Today is the sesquicentennial of the engagement at Poison Spring that was a disaster for the 1,170 man Union force. A startling 17.4% (204) of the force was killed in action at the battle with more than half being members of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers. By contrast, total reported Confederate casualties were 115.
By mid-April 1864, Major General Frederick Steele’s men were desperate for food “having been on half-rations for three weeks” according to Gregory J. W. Urwin (p. 109). A forage train, accompanied by an escort, was sent west of Camden, Arkansas, to collect supplies. Near Poison Spring, a Confederate force numbering 3,621 men attacked the wagon train and the escort. Comprised of Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, and Choctaw soldiers, the Confederates launched three assaults before their superior numbers broke the Union line. The 29th Texas Cavalry particularly targeted the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. These two regiments had gone toe to toe at the battle of Honey Springs in July 1863 with the 1st Kansas Colored inflicting significant casualties on the Texans there. According to Gregory Urwin, though, “The Choctaw brigade, which had shown little stomach for combat that day, outdid all other Confederate units in the post-battle butchery” at Poison Spring (p. 125). A number of atrocities occurred after the battle with the 1st Kansas Colored losing 117 killed; this ranks as one of the highest losses by a Union infantry regiment during the war. Additionally, 65 soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored were wounded during (and after) the battle. Also hard hit was the 18th Iowa Infantry with 59 killed and 21 wounded men.
Quotes are from “Poison Spring and Jenkins’ Ferry: Racial Atrocities during the Camden Expedition” in “’All Cut to Pieces and Gone to Hell’: The Civil War, Race Relations, and the Battle of Poison Spring edited by Mark K. Christ.
Next posting: an author interview with historian Chris Wehner!