3. How, after that fight, and after the Union soldiers had made their escape
across the river on a shaky "India-rubber" pontoon bridge, hundreds of abandoned mules were running loose in the canebrakes, big 1,200-pound
U.S. Army mules—which is to say free tractors for the destitute local farmers, or such few as were left, and them mostly old men, women, and children.
That Federal army of 12,000 men, commanded by Major General Frederick Steele,
had set out from occupied Little Rock on March 23 for Shreveport, where it was
to meet another Union Army column, escorted by a naval armada of sixty-two
gunboats and transports with a brigade of U.S. Marines aboard, coming up the
Red River in Louisiana. Neither force made it to Shreveport. The trans-Mississippi South, much neglected by Richmond, still had a few kicks left.
Steele was stopped in southern Arkansas at Camden, eighteen miles from Mount
Holly. In a series of battles, culminating with the one at Jenkins' Ferry, the
Federals were driven all the way back to Little Rock, on short rations and in
cold rain and mud. Steele lost 2,750 men on the expedition, along with 635
wagons, 2,500 mules, and "enough horses to mount a brigade of cavalry," and
counted himself fortunate. A fast-moving Stonewall Jackson, had one been present, would have cut him off in the rear and bagged the entire lot.
Steele almost had one more casualty in Wild Bill Hickok, a Union scout, who
rode into Camden ahead of the army, put on a gray uniform, and did some spying.
Something of a regional celebrity even then, he was soon recognized and had to
make a run for it, "a bold dash" across the battle lines at Prairie d'Ane, on
his horse, Black Nell. One account has him shooting two pursuing Confederate
officers as Nell made "a mighty leap" over "an obstruction" (log? rail fence?
ditch?). That is, Hickok twisted about in the saddle or stood in the stirrups
and turned, cocked and fired his single-action revolver at least twice, and picked off two closing riders on the fly, all this while Nell was airborne. Well, maybe. In any case, it was a bold escape, and "a shout of triumph from the ten thousand troops in line greeted him, and he was the hero of the day."
In the fight at Poison Spring there were some scalpings, when a C.S.A. brigade
of Choctaw cavalry clashed with a Federal regiment of black troops, the 1st
Kansas (Colored), which had been operating, and plundering, on Choctaw lands in
the Indian Territory, later to become Oklahoma. (The "poison spring," now in a
state park, was misnamed through a misunderstanding. It still flows and still
bears that name, but the unremarkable water isn't toxic or even bad-tasting.)
A white cavalry regiment, the 29th Texas, also carried a grudge against the 1st
Kansas troops, who had driven it from the field in an earlier fight at Honey
Springs, in the Territory. When the two met again, here at Poison Spring, in
Arkansas, the Texans shouted across the lines that they would give no quarter.
This time they won, and they gave no quarter. The Texans, the Arkansans, the
Choctaws, and the Missourians shot some prisoners and finished off some of the
wounded with bayonets and scalping knives. Not for the faint of heart, these
late, bitter engagements. Murder and brutalities on both sides were common
enough in this remote corner of the war, where it was waged, as the military
historian Edwin C. Bearss writes, "with a savagery unheard of in the East."
Little was made of it. To those eastern gentlemen in Richmond and Washington,
the trans-Mississippi theater of operations wasn't so much a theater as some
dim thunder offstage.
IT MAY BE that by 1943 Uncle Alec was just bored with all that, as with many other things, all cold potatoes now, but the memories hadn't evaporated. Long after his death I heard a few things he had told the men in the family, now a little garbled in the retelling by second and third parties. One said that he had joined a Jefferson County militia unit at the age of sixteen or seventeen, after his brother Joseph was killed fighting in Georgia, and that he remained with that unit until the war ended. Another one said no, that was only partly true, that he and another boy had later left the militia to ride with what Uncle Alec called "a company" (troop) of partisan cavalry, raised and commanded by a shadowy Captain Jonas (or Jonus) Webb, from Pine Bluff (Jefferson County).