MARKS MILLS, Ark.
Early in the morning of April 25th, the Union cavalry detachment rode out to execute their patrol. The first thing they encountered was Lt. Schrom’s buggy mired so deep in Moro Bottoms that it couldn’t be recovered. Schrom was sent to work with the wagon train.
The pioneer corps of contraband workers moved out next for road repair. Then, the bulk of the Union column moved out, with the 43rd Indiana Infantry and two cannons of the 2nd Missouri Light Artillery in the vanguard. The wagon train of 200 commissary wagons, 50 sutler and individual refugee wagons, and all of the contraband (ex-slaves) who were not in the pioneer corps followed behind. Lastly, the 36th Iowa Infantry, the 77th Ohio Infantry, and another two cannons from the 2nd Missouri Light Artillery completed the column.
Union Commander Lt. Col. Drake was riding with the 36th Iowa when an excited courier reached him two miles west of Marks Mills. The 43rd Indiana was in contact with the enemy.
Drake ordered the 36th Iowa to quickly move up to Marks Mills and then rode forward to reconnoiter the situation. When he arrived at the intersection, some wagons had made it through Moro Bottoms and were moving toward the intersection of Mt. Elba Road and the Camden Road. These wagons were intending to turn north onto Mt. Elba Road and proceed to the Mt. Elba crossing of the Saline River.
Drake reached the intersection and saw a U.S. Cavalry detachment that he didn’t recognize. This unit had been sent by the Union Commander in Pine Bluff, Col. Powell Clayton, to accompany the Union Column from Camden. The detachment under the command of Major Spellman had left a contingent at the Mt. Elba Crossing and come this far before meeting the column’s cavalry units.
The Union column wasn’t in contact yet, but Major Norris, commander of the 43rd Indiana, was deploying his men in a battle line due to a scout’s report of Confederate units to his front. Drake did not see any enemy and ordered Norris to move his regiment forward. Norris moved his regiment 100 yards forward and were immediately fired upon by Confederates.
Meanwhile on the Confederate side before dawn, General Fagan spotted the Union column and was pleased that he was in position to stop the Federals before they crossed the Saline River.
As Fagan rode north on the morning of April 25th from his position eight miles sought of Marks Mills, he sent General Shelby’s division north to get on the Mt. Elba road between the Union column and the Saline River and charge south. Fagan sent Cabell’s division up the Camden Road to engage the Union column. Ultimately Fagan wanted to get the Union forces in a crossfire between Shelby and Cabell.
Fagan told Cabell to deploy his brigade on the right side of the Camden Road before the crossroads. General Dockery would deploy to the left of the road and move to engage the enemy.
Cabell’s brigade ran into one of the Union cavalry patrols sent east on the Camden Road, also called the Warren Road. The Union patrol was hurled back toward the intersection, and Cabell deployed his brigade on the right side of the road along with four cannons.
General Dockery’s brigade, which had been behind Cabell’s brigade, was nowhere to be found. Union wagons could be seen turning north onto the Mt. Elba Road, so Cabell sent his brigade forward and pushed the Union cavalry, consisting of Spellman’s 350 Pine Bluff contingent and McCauley detachment, back to Marks Mills.
At Marks Mills, the Confederates ran into the Union 43rd Indiana Infantry, which put up a hard fight. The Confederates did initially advance and overrun some of the wagons. They killed some of the mules in their wagon harnesses to stall the movement of the train, but the 43rd Indiana pushed them grudgingly back.
The 36th Iowa came on the battlefield, and with two cannon of the 2nd Missouri Light Artillery, played havoc with the counterattacking Confederates.
Finally, General Dockery’s Confederate Brigade appeared on the scene and deployed on Cabell’s left. Drake’s Union force was outnumbered, and he received word that another Confederate column was coming down the Mt. Elba Road on his left. Shelby’s Confederate division was on the way.
Union commander Drake rode to find Cavalry Commander Major McCauley to order him to use what little cavalry force he had left to face the new onslaught that was coming on the left. Drake promised to give McCauley some companies of the 36th Iowa as support and that he was trying to get the 77th Ohio up and deployed from the back of the column.
Drake had been wounded in the hip when he began his ride to find McCauley, and once he gave his order and rode back to the main fight at the intersection, he collapsed. Before passing out, he ordered Captain Magill to turn the command over to Major Spellman. This order was never carried out, and for the rest of the day, the Union Forces had no overall commander.
Meanwhile, north on the Mt. Elba Road, Confederate General Jo Shelby had arrived on the battlefield 5 miles north of Marks Mills.
Shelby sent Major Benjamin Elliott and his 1st Missouri Cavalry Battalion north to secure the Mt. Elba Crossing of the Saline River. Elliott found some Union cavalry on the west side of the river, and after a chase, the Federals surrendered.
However, on moving further north to the narrow raft bridge at the Mt. Elba Crossing, Elliott found the Union 18th Illinois Infantry was on the east side of the river behind breastworks. The two units fired at each other the rest of the day with neither side gaining an advantage.
Shelby, with the rest of his division, began a ride southwestward toward Marks Mills. During the ride, Shelby stopped his division, set it into a column of fours, and continued the ride.
The first of the Union column that the Confederates encountered were sutlers, Union stragglers and teamsters. Shelby paused briefly to leave a detachment to mop up the Union stragglers and secure the wagons. Continuing his advance, Shelby called for his artillery to be brought forward, put into battery and fire two blank charges to signal he was in position.
At Marks Mills, Gen. Cabell heard Shelby’s signal and commanded his men to sweep forward. Shelby attacked the left flank of the Union Line, and the whole Union shebang folded.
Although there were scattered pockets of resistance, the forward units of the Union column were broken. The only Union command left in the field was the 77th Ohio, which due to a confusion of orders, had not advanced toward Marks Mills until it was too late. However, once the 77th arrived at Marks Mills, it maneuvered into a battle line and joined with the escapees from the fight at Marks Mills to give battle.
Shelby’s division engaged the Ohioans, and Cabell sent his division in support. In the later stages of the battle, a battalion of Cabell’s Confederates under Major J. H. Harrell had been ordered by overall Confederate Commander Fagan from their position south of the Camden Road/Mt. Elba Road Intersection to a position north of Mt. Elba Road into some woods.
When the 77th Ohio went into battle line, the Confederate Unit under Major Harrell was behind them. As Shelby and Cabell hit the 77th in the front, Harrell’s unit hit them in the rear. Most of the Ohioans surrendered.
The Confederate forces began policing the battlefield and preparing the prisoners for deportation to the prison at Tyler, TX.
However, one last part of the Marks Mills saga occurred late in the afternoon of April 25th. The 520 men of the 1st Iowa Cavalry, who had been furloughed and were to have joined the column earlier, came marching toward Marks Mills from Camden. They were on foot and had heard the battle sounds on their trek.
Col. Caldwell hastened the march in hopes of providing assistance. The unit made a short stop at Moro Creek Bottoms and was suddenly met with as gaggle of sutlers, refugees, and Union Soldiers rushing past.
A detachment of Confederates under Col. DeWitt Hunter fired on the 1st Iowans and Col. Caldwell immediately maneuvered them into battle line and returned fire. Confederate Col. Hunter was badly wounded. After some volleys back and forth, the 1st Iowa moved back to Camden.
The Battle of Marks Mills was over.
The Union column suffered about 1300 casualties – most of them prisoners, numerous wagons and their teams, and 4 cannons. The Confederates also had captured about 150 ex-slaves.
The Confederates suffered about 500 casualties.
The Union column commander Lt. Col. Drake and the Union wounded were moved to Pine Bluff under a flag of truce. Drake survived the war.