In the spring of 1864, three Civil War battles took place in south central Arkansas that were part of the Union Army's "Red River Campaign." Arkansas's three state historic parks that commemorate these battles--Poison Springs Battleground State Park, Marks' Mills Battleground State Park and Jenkins Ferry Battleground State Park--are part of the Red River Campaign National Historic Landmark.
The first battle occurred near Camden at Poison Springs on April 18 when Confederate troops captured a supply train and scattered Union forces.
Arkansas was split in half with Union troops occupying Little Rock, Fort Smith, and every other town north of the Arkansas River. Confederates were encamped from Monticello to Camden, Washington and beyond.
An elaborate Union offensive was hatched during the winter in Washington D.C. in order to capture the last Rebel stronghold of the West--Texas. Standing in their way was Shreveport, Louisiana, believed to be the front door to Texas. Thus began what would become known as the Red River Campaign.
Twenty-three days after 12,000 men, 800 wagons, 30 pieces of artillery and nearly 12,000 horses and mules left Little Rock, the Union army under General Frederick Steele arrived in Camden. A concentration of Confederates in southwest Arkansas had forced the Union trek to the east. Heavy rain and mud were partially to blame for the slow movement, which caused supplies to become dangerously low. When the Federals arrived on April 15, they found the Confederate troops had withdrawn.
On April 17, General Steele received word the Federal forces advancing northward in Louisiana with needed supplies were retreating. Further complicating matters, Steele also learned Confederate loyalists had either moved or destroyed most of a massive stockpile of corn he'd planned to ransack. The Union General then sent a force of 200 wagons, a detachment of 500 African American infantrymen, 195 cavalry troops and an artillery detachment to get what supplies remained.
It didn’t take long for a scout under Confederate Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke, whose men were camped near Camden, to notice the wagon train. Marmaduke suggested to his superior, Confederate General Sterling Price, an ambush be set.
During the night, the Union wagon train was reinforced by 400 soldiers Steele sent from Camden, as approximately 1,500 Confederates prepared to attack the Union troops from both sides of the blocked road. The attack on April 18 began near a place the locals call Poison Springs. When the battle ended, the Union force of more than 1,100 had been reduced to 800. Another 80 Federals were killed as they clawed their way back to Camden through the bottomlands. Fewer than 20 Confederates were killed in the victory that kept much-needed supplies from enemy hands.
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