After advancing to Camden, Arkansas, Union General Frederick Steele had discovered the Red River Campaign was in shambles, with Banks retreating back to New Orleans. Steele was running out of supplies, but a foraging expedition he sent out was crushed at the Battle of Poison Spring. The Federals were still low on supplies, so Steele sent out another column to try to bring supplies from Pine Bluff. The force was made up of 1,800 men under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Drake. The journey was uneventful until the morning of April 25th, 150 years ago today, when the Yankees were just a few miles from their destination. However, unbeknownst to the Federals, 5,000 Confederates were not far distant.
|Mark's Mill Battlefield. Source.|
As the Union troops pressed forward they passed empty Confederate camps. This was reported to Drake, but he ignored the evidence of a large rebel force in the area, and determined to press on. As the 43rd Indiana, which led the Federal column, entered the clearing of Mark's Mill, they encountered dismounted Confederate cavalry. The Union soldiers pushed them back, with the help of the 36th Iowa, but when more Confederates arrived on their right the tide of battle turned and the Federals fell back through the clearing. As they fell back they were hit on their left by more Confederates. With double the enemy's numbers, the Southerners gradually surrounded a large part of the Federal force. Confederate General Cabel wrote in his report:
[Our] killed and wounded … show how stubborn the enemy was and how reluctantly they gave up the train. Men never fought better. They whipped the best infantry regiments that the enemy had (old veterans, as they were called), and then in numbers superior to them.
For four hours the battle raged until finally the Federal troops surrendered who could not escape the encircling greybacks. The Union lost between 1,100 and 1,600 men, most of whom were captured, the Confederates 41 killed, 108 wounded, and 144 missing.
Although this had been called the greatest disaster for the Union arms in the West, it had some good results in the campaign for Frederick Steele. The Battle of Mark's Mill delayed the Confederate forces enough to give the main Union body time to make its escape from Camden.