Gen. Frederick Steele had made the US Army his life. During the Civil War, he would rise through the ranks quickly, but when the time came to lead a campaign, his career and the entire Union Army effort in Arkansas almost disintegrated because of a wagonload of corn.
Steele had been born in New York in 1819 and graduated from West Point in 1839. He had served well enough during the Mexican War and in the Vicksburg and Pea Ridge campaigns during the Civil War. In spring 1864, Gen. Henry Halleck placed Steele in command of Union troops in Arkansas and ordered him to take out Confederate positions in Shreveport on the Red River, an effort mirrored by advancing Union troops in Louisiana.
By spring 1864, Confederate forces were on the run in Arkansas, pushed into the south-central and southwestern reaches of the state. The state government had fled to Washington in Hempstead County but found itself increasingly unable to communicate with troops or communities or manage the growing problem of refugees fleeing the war.
Steele had misgivings about the Red River Expedition but went ahead anyway. Steele and his 8,000 men headed out from Little Rock on March 23 as spring began to bloom. Like most springs in Arkansas, it started to rain. And it rained and rained. The grassy trail leading from Little Rock to Texas turned to mud, and the mud trapped horses and wagons like molasses as they trudged along. By April 9, they had reached Arkadelphia, just 70 miles away. Never accounting for weather or roads, Steele lost precious days and precious food supplies. What could take a little over an hour on a modern interstate highway had taken Steele more than weeks. Reinforcements some 4,000 strong arrived from Ft. Smith, but with their own supplies exhausted.
By April 15, almost another week, he reached Camden. Steele watched helplessly as his supplies ran out and his army succumbed to the bitter weather. Camden was an important port city on the Ouachita River, and the city had built an impressive series of defensive positions, but Confederate troops had been pulled out to help defend Shreveport. Hungry Union troops poured into the city instead, ransacking the city and countryside for whatever they could find.
Steele managed to locate enough corn to fill more than a hundred wagons to the west. Desperate, he quickly sent a foraging party after it, not waiting to see if any Confederates were still in the area. But a group of Confederate troops and their Choctaw allies were waiting for them.
At Poison Springs, in the thick trees about 10 miles west of Camden, on April 18, Confederates ambushed Union forces, leaving 301 dead and capturing all the corn supplies for themselves at a cost of 114 Confederate lives. Hearing of the disaster and the loss of nearly half the foraging party, Steele quickly abandoned Camden.
Catching wind of the exposed Union army, Confederate Gen. Sterling Price and the colorful Gen. Kirby Smith leapt at the opportunity, chasing Steele’s troops back to Little Rock, but never able to capture them. It did not Union troops nearly as long to get back to Little Rock on their retreat.
Gen. Steele now had to face his humiliation in front of the nation. The Camden Expedition, as it would be called, was a tremendous failure for Union efforts in Arkansas. Steele was never again trusted with a major command. And Shreveport would never fall to Union troops.