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April 25, 1864
Lieutenant Colonel Francis Drake (US); Brigadier General James F. Fagan (CS)
William E. McLean’s Brigade, Second Missouri Light Artillery Battery E, and additional elements (US); Brigadier General Joe Shelby and Brigadier General William L. Cabell’s division (CS)
1,500 estimated (US); 293 (CS)
The Action at Marks’ Mills took place on April 25, 1864, when Confederate troops ambushed a Union supply train, capturing all the wagons and artillery and most of the troops. Confederate soldiers were accused of massacring African Americans at this battle.
After the April 18 defeat at the Engagement at Poison Spring, Union forces under the command of Major General Frederick Steele continued to hold Camden (Ouachita County) while Confederate Major General Sterling Price maintained pressure on Steele from the countryside. With supplies dwindling, the acquisition of rations became important to the Union troops. The arrival of provisions from Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) on April 20 convinced Steele that more materials could be obtained there. Three days later, he dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Francis Drake with more than 1,200 infantrymen, several pieces of artillery, and cavalry support with 240 wagons to obtain supplies at Pine Bluff. An unknown number of white civilians and 300 black civilians accompanied the Union force to safety. On the morning of April 25, 150 cavalrymen from Pine Bluff met Drake, increasing the Union column to nearly 1,800 combatants, with 520 troops trailing the column at some distance.
Learning of Drake’s departure from Camden, Confederate Brigadier General James F. Fagan positioned his more than 2,000 cavalrymen near the juncture of the Camden-Pine Bluff Road with the Warren Road, cutting off Drake’s route. Setting an ambush, Fagan ordered Brigadier General Joe Shelby’s division to the east on the Camden-Pine Bluff Road to block possible escape toward Pine Bluff, and Brigadier General William L. Cabell’s division was to attack from the southwest. Early on April 25, Cabell’s division began a poorly planned piecemeal attack on Drake’s column. Sending one brigade into combat before the second was positioned, Cabell’s troops won the wagons but exposed themselves to intense counterfire. The Forty-third Indiana and the Thirty-sixth Iowa regiments took advantage of this error and slowed the Confederate attack until Union reinforcements helped stop his advance. Cabell’s division lost its momentum and found it difficult to regain it. Nonetheless, the Union units slowly began to lose control of the battle because of the overwhelming Confederate numbers.
Shelby, attacking from the east, hammered the unsuspecting Union left. Caught off guard and with Drake seriously wounded, the Union troops capitulated after nearly five hours of engagement. Hearing the sounds of battle in front of them, 500 men from the First Iowa Cavalry, on furlough and trailing at a distance, sped forward to help by engaging the enemy to the west of Marks’ Mills. The First Iowa eventually broke off its attack to escape the large Confederate numbers. Cabell’s command suffered 293 casualties (41 killed, 108 wounded, 144 missing), while Union casualty estimates range from 1,133 to 1,600, with most being captured and an estimated 100 killed. The Confederates captured about 150 black freedmen and are believed to have killed more than 100 others.
The defeat of Drake’s command had a significant impact upon Steele’s position at Camden. Coupled with the defeat at Poison Spring, the loss at Marks’ Mills prevented Steele from obtaining much-needed supplies for his army. Already on reduced rations and with reports of Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith’s command marching northward from Louisiana, Steele’s position became untenable. With all possibility of supporting Banks’s campaign on the Red River gone, the Union army silently slipped over the Ouachita River on the night of April 26, abandoning Camden and beginning a desperate race back to Little Rock (Pulaski County), which resulted in the Engagement at Jenkins’ Ferry. Furthermore, the killings of the black soldiers at Poison Spring, paired with the large number of black freedmen killed at the Action at Marks’ Mills, enraged many in the Union army. As a result, the First Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment exacted revenge upon Confederate combatants and wounded at the Engagement at Jenkins’ Ferry, amplifying the legacy of racial atrocities in the Camden Expedition.
Marks’ Mills State Park preserves a small segment of the battlefield near New Edinburg (Cleveland County). Edgar Colvin and Sue Marks Colvin additionally present interpretative materials and monuments to the battle and the Marks family homestead at the Marks Cemetery and Marks’ Mills Historic Battlefield Site north of the state park off Highway 97 in Cleveland County.
For additional information:Baker, William D. The Camden Expedition of 1864. Little Rock: Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, 1993.
Bearss, Edwin C. Steele’s Retreat from Camden and the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry. Little Rock: Arkansas Civil War Centennial Commission, 1967.
Christ, Mark K., ed. Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.
DeBlack, Tom. With Fire and Sword: Arkansas, 1861–1874. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.
Urwin, Gregory J. W. “We Cannot Treat Negroes…as Prisoners of War: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in Civil War Arkansas.” Civil War History 42 (September 1996): 193–210.
Derek Allen Clements Pocahontas, Arkansas
Last Updated 7/19/2018
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