Camden, Arkansas is located only about fifteen miles or so from the outskirts of the Poison Spring Battlefield. In past reenactments on the battlefield, the sounds of cannon fire was easily heard in the streets of Camden. To the citizens today, it may sound like thunder or sonic booms but to the Federal troops occupying the city in April of 1864 there was no mistake what was occurring just a few miles to the west – a portion of their army was under attack.
If you’ve studied the Battle of Poison Spring, then you’ll recall the Federals were desperate for food, their army starving in Camden. The wagon train dispatched west of the city was in search of reported barns filled with corn. You’ll also remember the Federals found the corn, loaded their wagons full (along with household furniture, dresses, toys, etc. from area farms) and were moving east toward Camden then they were attacked in mass by the Confederates.
The resulting battle raged for hours as the Confederates showed no mercy and soundly defeated the Federals. The controversy about the battle has always surrounded the treatment of the First Kansas Colored Infantry soldiers during and especially following the battle. The Federals described it as a massacre. The Confederates described it as an act of war. Who was to blame for Poison Spring?
Now today, I’d like for you to step back just a few steps and look at the larger picture. As the Confederates swarmed the Federal line – with the sounds of hundreds of muskets and round after round of cannon fire, where was General Frederick Steele?
The commanding general of the Seventh Corps was sitting in Camden, within earshot of the battle just a few miles to his west. Colonel James Williams, the commander of the First Kansas Colored Infantry, who was this day commanding the forage expedition kept looking to his east, knowing that Frederick Steele would hear the sounds of battle and send help marching his way. But help never came.
Instead, Williams watched while his small army was taken apart by the Confederates.
I’m not for a moment justifying the actions of a few Confederate soldiers in their post-battle treatment of some of the African-American soldiers of the First Kansas.
However, had Frederick Steele marched an army in support of the forage train at the first sounds of battle, I do believe the outcome may have been different. Even some of Steele’s own commanders were at a loss to explain why Steele didn’t order a detachment of his army to move toward the sound of the guns.
Frederick Steele has been accused by some who served alongside him during the 1864 Camden Expedition of hesitancy, even cowardliness.
I’ve tinkered with the idea of writing a biography of Steele. And unfortunately, I don’t see it as flattering when considering his documented performance during the Arkansas Campaign.
Bad things occurred 152 years ago near Camden. Men died who should not have died.
So instead of the post-battle discussions centering around the treatment of a few soldiers who were obviously mistreated outside the rules of war, why has the focus never been on how the forage train was abandoned by it’s commanding general?