"War to the Knife": Union and Confederate Soldiers' Accounts of the Camden Expedition, 1864

By Christ, Mark K. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

"War to the Knife": Union and Confederate Soldiers' Accounts of the Camden Expedition, 1864


Christ, Mark K., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


ON MARCH 23, 1864, Maj. Gen. FrederiCk steele set out from Little Rock at the head of an 8500-man army intent on rendezvousing with a second Union force under Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks at Shreveport, Louisiana. They would invade eastern Texas, raise the Stars and Stripes in yet another Confederate state, and procure cotton for the North's idled textile mills. A second column of 3600 men under Brig. Gen. John M. Thayer set out simultaneously from Fort Smith to link up with Steele at Arkadelphia.

The campaign that would come to be known as the Camden Expedition ran into trouble almost from the moment that Steele's poorly supplied army started down the execrable roads of southwest Arkansas. The main column arrived at Arkadelphia on March 29 and waited three days for Thayer, who was delayed by supply issues as his troops marched across the rugged mountains of western Arkansas. Steele, his troops consuming dwindling rations, moved on without Thayer on April 1 and encountered his first serious obstacle at the Little Missouri River, where Brig. Gen. John Sappington Marmaduke's veteran Confederate cavalry contested his crossing on April 3-4.

After establishing his beachhead at Elkins' Ferry, Steele moved forward as Marmaduke occupied strong earthworks on Prairie D'Ane near modern-day Prescott. Thayer's troops finally joined Steele on April 9- more hungry men to feed in a region nearly destitute of provisions. Confederate major general Sterling Price, meanwhile, had joined Marmaduke at Prairie D'Ane on April 7, with reinforcements from the Camden garrison. A brigade each of Texans and Choctaws under Brig. Gen. Samuel B. Maxey arrived from the Indian Territory to bolster the Rebel forces blocking the road to Shreveport.

The two armies skirmished on Prairie D'Ane for several days, but when the Federals moved in force against the Confederate works they found them abandoned, as the Rebels fell back eight miles to protect their capital at Washington. Steele then made the momentous decision to turn away from Shreveport and instead march to Camden on the Ouachita River in hopes of getting supplies for his hungry troops. Brushing aside an attack on its rearguard at the village of Moscow, the Union army entered Camden on April 15 and occupied the system of earthworks surrounding the town. When supplies failed to materialize, Steele dispatched a foraging party west of Camden on April 17.

As that expedition returned toward Camden on April 18, it encountered Confederate troops under Marmaduke at Poison Spring on the Washington-Camden Road. The superior Rebel force overwhelmed the Union column, its survivors streaming toward Camden while Confederate soldiers roamed the battlefield killing many wounded and surrendered troops of the First Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment. The ravenous Yankees finally received limited supplies from Pine Bluff on April 20, but, when the wagon train was heading back for additional provender, Rebel troops under Brig. Gen. James F. Fagan ambushed it at Marks' Mills on April 25, inflicting around 1500 casualties.

Steele decided that he had better cut his losses and return to Little Rock while he still had an army to save. The Federals quietly slipped out of Camden on April 26, stealing a march on the Rebels who quickly sent veteran horsemen to harass the retreating column. They caught up to the Yankee army as it crossed the swollen Saline River on April 29. The next morning, bolstered by Confederate infantry that had been force marched from Louisiana after turning back Banks's Union army, the Rebels attacked at Jenkins' Ferry. Disjointed Confederate attacks in miserable conditions in the Saline River bottoms failed to stop Steele's retreat, but the Union victory was marred as men of the Second Kansas Colored Infantry murdered wounded Confederates in revenge for Poison Spring. The surviving Yankees staggered back into Little Rock on May 3, having lost around 2750 casualties, 635 wagons, some 2500 animals, and 8 artillery pieces. …

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