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The 1st Kansas Colored had prevailed a second time, but victory against such odds carried a high price. To Colonel Williams, it looked like half of the men in Ward’s right wing were dead or wounded, and three of those six companies had lost all their officers. The black soldiers had also depleted their ammunition, and they searched the cartridge boxes of slain comrades for a few more rounds. Over on the left wing, the 2nd Indiana’s other gun had expended all its projectiles except solid shot, which was of limited use against enemy personnel-especially at close range. Williams directed Lieutenant Haines to retire both of his James rifles and report to Captain Duncan at the rear of the train.

As Williams fretted over the weakened state of the 1st Kansas Colored, the Confederates brought up reinforcements for a third attack. Two sharp repulses had shown General Maxey that he required more weight to make any headway against such stubborn opposition. He was also tired of not receiving stronger support from the other friendly units on the field. Asserting his status as senior Confederate commander, Maxey summoned Greene’s Missouri brigade to fall in on DeMorse’s right and strike the 1st Kansas Colored’s center during the next advance.

Watching the approach of Greene’s Missourians, Colonel Williams knew that the 1st Kansas Colored was in no shape to beat off another heavy thrust. He shouted to Major Ward to hold the 1st Kansas in place while he rode to the rear to redeploy the 18th Iowa to cover the black regiment’s retreat. Just as Williams applied spurs to his horse, a Confederate bullet slammed into the animal, and it crumpled to the ground. Major Ward offered the colonel his own mount, and Williams galloped off on his urgent errand. Before Williams could reposition the 18th Iowa, however, a massive gray wave swamped the decimated 1st Kansas Colored.

The third Confederate attack at Poison Spring was a model of tactical coordination. First, DeMorse’s Texans tramped forward to trade volleys with Ward’s right wing. Minutes later, Greene’s Missourians threw themselves at the Federals. “The left and center were hotly pressed,” Greene commented, “when I advanced at the double-quick with loud cheers, passed the line, delivered several well-directed volleys, and charged the enemy through burning woods and dense smoke.” A grateful Colonel DeMorse testified that the Missourians joined the fight “in the very moment when most effective.” With DeMorse and Greene warmly engaged, Maxey sent word to General Cabell to drive west along the Camden-Washington Road with his Arkansas division. As Maxey’s battle plan came together, he noted happily: “The whole line moved forward like a sheet of living fire carrying death and destruction before it.”22

The 1st Kansas Colored had no hope of withstanding the combined power of four brigades. The first elements of the regiment to give way were the two leftmost companies, C and I, stationed north of the Camden-Washington Road. Lieutenant William C. Gibbons, Ward’s adjutant, sensed these companies were about to be outflanked by Cabell’s Arkansans and pulled them back to the head of the forage train. This move exposed the rest of the 1st Kansas Colored’s left flank even as the regiment sustained increasing pressure all along its front. Major Ward ordered the eight companies still under his control to retire on the train. At the same time, he changed front to the left to refuse his vulnerable flank.

Ward tried to make a stand in front of the train, but the momentum had shifted to the Confederates. DeMorse’s Texans pounced on Ward’s right flank and raked the 1st Kansas with a telling enfilade fire. The Rebels drove the Federals through the train with heavy loss. As they swirled around clumps of fallen blacks, some Arkansans paused to see if any were still breathing. “If the negro was wounded,” recounted one of Cabell’s troopers, “our men would shoot him dead as they passed.” Lieutenant Stafford of Krumbhaar’s battery witnessed the same behavior among DeMorse’s Texans. “No black prisoners were taken,” he recorded in his journal. One wounded African American refused to die meekly and sank his teeth into a Rebel’s calf until someone crushed his skull with a rifle butt. Catching glimpses of these atrocities, uninjured 1st Kansas personnel began leaving the firing line to help wounded comrades to the rear, which undercut Major Ward’s efforts to maintain resistance. Other black soldiers lost their nerve entirely and bolted.23

At length, Ward bade the 1st Kansas to quit the train and regroup behind Captain Duncan’s 18th Iowa Infantry, which had taken shelter among the buildings and fences of Lee’s plantation. Williams, Ward, and other 1st Kansas officers rallied a portion of their men and formed a ragged line on the 18th Iowa’s left, but nothing could stem the Rebel tide. Bellowing “Here’s your mule!” and raising cheers for Missouri, Greene’s brigade bulled forward and evicted the Federals from the plantation grounds. The Iowans reformed in the thick brush beyond the Lee place, but the Missourians charged and bludgeoned them back again. This scene repeated itself five more times as the 18th Iowa would retreat a short distance and then turn around to pepper the Confederates with musketry. In this way, Duncan delayed his opponents for more than an hour. The 18th Iowa might have been cut off and annihilated had Tandy Walker kept a tighter rein on his Choc-taws. Rather than pursue the beaten Federals, the Indians raced toward the abandoned forage wagons in a mad scramble for food and plunder.



Lieutenant William C. Gibbons, Ward’s adjutant. Kansas State Historical Society



Captain William M. Duncan, 18th Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Roger Davis Collection

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