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livestock. With thousands of enemy cavalry lurking in the vicinity, Steele called on the Frontier Division to furnish a train escort. General Thayer assigned more than six hundred infantry and cavalry to that duty-438 officers and men from the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry and 197 troopers in detachments taken from the 2nd, 6th, and 14th Kansas Cavalry. Thayer also sent along thirty-three artillerymen and two 10-pound James rifles in Lieutenant William W. Haines’ section of the 2nd Independent Battery, Indiana Light Artillery. To command the train and escort, Thayer chose James M. Williams, the idealistic colonel of the 1st Kansas Colored. A former lawyer, Williams was noted for his zeal, energy, and efficiency, and had led his regiment to victory in some hotly contested actions in Indian Territory.

Colonel Williams roused his column early on Sunday, April 17, and conducted it west along the Camden-Washington Road. The Federals marched eighteen miles and went into camp along White Oak Creek, where Williams dispatched details to seize any corn found at farms and plantations within a six-mile radius. Correctly divining Williams’ mission, Confederate patrols reached several of these places first and burned approximately twenty-five hundred bushels. The Federals loaded what remained aboard 141 wagons and reassembled at their camp by midnight.

Williams commenced his homeward march at the crack of dawn on April 18. As the column plodded toward a rising sun, the conscientious colonel split off foraging details to fill his empty wagons from farms along his route. “There being but few wagon loads of corn to be found at any one place,” Williams explained, “I was obliged to detach portions of the command in different directions to load the wagons until nearly my whole available force was so employed.” These side trips and the extra labor weighed heavily on the footsore 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, which had received only fifteen hours of rest during the past seventy-eight. By mid-morning, one hundred black soldiers were so exhausted that their officers considered them unfit for duty.9

Williams proceeded four toilsome miles to a point known as “Cross-Roads,” where a welcome sight greeted his eyes. Following the departure of the forage train the previous day, General Thayer organized a 501-man relief column under Captain William M. Duncan to cover Williams’ return. Duncan covered twelve miles before dark on the seventeenth, which allowed him to effect a quick junction with Williams the next morning. The relief force included 383 officers and men from Duncan’s own regiment, the 18th Iowa Infantry, ninety-three horsemen from the 2nd, 6th, and 14th Kansas Cavalry, and a section of two 12-pound mountain howitzers manned by one officer and twenty-four troopers detached from the 6th Kansas Cavalry. Duncan’s arrival gave Williams a total force of 1,169, but many of his cavalrymen would deliberately lag behind to loot nearby farms.10

Keeping the original train escort and Duncan’s contingent separate, Williams had the newcomers fall in at the rear of the column. The Federals proceeded eastward, approaching an area that the locals called Poison Spring. A mile down the road, the cavalry screening Williams’ advance spotted a number of mounted Confederate pickets. This by itself was no cause for alarm. Duncan’s cavalry had skirmished with enemy patrols throughout its outward march the previous day. Williams’ advance guard spurred forward and the pickets gave ground as expected. A mile closer to Camden, however, the Yankees topped a hill beside the road around 10:00 a.m. and sighted a sizeable Rebel skirmish line bearing down on them. If Colonel Williams intended to bring corn to Camden, he would have to fight a battle at Poison Spring.

Those oncoming skirmishers represented the lead elements of 3,621 Confederate cavalry and horse artillery who were converging on Poison Spring as quick as their mounts could carry them. The officer responsible for this timely concentration was Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke, a combative West Point graduate. He commanded a Missouri cavalry division with headquarters at Woodlawn, fourteen miles southwest of Camden. On the morning of April 17, Marmaduke’s scouts brought him word of Williams’ foraging expedition. Marmaduke wanted to attack, but he had only 486 troops on hand in Colonel Colton Greene’s understrength brigade and Captain S.S. Harris’ four-gun battery. Marmaduke immediately requested aid from Brigadier General James F. Fagan, the commander of an Arkansas cavalry division. Fagan generously loaned him Brigadier General William L. Cabell’s 1,200-man brigade, Colonel William A. Crawford’s three hundred-man brigade, and the four guns of Captain W. M. Hughey’s battery. For some undisclosed reason, Fagan chose not to accompany these units himself, and command of them reverted to Cabell.

Setting out at sunset to intercept Williams, Marmaduke rode two miles until he met some excited scouts. They announced that the Federals had been reinforced and now numbered twenty-five hundred men. Discouraged by the grossly exaggerated estimate, Marma-duke returned to Woodlawn, but he was not willing to let Williams escape.



Field musicians and the color guard from the 57th U.S. Colored Infantry, a black regiment raised by the Union Army in Arkansas. About half of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry’s enlisted personnel consisted of runaway slaves from Arkansas. UALR Archives

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