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Companies G and K in reserve. Haines’ second gun supported Ward’s southward-facing right wing. Warned by Williams “to keep a sharp lookout for a movement upon his rear and right flank,” Captain Duncan wheeled the 18th Iowa, his mountain howitzers, and his cavalry to the right to meet the Choctaws composing Maxey’s left wing.15

Williams’ mounted reconnaissance force rode four hundred yards before it made contact with Maxey’s labored advance. As the Kansans urged their steeds across an open field, the bushes in front of them suddenly blossomed with the fire and smoke of exploding musketry. Dismounted skirmishers from DeMorse’s 29th Texas Cavalry hit one Union lieutenant and possibly emptied a few other saddles. The shaken Federals broke to the rear, carrying away the stricken officer. The blue cavalrymen finally rallied on Major Ward’s right wing, and he posted them to his right to fill the gap between the 1st Kansas Colored and Duncan’s command.

No sooner had Ward completed these dispositions than he and his black soldiers became the targets of a vicious crossfire. One thousand yards to the east, the guns of Hughey and Harris spewed a barrage of shot and shell aimed at suppressing Federal efforts to resist Maxey. Ensconced on a knoll six to seven hundred yards from the 1st Kansas Colored, Krumbhaar’s four guns added their booming voices to the din. Lieutenant William M. Stafford, Krumbhaar’s second in command, pulled out his watch to note the time. It was 12:00 p.m. The Battle of Poison Spring had begun.16

The three Rebel batteries concentrated their fire on the center of the 1st Kansas Colored’s line. Colonel Williams characterized the cannonade as “incessant and well-directed,” but the former slaves he had trained as soldiers endured their trial with quiet fortitude. “Although this was much the severest artillery fire that any of the men had ever before been subjected to,” Major Ward pointed out, even the greenest recruits “were as cool as veterans and patiently awaited the onset of the enemy.” Williams estimated the number of Rebel guns at nine, which told him he was outnumbered. Nevertheless, he resolved to hold his ground as long as possible, certain that General Steele would hear the roar of battle and come racing to the rescue. It was a misplaced hope.17

After about thirty minutes, the Confederate artillery slackened its fire as DeMorse’s brigade neared the 1st Kansas Colored’s right wing. The broken nature of the ground between DeMorse and the black Federals made long-range shooting a waste of ammunition, but Colonel Williams was undismayed. He allowed the Texans to close to one hundred yards and then had the 1st Kansas Colored unleash a fusillade of “buck and ball.” The Texans raised their rifles in reply, punctuating their shots with shrill Rebel yells. For fifteen minutes, the opposing lines blazed away at each other. Many of DeMorse’s men took aim at the crew of the James rifle to their front. Major Ward later reported that the Texans “disabled more than half of the gunners” during this phase of the battle.18

The 1st Kansas Colored was renowned for fast and deadly shooting, however, and its stinging mixture of bullets and buckshot proved too much for DeMorse’s brigade. Lieutenant Stafford, who had helped move Krumbhaar’s Texas Battery to within three hundred yards of the 1st Kansas, recalled that “the engagement was brisk, to use the mildest term-the fire was extraordinarily heavy, and we began to believe the force against which we were contending was decidedly heavier than was reported.” General Marmaduke and other Confederate officers present would claim that they encountered two black regiments at Poison Spring instead of one-an unintended tribute to the fighting prowess of the 1st Kansas Colored.

An abrupt panic seized DeMorse’s left and center, and those troops fled to the rear. Cool and quick in a crisis, Captain Krumbhaar immediately instructed his gunners to load with shell and cut their fuses to explode at two seconds. Then he gave the command to fire by half battery. Two guns at a time, Krumbhaar’s artillerists hammered the 1st Kansas Colored with devastatingly accurate salvoes. Seeing DeMorse’s troopers recoil, the Arkansas and Missouri batteries “again opened their infernal cross-fires,” as Major Ward put it. DeMorse’s men observed the effects of this shelling, and they soon heeded the rallying cries shouted by their brigade commander and his assistant adjutant general, Captain M. L. Bell.





Surgeon Henry Sanford, 18th Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Roger Davis collection


Union Forces



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