At Poison Spring, Arkansas, Confederate soldiers under the command of General Samuel Maxey capture a Union forage train and slaughter black troops escorting the expedition.
The Battle of Poison Spring was part of broad Union offensive in the region of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. General Nathaniel Banks had led a Yankee force through Louisiana in March and April, but a defeat in northwestern Louisiana at the Battle of Mansfield on April 8 sent Banks in retreat. Union forces nearby in Arkansas were moving towards Banks’ projected thrust into Texas with the intention of securing southwestern Arkansas for the Federals.
Union General Frederick Steele occupied Camden, Arkansas, on April 15. Two days later, he sent Colonel John Williams and 1,100 of his 14,000-man force to gather 5,000 bushels of corn discovered west of Camden. The force arrived to find that Confederate marauders had destroyed half of the store, but the Yankees loaded the rest into some 200 wagons and prepared to return to Camden. On the way back Maxey and 3,600 Confederates intercepted them. Maxey placed General John Marmaduke in charge of the attack that ensued. Williams positioned part of his force, the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, between the wagon train and the Confederate lines. The regiment was the first black unit in the army, comprised primarily of ex-slaves.
The determined soldiers of the 1st Kansas stopped the first two Rebel attacks, but they were running low on ammunition. A third assault overwhelmed the Kansans, and the rout was on. Williams gathered the remnants of his force and retreated from the abandoned wagons. More than 300 Yankee troops were killed, wounded, or captured, while the Confederates lost just 13 killed and 81 wounded. The Rebels’ treatment of black troops was harsh. No black troops were captured, and those left wounded on the battlefield were brutally killed, scalped, and stripped. The Washington Telegraph, the major Confederate newspaper in Arkansas, justified the atrocity by declaring “We cannot treat Negroes taken in arms as prisoners of war without a destruction of social system for which we contend.”