Driving through the south Arkansas pines

I had spoken at a funeral service in my hometown of Arkadelphia on a Saturday morning in June. Since the rest of my family was in Texas, I decided to spend the afternoon driving through the pine woods of south Arkansas.

The goal: To visit all three of the small state parks that mark Civil War battles that occurred during the Camden Expedition of 1864 — Poison Spring in Ouachita County, Marks’ Mills in Cleveland County and Jenkins’ Ferry in Grant County.

Historian Derek Clements explains the expedition this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Part of the Red River Campaign, the Camden Expedition resulted from Union Brig. Gen. Frederick Steele’s orders to strike south from Little Rock and converge with Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks’ column in northwest Louisiana before marching to Texas. Because of poor logistical planning, horrible roads and strong Confederate resistance, Steele abandoned this plan to occupy Camden instead. Losing battles at Poison Spring and Marks’ Mills, Steele became unable to supply his army and retreated toward Little Rock. The Confederates caught Steele while he was crossing the Saline River, engaging in the last battle of the campaign at Jenkins’ Ferry.”

Textile mills in the North were starved for cotton by 1864. The thought was that with Banks coming up the Red River in Louisiana and Steele marching south through Arkansas, the two forces could capture prime cotton-growing land in east Texas.

Those who know me best realize that I love visiting all parts of Arkansas. Days spent in the Delta or the Ozark Mountains usually are pleasurable days. But south Arkansas is where I was raised, and I’m most at home when driving through the pine tunnels of the Gulf Coastal Plain. I took U.S. Highway 67 south out of Arkadelphia to Gurdon, passing the spot at Gum Springs where a Chinese company hopes to build a $1.3 billion pulp mill that will use the pine timber that dominates the southern part of our state.

At Gurdon, I headed south on Arkansas Highway 53, crossing the Little Missouri River as I made my way from Clark County into Nevada County, where I picked up Arkansas Highway 24. That highway will take you through Chidester and Bragg City in Ouachita County on the way to Camden. I turned off before reaching Chidester so I could cross White Oak Lake for the first time in many years. The land flooded by the lake was acquired by the federal government during the Great Depression as part of the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937. The act was designed to provide land ownership for tenant farmers. The state acquired the property in 1957, and White Oak was constructed in 1961. Six years later, a state park was opened on the shores of the lake.

I reached Poison Spring a few minutes after crossing the lake. It was quiet in these pine woods with only one other car parked there. The small park, which includes a short hiking trail, was established by the Legislature in 1961 at a time when Arkansans were beginning to mark the centennial of the Civil War. The trail leads through the sand hills that mark much of this part of Arkansas, a reminder of a time millions of years ago when the Gulf of Mexico covered the area.

I remember camping here more than four decades ago as a member of Boy Scout Troop 24 of Arkadelphia.

On April 18, 1864, Confederate troops ambushed a Union foraging expedition that had been sent by Steele from Camden to find food.

“On April 17, Steele sent a force of more than 600 men and four cannon under Col. James M. Williams with 198 wagons to seize 5,000 bushels of corn that were reportedly stored west of Camden,” writes Mark Christ of the Department of Arkansas Heritage. “Marching to White Oak Creek some 18 miles from Camden, Williams sent his troops, which included the First Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment, into the surrounding countryside to gather corn at area farms and plantations. Though Confederate cavalry had managed to destroy about half of the corn, the Yankee troops gathered the remainder, as well as other plunder, and regrouped at White Oak Creek. Williams was joined the next morning by a 501-man relief force of infantry, cavalry and two additional artillery pieces.

“Confederate Brig. Gen. John Sappington Marmaduke, meanwhile, positioned about 3,600 Rebel cavalrymen backed by 12 cannon between Williams’ column and Camden, blocking the Camden-Washington Road near Poison Spring. In addition to Arkansas, Missouri and Texas horsemen, his force included Col. Tandy Walker’s Choctaw Brigade from the Indian Territory.”

The fight ended in a Union retreat with Williams having had 301 men killed, wounded or missing. There were fewer than 145 Confederate casualties.

After reading the markers, I got back on Highway 24 and headed into Camden, which was among the state’s leading cities at the time of the Civil War with a population of more than 2,200 people.

“During the 1850s, Camden served as the supply center for several counties and was the mercantile center for a radius of 100 miles,” Daniel Milam writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “During this time, as many as 40,000 bales of cotton were shipped from its wharfs in a single year. As a steamboat river port, Camden had the accommodations and transportation to service the planter-provisioning trade to New Orleans. … After the Civil War, cotton production remained important to Camden. Much of it was accomplished by sharecropping.

“Steamboats continued to navigate the river, but railroads were coming. Trains opened up markets for Ouachita County’s pine and hardwood forests. Though they were challenged by the railroads, the steamboats continued to serve Camden until the 1930s.”

Camden flourished during the first half of the 20th century.

Oil was discovered in Ouachita County in the 1920s, allowing some of the county’s residents to become wealthy.

International Paper Co. constructed a large paper mill at Camden in the late 1920s.

Camark Pottery and Grapette sodas became well-known brands that came out of Camden.

The Camden Army Air Field opened in 1942. The Shumaker Naval Depot was constructed just across the county line in Calhoun County. The depot closed in 1957, but the land was transformed into the Highland Industrial Park, which attracted several defense contractors.

The city’s population soared from 3,238 in 1920 to 15,823 in 1960.

The population has been falling steadily since the early 1980s and was down to 12,183 in the 2010 census. The biggest of the body blows came when IP closed its mill in 2000.

Camden is filled with beautiful old homes such as the McCollum-Chidester House. As I entered town, I noticed that the parking lot of the Camden Country Club (I once watched the Belmont Stakes on a television in the bar there while attending a wedding reception) is packed. It’s the weekend of the four-ball golf tournament, still an important social event in south Arkansas.

I looked at the other side of the highway where the Gay’s Steak House stood. It was a favorite stop of my parents when we would go to Camden to watch Arkadelphia High School play football and basketball games at Camden High School (which no longer exists) and Fairview High School.

I headed downtown and made my way to the White House Cafe for lunch. It’s one of the oldest restaurants in Arkansas, having been established in 1907 by a Greek immigrant named Hristos Hodjopulas. It was next to the depot, serving those aboard the many trains coming in and out of Camden. The founder sold the restaurant to a cousin named James Andritsos. Camden was so busy in those days that Andritsos made it a 24-hour diner. The restaurant is now open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.

From Camden, I followed U.S. Highway 278 through Locust Bayou, Hampton (stopping to read the Civil War marker on the grounds of the Calhoun County Courthouse), Harrell and Banks on my way to Warren. Unfortunately, it was a bit too early in the summer to find Bradley County tomatoes for sale on the side of the road. Still, I enjoy driving those brick streets on the square around the beautiful Bradley County Courthouse.

I then got on Arkansas Highway 8 and passed through one of my favorite small towns in Lower Arkansas — New Edinburg. Though empty, the buildings that once housed several of the old stores that served those who lived in that part of Cleveland County still stand. It’s like a movie set.

“New Edinburg was initially dubbed Edinburg, with a post office under that name beginning in 1876,” Paula Reaves writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “John Fowler was the first postmaster. By 1891, the town had been renamed New Edinburg, as suggested by John H. Cherry. At that time, there were two churches, a livery, several mercantile stores, grist mills, gins and blacksmiths. The Saline River Railroad, which passed through the town, was chartered in 1897 and was running by 1898. It was a spur of the Cotton Belt.

“In 1904, the Bank of New Edinburg was organized with E.M. Attwood as the founder and president. During the Great Depression, it was the only bank in the county that remained open. By 1936, there were several merchants in New Edinburg as well as cafes and a beauty shop. One building housed both the central telephone office and the Knight Theater, which showed matinees at noon for children on their lunch break from school and also had shows after school and on Saturday night.

“New Edinburg was known for having a tree in the middle of the road, which traffic had to go around. The tree had to be cut down when the road was paved and became a state highway in July 1940.”

Soon after leaving New Edinburg, I came upon Marks’ Mills State Park and stopped to read the markers. The battle here took place on April 25, 1864, as Confederate troops ambushed a Union supply train.

“With supplies dwindling, the acquisition of rations became important to the Union troops,” Clements writes. “The arrival of provisions from Pine Bluff on April 20 convinced Steele that more materials could be obtained there. Three days later, he dispatched Lt. Col. Francis Drake with more than 1,200 infantrymen, several pieces of artillery and cavalry support with 240 wagons to obtain supplies at Pine Bluff. An unknown number of white civilians and 300 black civilians accompanied the Union force to safety. On the morning of April 25, 150 cavalrymen from Pine Bluff met Drake, increasing the Union column to almost 1,800 combatants with 520 troops trailing the column at some distance.

“Learning of Drake’s departure from Camden, Confederate Brig. Gen. James F. Fagan positioned his more than 2,000 cavalrymen near the juncture of the Camden-Pine Bluff Road with the Warren Road, cutting off Drake’s route. Setting an ambush, Fagan order Brig. Gen. Joe Shelby’s division to the east on the Camden-Pine Bluff Road to block possible escape toward Pine Bluff. Brig. Gen. William L. Cabell’s division was to attack from the southwest.”

The overwhelming Confederate numbers won the day.

“Cabell’s command suffered 293 casualties (41 killed, 108 wounded, 144 missing) while Union casualty estimates ranged from 1,133 to 1,600 with most being captured and an estimated 100 killed,” Clements writes. “The Confederates captured about 150 black freemen and are believed to have killed more than 100 others. The defeat of Drake’s command had a significant impact upon Steele’s position at Camden. Coupled with the defeat at Poison Spring, the loss at Marks’ Mills prevented Steele from obtaining much-needed supplies for his army. Already on reduced rations and with reports of Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith’s command marching northward from Louisiana, Steele’s position became untenable. With all possibility of supporting Banks’ campaign on the Red River gone, the Union Army silently slipped over the Ouachita River on the night of April 26, abandoning Camden and beginning a desperate race back to Little Rock.”

I made my way to Kingsland so I could say I had been in the birthplace of Johnny Cash (there’s only one small marker there). Kingsland was created in the 1880s when what would later become the Cotton Belt railroad was completed across the county.

“Seventy-five people, mostly engaged in the timber industry, lived near the railway station when Austin Gresham applied for a post office for the community in December 1882,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His first selected name, Arkatha, was refused by the postal service, as was his second choice, Cohassett. Kingsland was his third choice, and it was approved in June 1883. The second-class city was incorporated in 1884. At the time, it contained three steam-operated sawmills, a planing mill, several stores, two hotels, a druggist, a livery stable and a blacksmith. A Methodist church was begun in 1884, followed by two Baptist churches the following year.”

By 1889, there were nine sawmills in the area. The Cleveland County Bank opened that year, and a brick factory went up the next year. Cash was born near Kingsland in 1932, but his family headed to the new resettlement colony at Dyess in northeast Arkansas when he was 3. I drove from Kingsland to Fordyce and then headed north on U.S. Highway 167 to visit Jenkins’ Ferry in Grant County.

The battle at Jenkins Ferry occurred on April 29-30, 1864, as Steele and his troops made their retreat to Little Rock.

“On April 29, Steele’s column arrived at the Saline River,” Clements writes. “Without delay, engineers began building pontoons across the swollen river, and soldiers began constructing crude battlements. … Marmaduke’s troops arrived and began skirmishing with the rear guard of Brig. Gen. Frederick Salomon’s division, stopping as darkness fell.”

The fight resumed at daylight the next day and lasted until 12:30 p.m. when the Confederate attack was called off.

“After conferring with Steele, Salomon moved his men across the river to safety,” Clements writes. “Union troops destroyed what could not be easily carried, including the pontoon bridge, and continued marching to Little Rock. The Confederates turned to gathering the wounded and reforming their shattered ranks. … The Confederates claimed losses of 86 killed, 356 wounded and one missing, and the Union troops claimed 63 killed, 413 wounded and 45 missing. Most historians think the numbers were greater because some units did not file official returns.”

My south Arkansas excursion wasn’t quite finished. Before returning to Little Rock, I took a slight detour to Prattsville (the Grant County community that produced Arkansas business titans Witt and Jack Stephens) for a fried catfish dinner at that classic restaurant known as The Whippet.

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