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Three Parks Mark the Confederacy's Last Stand in Arkansas

Article follows the photos:
  • Jenkins' Ferry

  • Marks' Mills

  • Poison Springs

  • Memorial to the unknown soilders at Mark's Mill

April 30, 2002

Three Parks Mark the Confederacy's Last Stand in Arkansas
By Kerry Kraus, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Arkansas's 15th, 16th and 17th state parks serve as reminders of the Civil War battles fought at these sites during the Red River Campaign of 1864. Poison Spring is located 10 miles west of Camden on Ark. 76. Mark's Mills is at the junction of Ark. 97 and Ark. 8 southeast of Fordyce, and Jenkins' Ferry is 13 miles south of Sheridan on Ark. 46. The parks offer outdoor exhibits and picnic sites. Jenkins' Ferry has a pavilion, swimming and a boat ramp on the Saline River.

The Battle at Poison Spring

The year is 1864. It is spring in Arkansas -- April to be exact. The state is split in half with Union troops occupying Little Rock, Fort Smith and Pine Bluff, along with every other town north of the Arkansas River. Confederates are encamped from Monticello to Camden, Washington and beyond.

An elaborate Union offensive has been hatched during the winter in Washington D.C. in order to capture the last Rebel stronghold of the West -- Texas. Standing in their way, though, is Shreveport, Louisiana, which is believed to be the front door to Texas. Little fighting has taken place in Arkansas since 1863. When Union forces took control of the Mississippi River Valley earlier in the year, Confederates were essentially cut in two, with most penned east of the Mississippi.

The plan calls for 8,000 Union troops occupying Little Rock to join forces with 4,000 cavalry troops from Fort Smith, invade south Arkansas and rendezvous with two other Union armies moving north along the Red River from New Orleans and Vicksburg. Once they congregate, the armies will then attack Shreveport.

Twenty-three days after 12,00 men, 800 wagons, 30 pieces of artillery and nearly 12,000 horses and mules leave Little Rock, the Union army, led by General Frederick Steele, arrives in Camden. A concentration of Confederates in southwest Arkansas has forced the Union trek to the east. Heavy rain and thick mud are partially to blame for the slow movement, which has caused supplies to become dangerously low. When the Federals arrive on April 15, though, they are relieved to find that Confederate troops had withdrawn from the town.

On Sunday, April 17 Gen. Steele has gotten word that the Federal forces advancing northward in Louisiana -- which were to provide needed supplies -- are retreating. Further complicating matters, Steele also learns that Confederate loyalists have either moved or destroyed most of a massive stockpile of corn he'd planned to ransack. The Union General decides to send a force of 200 wagons (each drawn by a team of six mules), a detachment of 500 African American infantrymen, 195 cavalry troops and a artillery detachment to take control of what grain and supplies are left.

It doesn't take long for a scout under the command of Confederate Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke, whose men are camped near Camden, to notice the two-mile-long wagon train. Marmaduke suggests to his superior, Confederate General Sterling Price, that an ambush be set.

During the night, the Union wagon train is reinforced by 400 soldiers Steele has sent from Camden, as approximately 1,500 Confederates prepare to attack the Union troops from both sides of the blocked road. The attack begins at 8:30 on April 18, near a place the locals call Poison Spring. When the battle ends after several hours, the Union force of more than 1,100 men 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 keeps much-needed supplies from enemy hands.

The Battle at Marks' Mills

On April 20, 1864, a 150-wagon supply train from Pine Bluff reaches the Union soldiers. Upon learning that Confederate forces, now joined by General Edmund Kirby Smith's army from Louisiana, crossed the Ouachita River downstream (to the south), Steele felt it safe to send the wagon train, plus 60 additional wagons, in a northward direction back to Pine Bluff for more supplies. This time, though, he sends an escort force of more than 1,200 men, including 240 cavalry and six artillery pieces.

April 25. As the Union wagon train slowly makes its way back to Pine Bluff through virtually impassible mud, Gen. Smith assembles an attack force of several thousand men, who intercept the wagon train at Marks' Mills. The overwhelmed Northerners are once again surrounded on all sides, but manage to fight back for several hours. This time, there is no escape. Nearly all Union survivors are captured.

After this devastating blow, Gen. Steele abandons all intentions of marching to Shreveport, and begins to plan his retreat from Camden back to Little Rock. The only escape route he knows is Military Road that runs north through Princeton and Jenkins' Ferry.

The Battle at Jenkins' Ferry

The day after the battle at Marks' Mills and under the cover of darkness, Steele, his men, and what equipment they have left, cross the Ouachita River at Camden on a pontoon bridge. Steele has gone to great lengths to convince Confederate scouts his troops have spent the night inside the safety of the town. It is mid-morning before the Rebels realize they've been tricked.

Further slowing the pursuit, the Confederates lack the equipment required to build a bridge across the Ouachita. An entire day passes before a hastily constructed bridge transports the Rebels across the river on April 28.

The Confederates' only hope of catching the fast-fleeing Federal troops is at the rain-swollen Saline River at Jenkins' Ferry, some 50 miles north. If Steele is able to put the flooded river between him and Gen. Smith's troops, he will have at least salvaged what remains of his army.

April 29. A torrential rain is pounding Gen. Steele's troops and he's concerned about crossing the Saline. As wagons, horses and mules bog down in the quagmire, Steele and his men reluctantly make camp at Jenkins' Ferry. Steele spends most of the night plotting ways in which he can hold off advancing enemy troops while crossing the river at the same time. April 30 dawns and the first Rebels to arrive at Jenkins' Ferry find themselves facing the full force of Steele's army. Steele's men are backed up to the Saline River, but entrenched and protected from flanked attacks -- by an overflowing creek on one side and a flooded swamp on the other.

The Battle of Jenkins' Ferry begins after the first light of the foggy day. Despite their disadvantaged position, the Confederates launch one unorganized attack after another. Rebel commanders know that letting up the pressure will allow Steele's army to cross the Saline and escape.

By the end of the bloody day, the South had lost nearly 1,000 soldiers at Jenkins' Ferry, and the North nearly 700. But Steele's army did manage to cross the river and continue its retreat to Little Rock.

The Battle Sites Today

Today these three sites are preserved by the Arkansas State Parks system. All were made part of the system in 1961. Richard W. Davies, executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism and a self-professed Civil War buff, believes the significance of these battles is that afterwards Union troops did not conduct another campaign in southwest Arkansas.

"This led to the salvation of many of the antebellum structures, including the Confederate Capitol, at Washington, Arkansas," he said. Many of these buildings now comprise Old Washington Historic State Park which, combined with Poison Spring, Marks' Mills and Jenkins' Ferry, has been designated as the Red River Campaign National Historic Landmark.

Davies said that "even though individually, the three sites seem rather small, when combined, they are the Red River Campaign in Arkansas." While not as well known as Gettysburg, Manassas or Vicksburg, Davies believes the Red River Campaign sites are as significant in a way. "If you're a soldier standing in the cold rain, miserable, scared, hungry and exhausted, and someone is shooting at you, then your chances of getting killed are just as great as they are at the bigger battles. If you do get killed, you're just as dead as you'd be in Virginia. The Civil War in Arkansas was a mean, nasty affair. There was little about it that was civil."


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"