It’s getting warmer outside and the wild plum trees are blooming. In other words, it’s time for a road trip through the pine woods of south Arkansas.
I happen to love both Civil War history and driving through rural Arkansas.
If you’re like me, this will make for a fun day: Drive to the site of three battles in the Red River Campaign — Poison Spring near Camden, Marks’ Mills near Fordyce and Jenkins’ Ferry near Sheridan.
You’ll need to make this excursion on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday since the eating is an important part of the overall experience.
The three battlefields are maintained by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. All three of these small parks are quiet spots with few visitors. That means they’re nice places to reflect on the past as we begin the Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration. There are interpretive panels at each battlefield.
Start your day by driving to Camden. Poison Spring is about 10 miles west of the city on Arkansas Highway 76.
Here’s how the state parks website at www.arkansasstateparks.com explains what happened here: “In the spring of 1864, three Civil War battles took place in south-central Arkansas that were part of the Union Army’s Red River Campaign. … The first battle occurred near Camden at Poison Spring on April 18 when Confederate troops captured a supply train and scattered Union forces.
“Arkansas was split in half with Union troops occupying Little Rock, Fort Smith and every town north of the Arkansas River. Confederates were encamped from Monticello to Camden, Washington and beyond. Plans for an elaborate Union offensive were hatched during the winter in Washington, D.C., in order to capture the last Rebel stronghold of the west — Texas. Standing in their way was Shreveport, believed to be the front door to Texas. Thus began what would become known as the Red River Campaign.”
Almost 12,000 men, 800 wagons, 30 pieces of artillery and about 12,000 horses left Little Rock and headed to Camden. Under the command of Gen. Frederick Steele, the Union forces moved slowly due to heavy spring rains and mud. Supplies became dangerously low.
The Union troops arrived in Camden on April 15. There was no fighting since Confederate troops had withdrawn from the city on the banks of the Ouachita River.
On April 17, Steele received bad news. The Union troops that were supposed to bring him supplies from Louisiana had retreated. Meanwhile, Confederate forces had moved or destroyed a nearby stockpile of corn Steele had heard about.
Steele sent a force of 500 black infantrymen, 195 cavalry troops and an artillery detachment to obtain supplies. A scout for Confederate Gen. John Marmaduke noticed the wagon train. Marmaduke suggested to Confederate Gen. Sterling Price that an ambush was in order.
This is how the state parks website describes the action: “During the night, the Union wagon train was reinforced by 400 soldiers Steele sent from Camden, as approximately 1,500 Confederates prepared to attack the Union troops from both sides of the blocked road. The attack on April 18 began near a place the locals called Poison Spring. When the battle ended, the Union force of more than 1,100 had been reduced to 800. Another 80 Union troops were killed as they clawed their way back to Camden through the bottomlands. Fewer than 20 Confederates were killed in the victory that kept much-needed supplies from enemy hands.”
After you’ve finished your visit to Poison Spring, drive east to Fordyce. Arrive in time for lunch at Klappenbach Bakery (closed on Sundays and Mondays). Norman and Lee Klappenbach moved their now-famous bakery to Fordyce from Walla Walla, Wash., in 1975. They expanded the operation in 1988 to open a sandwich shop.
There are sandwiches, salads and a variety of soups and quiches on the lunch menu. I usually go for the turkey club sandwich with a cup of soup. Save room for homemade pie. After lunch, load up on breads and pastries from the bakery to take home with you.
Next, head to Marks’ Mills. The site is southeast of Fordyce at the junction of Arkansas Highways 8 and 97.
John Marks had established a sawmill and a gristmill at this location in 1834. The battle on the old Camden-Pine Bluff road took place on April 25, 1864.
A group of 150 wagons loaded with supplies had made it to Camden from Pine Bluff on April 20. Steele then sent those wagons, along with 60 more, back north toward Pine Bluff for additional supplies. He included an escort force of 1,200 men and six artillery pieces.
The state parks website picks it up from here: “As the Union wagon train slowly made its way to Pine Bluff through virtually impassable mud on April 25, Confederate Gen. Kirby Smith assembled an attack force of several thousand men, who intercepted the train at Marks’ Mills. The overwhelmed Northerners were once again surrounded on all sides but managed to fight back for several hours. This time, there was no escape. Nearly all Union survivors were captured.
“After this devastating blow, Gen. Steele abandoned all intentions of marching to Shreveport on his way to capture Texas. He began to plan his retreat from Camden back to Little Rock. The only escape route he knew was the Military Road that ran north through Princeton and Jenkins’ Ferry, the final section of the Red River Campaign.”
Once you’ve finished visiting Marks’ Mills, you should head north. The next stop is at Jenkins’ Ferry, which is 13 miles south of Sheridan on Arkansas Highway 46.
Derek Allen Clements describes what happened here for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net): “Steele slipped out of Camden the night of April 26, marching toward Little Rock. Arriving at Jenkins’ Ferry in the Saline River bottoms on April 29, Steele began building a pontoon bridge. Confederate cavalry engaged the rear guard, halting as darkness fell and re-engaging at dawn. The Confederate divisions from Louisiana began arriving April 30 to join Price’s command. The federal rear guard took a strong position, anchoring its flanks between a flooded creek and swampy woodland. The Confederates assaulted the federal line piecemeal, failing to break it. By 12:30 p.m., Smith ended the assault, and Steele slipped across the river. He arrived May 2 in Little Rock, and his part of the campaign, also known as the Camden Expedition, was over.”
After leaving Jenkins’ Ferry, you must end your day by partaking of the all-you-can-eat catfish buffet at Dorey’s near Leola on Grant County Road 5. You can obtain directions by going to the website at www.doreycatering.com.
Dorey’s raises its own fish, so it doesn’t come any fresher. The buffet operates from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. each Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
In one long day, you will have:
— Made a peaceful drive on numerous highways in the Gulf Coastal Plain region of Arkansas.
— Visited the sites of three Civil War battles.
— Had a great lunch.
— Loaded up on bakery items to take home.
— Filled up at supper on some of the best catfish in Arkansas.
It’s a fine way to spend a spring day.