer united on the Little Missouri.6

Though Steele’s soldiers cursed enemy bushwhacking and muddy roads, the most formidable adversary they encountered was hunger. The Federals passed through a country that had been scoured by Confederate foragers since the fall of 1863. By the time the invaders reached Camden, they had been on half-rations for three weeks, and they immediately searched the city for anything to eat. “The soldiers dashed to our doors demanding food,” John Brown confided to his diary. “I soon handed out all the victuals which were on hand, cooked. After dark they brook into the smoke house & commenced carrying off as they wanted.” Mrs. A.J. Marshall, a schoolteacher, watched in horror as blue foot soldiers “broke open the smokehouse with one blow of the butt-end of their muskets, stuck their bayonets through as many joints of meat as would stick on them, filled seives and boxes with meat, rice, sugar, coffee, flour, etc.”7

While the larders of Camden afforded temporary relief to the famished Union troops, Steele faced another problem. His future mobility depended on providing sufficient forage for the twelve thousand horses and mules attached to his army. As Captain Charles A. Henry, Steele’s chief quartermaster, commented: “The difficulty of procuring forage occasioned great uneasiness, as we were without any base of supplies and with an active enemy in front.”8

Fortunately, Captain Henry learned that five thousand bushels of corn had been stored at some farms sixteen miles west of Camden. He quickly assembled a forage train of 198 wagons to collect this prize, which could be converted into meal for Steele’s soldiers or feed for his


As originally published in
North and South Magazine:
August 2000

An anonymous white officer of the 2nd Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry, the regiment that avenged the Poison Spring Massacre twelve days later at the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry. Kansas State Historical Society














General Frederick Steele. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War




Colonel James Monroe Williams, 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers. Kansas State Historical Society

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