Lt. Gen. Kirby Smith on April 16 accompanied Gen. Sterling Price’s two divisions while en route to Camden where Union Gen. Steele was penned up. Together with Major Gen. John G. Walker’s Texas division, he positioned them in a circular arrangement across major roads to prevent any link with Gen. Banks.
Smith had departed Shreveport about the same time Steele entered Camden and the latter had not the slightest intention of moving south just yet. Desperation for food supplies to feed his 15000 men and numerous draft animals was now driving him.
On the morning of April 17, Col. James M. Williams left Camden with about 700 men of whom 440 belonged to the First Kansas Colored Volunteers—two guns and 198 wagons. By evening he was 14 miles from that city where he decided to encamp and at midnight, a large cache had been safely recovered from corncribs not six miles distant. At dawn on the 18th Col. Williams started the train back to Camden, while sending out details to collect the remaining corn from outlying farms along the return route. Sometime later they were reinforced by 500 men and two additional guns, increasing his force to 1170.
Meanwhile Confederate scouts in the area reported Williams’s movement to Gen. John S. Marmaduke who swiftly deployed 1700 dismounted cavalry across the road. Gen. Samuel B. Maxey arrived on the field at 9:30 A. M. with his division thus increasing Confederate strength to 3335 cavalry and artillery. Though he outranked Marmaduke, Maxey deferred to the Missourian at his direction.
Facing west on the Upper Washington Road, Marmaduke’s men held the right, those of Brig. Gen William L. Cabell and Col William Crawford held the center. Missouri Col. Colton Greene’s 300 mounted troops waited in reserve. Williams formed the wagon escort into a letter ‘L’ formation with the First Kansas facing east. He then tried to uncover enemy strength by firing his artillery, but the Southerners kept their 12 guns silent. At 10:45 the Confederates lunged forward delivering a terrific fire.
The Union commander held firm for three-quarter of an hour, hoping the sound of battle would bring support from Camden. When six of Marmaduke’s guns opened up catching Williams in a cross fire, the First Kansas fled in disorder. The Choctaw portion of Maxey’s command chased them into in a nearby woods but the fighting stubbornly continued until 2 P.M. with a number of Federals dispersing while making their way back to Camden.
Col. Williams horrific casualties amounted to 204 killed and missing and 94 wounded. Of these, 117 blacks died and 65 were wounded. Witnesses claimed the Confederates had ruthlessly killed black soldiers of the First Kansas after they had been wounded and captured. This was later denied but evidence supports the claim of a massacre at Poison Springs.
Total Confederate losses stood at 114 to all causes. About 170 usable wagons were captured and four excellent artillery pieces were taken as well as many firearms. Patricia L. Faust, Encyclopedia of the Civil War, Harper and Row, Publishers, 1986)
This was the first victory for Price since Steele left Little Rock a month earlier, providing a tremendous boost to Confederate morale. One has to wonder what Steele was thinking for having assigned so puny a force to the train. If the corn was so extremely vital for the life of the army, wouldn’t a larger escort have been imperative? And what of his non-response to the nearby sounds of battle? Command leadership had lapsed at Steele’s HQ.