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Defeat at Poison Spring cost the Union Army 301 killed, wounded, and missing. More than half of these losses belonged to the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, which suffered 117 killed, but carried off sixty-five of its wounded. General Marmaduke reported that 125 white Federals were taken prisoner. The Confederates also captured four guns and 198 wagons, but thirty of the latter had to be burned because not enough draft animals were left alive to pull them off the battlefield. For Frederick Steele’s army at Cam-den, the loss of the forage train meant prolonged hunger. The setback also underlined the danger of operating so deep in hostile territory without sufficient logistical support. Confederate casualty reports were incomplete, but Maxey estimated his total losses at fewer than 145.

The Federal forces caught at Poison Spring operated under debilitating handicaps. In addition to being outnumbered by a wide margin, Colonel Williams did not have enough time to organize his original escort and Captain Duncan’s relief column into a cohesive team. Early in the battle, well before the 18th Iowa Infantry faced any significant pressure, Duncan curtly refused a request from Williams to move four companies to the head of the train to reinforce the 1st Kansas Colored. The Iowans subsequently redeemed themselves with their tenacious, rearguard performance in covering Williams’ retreat, but the same cannot be said of the Union cavalry. Wherever the action heated up, the blue troopers would drift away from the firing line. By the time of the third Confederate assault, which cracked the 1st Kansas Colored, the cavalry units deployed between the black regiment and the 18th Iowa seem to have abandoned their posts completely, presenting DeMorse’s Texans with an easy opportunity to enfilade Major Ward’s right flank.

Although not every component in Colonel Williams’ escort fought with the same spirit as the 1st Kansas Colored, the blame for the Poison Spring disaster belonged primarily to General Steele. The Union commander displayed sheer recklessness in sending such a vulnerable detachment so far from his main body, especially since he knew he faced an aggressive and highly mobile foe. On the Confederate side, General Marma-duke deserves high marks for mobilizing a force large enough to exploit Steele’s mistake, but he failed to handle his brigades properly once battle was joined. Victory hung in the balance until General Maxey took charge and coordinated the final Rebel assault.

The main legacy of Poison Spring was the addition of an ugly dimension to the Civil War in Arkansas. In keeping with the prevailing racial prejudices of the day, many of Steele’s white soldiers exhibited a callous disregard for the murder of their black comrades. Others were outraged by the atrocities at Poison Spring. “I want no [Confederate] prisoners,” stormed Corporal Charles O. Musser of the 29th Iowa Infantry. “If they [the Confederates] raise the Black flag, we can fight under it. . . . I say give the rebbels no quarter, and the feeling is the same throughout the army in the west. we will retaliate.”31

If there was one Union unit at Camden that subscribed unanimously to these sentiments, it had to be Steele’s other black regiment, the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry. On the evening of April 19, Colonel Samuel J. Crawford, the 2nd’s no-nonsense commander, summoned his officers to a meeting to discuss the Poison Spring Massacre. With cold-blooded deliberateness, that assemblage solemnly swore that “the regiment would take no prisoners so long as the Rebels continued to murder our men.” The 2nd Kansas Colored soon found an opportunity to redeem that merciless pledge.

Shortly after General Steele captured Camden, his intelligence sources began advising him that General Banks had been defeated on the Red River and was in full retreat. Two couriers from Banks, who reached Steele on April 18 and 22, respectively, confirmed these disturbing reports. Steele received another blow on the twenty-second when he learned that General Edmund Kirby Smith, the commander of the Confederacy’s Trans-Mississippi Department, had arrived near Camden with eight thousand infantry. These three divisions were fresh from their recent victory in Louisiana and spoiling for a fight. That same day, Brigadier General James F. Fagan organized four thousand Rebel horsemen into a strike force to cut Steele’s communications between Camden and the Arkansas River. Fagan drew blood on April 25 at Marks’ Mills, where he captured a 240-wagon Union train and annihilated the reinforced brigade that Steele had detailed to escort it to Pine Bluff. Rather than let his army be trapped south of the Ouachita River, Steele quietly evacuated Camden on the evening of April 26 and headed back to Little Rock.



Captain Charles Schofield, 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry.  William Gladstone Collection and U.S. Army Military History Institute

Brigadier General Joseph O. Shelby commanded one of two Confederate cavalry divisions that captured a Union supply train at Marks’ Mills, Arkansas, on April 25, 1864, a blow that prompted the Federals to evacuate Camden the following day. State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia


Brigadier General James F. Fagan loaned Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke two brigades from his Arkansas cavalry division to intercept the Federals at Poison Spring. UALR Archives

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