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While the 18th Iowa bought valuable time, Colonel Williams shepherded the broken remnants of his command north toward the refuge of a swamp. Williams’ escape route led over steep hills and deep ravines covered with timber. The ground was impassable for the Union artillery, which was spiked and left behind. At Williams’ behest, Lieutenant Richard L. Phillips of the 6th Kansas Cavalry threw some skittish Union horsemen into line in a feeble attempt to shield wounded black stragglers. “My men,” Phillips insisted, “acted as well as men could act under the circumstances; for the enemy were following the negroes and pouring a heavy fire into their ranks.” Riding up a hill past the spot where the 2nd Indiana Light Battery abandoned its James rifles, Lieutenant Gibbons turned to “distinctly see the rebels shooting our brave but fatigued boys.”24

Despite the 18th Iowa’s valiant exertions, the Confederates chased the retreating Federals for two and a half miles. The whole Union escort might have been killed or captured had not General Maxey called a halt to the pursuit in the late afternoon. Maxey was aware that the sounds of the battle could be heard at Camden. He did not want any enemy relief column to plow into him from behind while his troops were scattered. He therefore instructed his subordinates to reassemble their units and remove their captures to a place of safety. Unimpeded by the Rebels, Williams and his surviving troops traced a circuitous route back to Camden. The swiftest of these fugitives reached friendly lines around 8:00 p.m.

Maxey’s precautions were commendable but unnecessary. The first rumble of artillery fire from Poison Spring prompted General Thayer to call out what remained of the Frontier Division’s cavalry at Camden and have the men saddle their horses. Although General Steele could hear the firing as well, he issued no orders to organize a relief column, much to the bafflement of his officers. From Fort Smith, the home base of the Frontier Division, the disgusted editor of a Unionist newspaper would charge: “We have it from reliable sources that Gen. Thayer repeatedly asked permission to sally out with his Division to cover the retreat of the devoted little band, but of no avail.”25

Back at the wagon train, the Rebels celebrated their triumph with an orgy of barbarism. A black soldier feigning death listened in silent horror while execution squads from the 29th Texas Cavalry roamed the battlefield to finish off the 1st Kansas Colored’s wounded. As the Texans proceeded with their bloody work, they chanted a ghastly litany. “Where is the First Kansas Nigger now?” some would hoot. “All cut to pieces and gone to hell by bad management,” others would answer. Detailed to drive away the captured wagons, troopers from Cabell’s division played a sickening game with their fallen enemies. Each Arkansan vied to see if he could crush the most “nigger heads” under his wagon wheels.26

The Choctaw brigade, which had shown little stomach for combat that day, outdid all other Confederate units in the post-battle butchery. “The havoc among the negroes had been tremendous,” wrote Lieutenant Stafford, “over a small portion of the field we saw at least 40 dead bodies lying in all conceivable attitudes, some scalped & nearly all stripped by the bloodthirsty Choctaws.” “You ought to see Indians fight Negroes,” exclaimed Private Charles T. Anderson of the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry, “kill and scalp them. Let me tell you, I never expected to see as many dead Negroes again. They were so thick you could walk on them.”27

The Choctaws’ rage did not abate after the African Americans were dead. In addition to scalping and stripping, the Indians devised novel ways to desecrate black corpses. The Washington (Ark.) Telegraph, the nearest Confederate newspaper to the scene of slaughter, gleefully reported the following example of “CHOCTAW HUMOR”: “After the battle of Poison Springs, the Choctaws buried a Yankee in an ordinary grave. For a headstone they put up a stiff negro buried to the waist. For a footstone another negro reversed out from the waist to the heels.”28

The Poison Spring Massacre has gone down in history as the worst war crime ever committed on Arkansas soil. It exemplified the Confederate reaction to the Union Army’s increasing reliance on black soldiers. As products of a slave culture, most white Southerners grew up believing that African Americans were inherently savage and had to be kept in bondage to lead orderly and productive lives. Remove their shackles, and blacks would revert into murderous beasts intent on slaying all whites regardless of sex or age. It was this largely baseless fear that caused Southerners to react so wildly whenever the North’s abolitionist minority condemned their social system. Upon Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election as president on a platform pledged to the containment and eventual elimination of slavery, the persisting dread of servile insurrection stampeded the Deep South into dissolving the Union and seeking independence.29

Steeped in such values, Confederates could not help but regard Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and his recruitment of black soldiers as the ultimate war crime - the inauguration of a merciless race war dedicated not merely to the destruction of the Southern way of life, but to the extermination of the South’s white population. Since Little Rock’s occupation by Federal forces in September 1863, the Washington Telegraph had functioned as the voice of Confederate Arkansas. Its editor, John R. Eakin, compared the “crime of Lincoln in seducing our slaves into the ranks of his army” to “those stupendous wrongs against humanity, shocking to the moral sense of the world, like Herod’s massacre of the Innocents, or the eve of St. Bartholomew.” Because the Federals had violated the rules of civilized warfare by giving blacks weapons, Eakin argued, incidents like the Poison Spring Massacre were perfectly justified. “It follows irresistably,” he declared, “that we cannot treat negroes taken in arms as prisoners of war, without a destruction of the social system for which we contend.” In other words, it was better to kill rebellious slaves, whether they wore Union uniforms or not, to prevent other bondsmen from following their example. One of Cabell’s Arkansans expressed this mind set in a letter to his wife: “Our men are determined not to take negro prisoners and if all the negroes could have seen what occurred today, they would stay at home.” These were the same sentiments that inspired Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate soldiers as they cut down black prisoners taken at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, six days before Poison Spring.30





Captain John T. Blake, Company I, 6th Kansas Cavalry. UALR Archives

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