Year
1864

Confederates overwhelm Union at Marks’ Mills

For the second time in a week, a Confederate force captures a Union wagon train trying to supply the Federal force at Camden, Arkansas. This time, the loss forced Union General Frederick Steele to withdraw back to Little Rock.

Steele captured Camden on April 15 as he moved southwest towards Shreveport, Louisiana. This was part of a larger Union operation in the region. General Nathaniel Banks moved up the Red River into northwest Louisiana on a planned invasion of Texas, but he was turned back at the Battle of Mansfield in Louisiana on April 8. Steele was to pinch Confederate forces around Shreveport with a move from central Arkansas. After taking Camden, Steele sent 1,100 men west to capture a store of corn. That force was badly defeated by a Confederate detachment at the Battle of Poison Spring in Arkansas on April 18. Now, with provisions dwindling, Steele sent another wagon train northeast from Camden towards Pine Bluff to fetch supplies.

Lieutenant Colonel Francis Drake and 1,700 Union troops accompanied the 240 wagons that left Camden on April 22. Three hundred runaway slaves traveled along as well. Three days later, Confederate troops under General James Fagan pounced on Drake’s command near Marks’ Mills. They came from two sides, and Drake was wounded and captured early in the battle along with 1,400 of his troops. The Confederates lost 41 killed and 108 wounded, but they captured the entire wagon train. The Rebels followed up their victory much as they had at Poison Spring on April 18, where they massacred captured black soldiers. At Marks’ Mills, at least half of the runaways were killed in cold blood. Even one of the Confederate officers admitted in his report that “No orders, threat, or commands could restrain the men from vengeance on the Negroes…”

Steele’s army was now in dangerous territory. With Confederate forces lurking all around Camden and with supplies running low, Steele retreated to Little Rock, leaving southern Arkansas under Rebel control. Drake survived his wounds and later became governor of Iowa. Drake University in Des Moines now bears his name.

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