BOURBON COUNTY, KANSAS

BATTLE OF POISON SPRINGS, ARKANSAS

Hard-fought Battle - Bravery of the Kansas Colored Troops - They die but will not yield - Outnumbered by the Rebels - Another severe Battle - The Heroic Negro, after being wounded, fights till he dies.

The battle of Poison Springs, Ark., between one thousand Union and eight thousand rebel troops, was one of the most severe conflicts of the war. Six hundred of the Union forces were colored, and from Kansas, some of them having served under old John Brown during the great struggle in that territory. These black men, as it will be seen, bore the brunt of the fight, and never did men show more determined bravery than was exhibited on this occasion. They went into the battle singing the following characteristic song: -

"Old John Brown's body lies a mouldering in the grave,
While weep the sons of bondage, whom he ventured to save;
But though he lost his life in struggling for the slave,
His soul is marching on.
Glory, glory, Hallelujah!
Glory, glory, Hallelujah!
Glory, glory, Hallelujah!
His soul is marching on!

John Brown was a hero, undaunted, true and brave,
And Kansas knew his valor, when he fought her rights to save;
And now, though the grass grows green above his grave,
His soul is marching on.

He captured Harper's Ferry with his nineteen men so few,
And he frightened 'Old Virginny' till she trembled through and through;
They hung him for a traitor, themselves a traitor crew,
For his soul is marching on, &c.

John Brown was John the Baptist, of the Christ we are to see, -
Christ, who of the bondman shall the Liberator be;
And soon throughout the sunny South the slaves shall all be free,
For his soul is marching on, &c.

The conflict that he heralded, he looks from heaven to view,
On the army of the Union, with its flag, red, white, and blue;
And heaven shall ring with anthems o'er the deed they mean to do,
For his soul is marching on, &c.

Ye soldiers of freedom then strike, while strike ye may,
The death blow of oppression in a better time and way;
For the dawn of old John Brown has brightened into day,
And his soul is marching on.
Glory, glory, Hallelujah!
Glory, glory, Hallelujah!
Glory, glory, Hallelujah!
And his soul is marching on."

The following graphic description of the battle will be read with thrilling interest: -

"Official Report of Major Richard G Ward, commanding First Kansas Colored Regiment at the battle of Poison Springs.

"HEADQUARTERS FIRST KANSAS COLORED VOLS.,

CAMDEN, Ark., April 20, 1864

"Col. J. M. Williams, commanding Escort to Forage-train.

"COLONEL, - In conformity with the requirements of the circular issued by you, April 19, 1864, I submit the following report of the conduct of that portion of the escort which I had the honor to command and of the part taken by them in the action of the 18th inst.: -

"I marched from the camp on White-Oak Creek, with the six companies left with me as rear-guard, about seven o'clock A.M. When I arrived at the junction of the Washington Road, I found the Eighteenth Iowa Infantry and a detachment of cavalry waiting to relieve me as rear-guard. At this moment I received your order to press forward to the front, as your advance was skirmishing with the enemy. Upon arriving, agreeably to your order, I placed one wing of this regiment on each side of the section of Rabb's Battery, to support it, and awaited further developments.

"After your cavalry had ascertained the position of the enemy's force on our right flank, and Lieut. Haines had planted one of his pieces in a favorable position, I placed Companies A, B, E, and H, in position to support it. We had hardly got into position here, before our cavalry were forced back upon our line by an overwhelming force of the enemy. Lieut. Henderson commanding detachment Sixth Kansas (than whom a braver officer never existed), was severely wounded, and I ordered Corp. Wallahan, Company M, Sixth Kansas, to form his men on my right. He had scarcely formed them, ere Lieut. Mitchell, commanding detachment Second Kansas Cavalry, was also driven in , when he was placed upon the extreme right under your personal supervision.

"The line of battle was now nearly in the form of the segment of a circle, the convex side being outward, or toward the enemy. Companies C and I being on the north side of the road facing toward the east; Companies D and F on the south side of the road, facing in the same direction, whilst on my extreme right the men were drawn up in line facing due south. It was now about half past eleven o'clock, A.M. These dispositions were scarcely made ere the enemy opened a severe and well directed fire from a six-gun battery at the distance of about one thousand yards. This battery was near the road, due east of our line. At the same time a howitzer battery, reported to me as having four guns, opened on the south opposite my right, at a distance of six or seven hundred yards. Although this was much the severest artillery fire that any of the men had ever before been subjected to, and many of the men were thus under fire for the first time, they were cool as veterans, and patiently awaited the onset of the enemy's infantry.

"Just after twelve o'clock, the enemy's batteries slackened their fire, and their infantry advanced to the attack. From the position of the ground it was useless to deliver a fire until the enemy were within one hundred yards. I therefore reserved my fire until their first line was within that distance, when I gave the order to fire. For about a quarter of an hour, it seemed as though the enemy were determined to break my lines, and capture the guns; but their attempts were fruitless, and they were compelled to fall precipitately back, not, however, before they had disabled more than half of the gunners belonging to the gun on the right.

"Again they opened their infernal cross-fires with their batteries, and through the smoke I could see them massing their infantry for another attack. I immediately applied to you for more men.

"Companies G and K were sent me. I placed Company K upon the extreme right (where the cavalry had rested, but which had now retired), and Company G upon the left of Company B. Shortly after these dispositions were made, the enemy again advanced, this time in two columns yelling like fiends. Lieut. Macy, of Company C, whom you had sent out with skirmishers from the left, was driven in; and I placed him, with his small command, between Companies G and B. At this moment, yourself and Lieut. Haines arrived on the right, and I reported to you the condition of the gun, only two men being left to man it, when you ordered it to the rear. Just as the boys were preparing to limber, a large body of the enemy was observed making for the gun in close column whereupon private Alonzo Hendshaw, of the Second Indiana Battery, himself double-loaded the piece with canister, and poured into the advancing column a parting salute at the distance of about three hundred yards, and then limbered. The effect was terrific. Our infantry redoubled their fire, and again the massed columns suddenly retired.

"Three different times the enemy were thus repulsed; and, as they were massing for the fourth charge, I informed you that I believed it would be impossible to hold my position without more men on my right and centre. You replied that I should have them if they could be spared from other points. I held my position until you returned; when, seeing your horse fall, I gave you mine for the purpose of going to the Eighteenth Iowa to form them in a favorable position for my line to fall back upon. Agreeably to your order to hold the ground at any and all events until this could be done I encouraged the men to renew their exertions, and repel the coming charge, intending, if I succeeded, to take that opportunity of falling back, instead of being compelled to do so under fire. My right succeeded in checking the advance; but, my left being out-flanked at the same time that my left-centre was sustaining the attack of ten times their number, I ordered to fall back slowly toward the train/changing front toward the left, to prevent the enemy from coming up in my rear. We have made a stand of about ten minutes, when I perceived that the enemy had succeeded in flanking my extreme right, and that I was placed in a position to receive a cross-fire from their two lines. I was then compelled, in order to save even a fragment of the gallant regiment which for nearly two hours had, unaided, sustained itself after Price's whole army, to order a retreat.
"Although a portion retired precipitately, the greater portion of them kept up a continued fire the whole length of the train. I ordered the men to retire behind the line of the Iowa Eighteenth and form; but, alas! Four companies had lost their gallant commanders, and were without an officer. By your aid, and the assistance of the few unharmed officers, I succeeded in collecting a few of the command, and placing them on the left of the Iowa Eighteenth. As they were slowly forced backward, others took position in the line, and did all that could be done to check the advance of the overwhelming forces of the enemy. I sent a small force to assist Lieut. Haines in his gallant and manly efforts to save his guns; and, had it not been for the worn condition of the horses, I believe he would have succeeded. Accompanying this, I send the reports of company commanders of the losses sustained by their respective companies. It will be noticed that the heaviest punishment was inflicted upon Company G, from the fact that it was more exposed to the galling cross-fires of the enemy.

"You will see that I went into action with about four hundred and fifty enlisted men, and thirteen officers of the line. Seven out of that gallant thirteen were killed or wounded. Five are reported dead on the field: Capt. A. J. Armstrong, Company D; Lieut. B. Hitchcock, Company G; Lieuts. Charles J. Coleman and Joseph B. Samuels, Company H; and Lieut. John Topping, Company B. The cheerful offering of the lives of such noble men needs not the assistance of any studied panegyric to bespeak for it that spirit of lasting admiration with which their memories will ever be enshrined.

"Four companies fought their way to the rear, without a commissioned officer. One hundred and thirteen men are killed and sixty-nine wounded, - some of them mortally. I cannot refrain from mentioning the names of Capt. B. W. Welch, Company K, and Lieut. E. Q. Macy, Company C, both of whom were wounded, as among the number of sufferers who have earned the thanks and merit the sympathy of the loyal and generous everywhere. Any attempt to mention the names of any soldier in particular would be unjust, unless I mentioned all; for every one, as far as I could see, did his duty coolly, nobly, and bravely. On the right, where the enemy made so many repeated attempts to break my line, I saw officers and men engaged in taking the cartridges from the bodies of the dead; and, upon inquiring, found that their ammunition were nearly expended.
"The brave and soldier-like Topping was killed in the first charge; and the gallant young Coleman, commanding Company H, was shot down in the second charge. At what particular period of the engagement the other officers fell, I am unable to state. To Capt. John R. Gratton, Company C; Capt. William H. Smallwood, Company G; Lieut. R. L. Harris, Company I; Lieut. B. G. Jones, Company A; Lieut. John Overdier, Company E; Lieut. S. S. Crepps, Company F; and Adjutant William C. Gibbons, I would tender my heartfelt thanks, for the faithful, efficient, and manly performance of the most arduous duties, while subjected to the hottest fire.

"The loss in arms and clothing is quite serious; but, from the exhausted state of the men, it is strange that as many of them brought in their arms and accoutrements as did. Out of seventy-eight hours preceding the action, sixty-three hours were spent by the entire command on duty, besides a heavy picket-guard having been furnished for the remaining fifteen hours. You are also reminded that the rations were of necessity exceedingly short for more than a week previous to the battle.

"We were obliged to bring our wounded away the best we could, as the rebels were seen shooting those who fell into their hands. The men who brought in the wounded were obliged to throw away their arms; but the most who did so waited till they reached the swamps, and then sunk them in the bayous.

"I am, colonel, very respectfully,

"Your obedient servant,
"R. G. WARD,
"Major First Kansas Colored Volunteers."

"Since this Report was published, official information has been received at Fort Smith, that Capt. Armstrong and Lieut. Hitchcock are prisoners of war in Arkansas, and not killed as reported.

"Yours,
"J. BOWLES,

"Lieutenant-Colonel First Kansas Volunteers."

Eight days later, the same colored regiment had a fight with a superior force in numbers of the rebels; and the subjoined account of the engagement will show with what determination they fought.

"On the 29th, we skirmished in the forenoon. In the afternoon, the venturing-out of a detachment beyond the distance ordered brought on a severe though short general engagement. At least one hundred and twenty of the rebel cavalry made a charge upon this detachment of twenty-four men. Before we could bring up re-enforcements, these fearfully disproportioned parties were engaged in a desperate hand-to-hand encounter. I was on the field, doing, with the other officers, the best we could to bring up re-enforcements. There was no flinching, no hesitation, or trembling limbs among the men; but fierce determination flashing in their eyes, and exhibiting an eager, passionate haste to aid-their comrades, and vindicate the manhood of their race. The air was rent with their yells, as they rushed on, and the difficulty manifested was in holding them well in rather than in faltering. Among the detachment cut off, of whom only six escaped unhurt, nothing I have ever seen, read, or heard in the annals of war, surpasses the desperate personal valor exhibited by each and every man. Bayonets came in bloody as did the stocks of guns; and the last charge was found gone from cartridge-boxes.

"During the fight, one poor fellow received a mortal wound, but would not go to the rear. He told his officer that he could not live, but would die fighting for the flag of liberty; and continued to load and discharge his rifle until he fell dead on the field of glory.

"The ball had crushed a vital part, -
He could not long survive;
But, with a brave and loyal heart,
For victory still would strive;
His rifle 'gainst the traitor foe
With deadly aim would ply;
And, till his life-blood ceased to flow,
Fight on for liberty.

His skin was of the ebon hue,
His heart was nobly brave;
To country, flag and freedom true,
He would not live a slave.

His rifle flashed, - a traitor falls;
While death is in his eye,
He bravely to his comrades calls,
'Fight on for liberty!'

He looked upon his bannered sign,
He bowed his noble head, -
'Farewell, beloved flag of mine!' -
Then fell among the dead.

His comrades will remember well
The hero's battle-cry,
As in the arms of death he fell, -
'Fight on for liberty!'

And still for liberty and laws
His comrades will contend,
Till victory crowns the righteous cause,
And tyrant power shall end.

Though low in earth the martyr lies,
Still rings his battle-cry;
From hill to hill the echo flies, -
'Fight on for liberty!"

(Source: The Negro in the American Rebellion: His Heroism and His Fidelity, by William Wells Brown, 1867, Pages 225-234)

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