Camden Expedition: April 23, 1864

Source:  Harper's Weekly

Source: Harper’s Weekly


Before dawn, Lt. Col. Drake had his Union wagon train awakened and made ready for their trek to Pine Bluff. Drake had 1200 infantry – 240 cavalry troops under the command of Major McCauley – and 4 cannons of Battery E, 2nd Missouri Light Artillery. In addition there were to be 520 men belonging to the 1st Iowa Cavalry who had been relieved from duty and going home on furlough, who would be catching up to the wagon train later to accompany the command to Pine Bluff.

Major McCauley was sent ahead to check the road for Confederates.  At 5:00a.m., when the wagon train was formed for travel, Drake also found 50 to 75 wagons of sutlers and civilians had attached themselves to his wagon train, as well as about 300 contrabands (slaves who had left their owners).

It didn’t take long for Drake to discover the road was washed out in some places and rutted badly in others. He organized some of the contraband into teams of 75 to work filling the ruts and restoring the portions of the roads that had been washed out.  This was an ingenious plan and kept the wagon train moving steadily forward.

About 12 miles from Camden, Major McCauley called Drake’s attention to a deserted cavalry camp near the road. This cried out “ambush” to Drake. He summarily ordered Major McCauley to charge into a timber thicket on the right side of the road, which did uncover a Confederate force and caused it to disburse. However, the Confederates kept harassing the Union column the rest of the day. At nightfall, the Union column had proceeded 18 miles east of Camden and camped for the night along the road.

In the meantime, Union General Steele had received a communication from Union General Banks, the commander of the southern portion of the Red River campaign.

Stymied at Grand Ecore, LA, Banks urged the impossible task of Steele bringing his command to Louisiana for a coordinated campaign to take Shreveport.  Steele was stunned by the request. Once Steele shared the information with his staff, Steele’s chief engineer Captain Junius Wheeler called the request absurd.

Steele wrote his reply on April 23rd observing basically that Confederate General Kirby Smith had reinforced the Confederate army which confronting him, and there had been increased activity against his outposts.

Steele indicated his great problem was supplies, but if gunboats could be sent to his aid, a steady resupply system could be established for his army. However, if he did move south, he would lay Arkansas and Missouri open to Confederate invasion. Steele concluded that he could not say definitely if he could join Banks at Grand Ecore, LA.

Steele was not wrong in his message to Banks about increased activity against his out posts. On the morning of the 23rd, the two Confederate Infantry Divisions had proceeded east from their Woodlawn, AR camp and attacked the Union pickets at the Two Bayou’s bridge, about a mile from Camden. The Confederates unlimbered 4 cannons and shelled the Union positions. After making this probe, the Confederates returned to their camp.

In other Confederate developments, upon General Fagan’s arrival at El Dorado Landing in the afternoon, he was told by General Jo Shelby that a heavily fortified Union wagon train had been observed leaving Camden headed toward Pine Bluff.

Fagan decided to draw rations and ammunition the rest of the day and get an early start the morning of April 24th.  He would cross the Ouachita River and parallel the Union wagon train with the aim of getting between the Union force and Pine Bluff for an all-out attack similar to the recent victory at Poison Springs.

About Civil War Reflections

Vernon has been a Civil War buff since childhood, but had been inactive in Civil War history for over two decades. However, in the early 1990s his interest was rekindled after watching Ken Burns’ “Civil War Documentary” on PBS. He particularly became interested in the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) and decided to learn more about this epic struggle.
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