Poison Spring Battleground State Park

Location: Ouachita County

Size: 85 acres

Poison Spring Battleground State Park, west of Camden (Ouachita County), commemorates a Civil War engagement that was part of the Camden Expedition of General Frederick Steele. The Engagement at Poison Spring is remembered as a Confederate ambush of Union troops, which resulted in the massacre of many African Americans from the First Kansas Colored Infantry. The park contains interpretive exhibits, as well as picnic sites and a short trail.

The name Poison Spring was known to Camden area residents at the time of the engagement and was used in battle reports, but its origins are uncertain. Later legends suggested that Union soldiers became ill after drinking the cold spring water, but no contemporary accounts confirm this story.

In March 1864, General Steele led approximately 14,000 trained fighters out of Little Rock (Pulaski County) to join in the Union army’s Red River Campaign. The goal of this campaign was to join General Nathaniel Banks’s troops in northern Louisiana and invade Texas. Steele and his troops seized Camden on April 15 but did not proceed to Louisiana or Texas. Instead, he sent out parties of soldiers to gather supplies from the neighboring farms. On April 17, Colonel James M. Williams, leading roughly 600 men (many of them former slaves now serving with the First Kansas Colored Infantry) and 198 wagons, sought corn from the farms west of Camden. Returning toward Camden the next day, Williams and his men were ambushed by the forces of generals John Sappington Marmaduke and Samuel Bell Maxey. The Union forces suffered more than 300 casualties, but the Confederates lost only 114. Reports from the battlefield indicated that many of the African-American troops were killed after the battle by Confederates, in some cases while the Union soldiers were attempting to surrender. This loss, accompanied by a similar loss at the Action at Marks’ Mills the following week, caused Steele to abandon Camden and return to Little Rock, where he arrived May 3.

Act 182 of 1961 by the Arkansas General Assembly created Poison Spring Battleground State Park. One of three parks that commemorate the Camden Expedition, the site is also a Red River Campaign National Historic Landmark. The park, maintained by the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, includes interpretive exhibits, a picnic area, and a half-mile trail. The eighty-five-acre park is located on Arkansas Highway 76 ten miles west of Camden.

For additional information:
Christ, Mark K., ed. “All Cut to Pieces and Gone to Hell”: The Civil War, Race Relations, and the Battle of Poison Spring. Little Rock: August House, 2003.

Poison Spring Battleground State Park. https://www.arkansasstateparks.com/parks/poison-springs-battleground-state-park (accessed August 31, 2023).

Steven Teske
CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas


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