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"We cannot treat negroes ... as prisoners of war": racial atrocities and Reprisals in Civil War Arkansas Gregory J. W. Urwin The Battle of Poison Spring, April 18, 1864, was one of the most complete victories ever won by Confederate forces in Arkansas. Fewer than four thousand cavalrymen sprang a cleverly laid ambush within the hearing of thirteen thousand Union soldiers in nearby Camden, capturing a large wagon train carrying food for their foes. As the exulting Rebels scattered the train's escort, they refused to take prisoners from its largest unit, the 1 st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Thus a glorious Confederate triumph was transformed into Arkansas's most notorious war crime.1 The atrocities at Poison Spring, along with the retaliatory measures adopted by other African American troops serving in Arkansas, reveal the essence ofa savage conflict whose central issue was race. Though more than 130 years have passed since that terrible day, the memory of Poison Spring still troubles many of those who prefer to view the Civil War in romantic terms. The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, which maintains a historic park at Poison Spring, has tended to ignore the dark deeds that stained that particular patch ofhallowed ground. Despite such indifference, the murder of captured black soldiers at Poison Spring deserves a prominent place in any history of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River.2 The clash at Poison Spring marked the beginning of the end for the Camden Expedition, the last major Federal offensive in Arkansas. In late March 1864, Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele, the commander ofthe Union Department ofArkansas and Seventh Army Corps, marched south with roughly fourteen thousand 1 Apr. 18, 27, 1864, "Receipts" Book (Diary), Henry Merrell Papers, Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives, Washington, Arkansas; Fort Smith New Era, May 7, 21, 1864. For a recent overview of military operations in Arkansas that places the Poison Spring affair in context, see Mark K. Christ, ed., Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas (Fayetteville: Univ. of Arkansas Press, 1994). 2 Jay S. Miller and Elwin Goolsby, The Red River Campaign in Arkansas (Little Rock: Arkansas State Parks, 1989), 1-4; Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Sept. 11, 1994. Civil War History, Vol. xlii. No. 3 © 1996 by The Kent State University Press 194CIVIL WAR HISTORY troops drawn from his garrisons at Little Rock and Fort Smith. The five thousand soldiers from the latter post belonged to Brig. Gen. John M. Thayer's Frontier Division and were veterans of successful operations in Indian Territory . Among Thayer's regiments were the ist and 2d Kansas Colored Infantry, composed of runaway slaves from Missouri and Arkansas and led by white officers. Steele's column penetrated further into southern Arkansas than the Federals had ever gone before. The expedition also represented the first time that black units in the state were employed as anything more than garrison or labor battalions. Both of these facts struck terror into the hearts of the region's white inhabitants.3 Steele carried orders to rendezvous at Shreveport, Louisiana, with a larger Union army and a gunboat flotilla under Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks. Once Steele joined him, Banks planned to invade Texas, seizing vast supplies of cotton in the process to enrich Northern speculators. But the two armies were destined never to meet.4 Hampered by muddy roads and constantly harassed by more than six thousand Confederate cavalry, Steele pushed southward by starts and stops. A feint toward Washington, the capital of Confederate Arkansas since Little Rock's capture the previous year, threw the Rebels so off balance that Steele was able to march into the fortified town of Camden without fight on April 15.5 The country through which Steele's army passed had been picked over by Confederate foragers since the autumn of 1863. By the time the Federals reached Camden, they had been on half rations for three weeks, and their rations were soon halved again. But relief lay close at hand. Capt. Charles A. Henry, Steele's chief quartermaster, learned of the existence of five thousand bushels of corn stored at a point sixteen miles west of Camden. Henry assembled a forage train of 198...


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