In April, 1864 the Civil War continued unabated in Arkansas. Combatants included Appanoose County men of the 36th Iowa Volunteer Infantry under Lt. Col. Francis M. Drake of Unionville, Iowa, along with 32 Appanoose County men of the 18th Iowa Infantry under Capt. William Duncan of Osceola and 1st Lt. Joseph K. Morey of Centerville. These two infantry units remained with the Union army of Major Gen. Frederick Steele deep in the unfriendly Confederate territory of southwest Arkansas. Already on April 3-4 the 36th Iowa had played a major part in defending against the Confederate attack at the Battle of Elkins’ Ferry. And on April 9-12, the 18th Iowa had been crucial in the Battle and skirmishing at Prairie D’Ane in defending against repeated attacks by Confederate Missouri cavalry under Gen. Sterling Price and Gen. John S. Marmaduke. The Union army had gotten within 54 miles of Louisiana, but were slowed down by repeated attacks, thwarted in their attempt to get to a rendezvous point at Shreveport, La. Critical shortages of rations for the 13,000 troops and forage for the 12,000 horses and mules had led Gen. Steele to turn his army back to Camden, Ark. on April 15 to gather grain and food supplies.
There were known to be stored grains hidden in the Camden area. But the Confederates had destroyed all the steam-driven grist mills in the area except the one at Britton Mill, six miles from Camden. Col. Drake and the 36th Iowa was detached and deployed on April 17 to guard the mill. A steamboat loaded with 3,000 bushels of corn hand been captured nearby on the Ouachita River. Their assignment was to operate the mill along with 10 portable handmills to grind the corn into cornmeal for feeding the horses and mules.
A large supply train of 150 horse and six-mule drawn wagons had been sent from Pine Bluff, crossing the Ouachita River by pontoon bridge, and would arrive safely at Camden on April 20, but with only about 10 days supply of food and provisions for the troops and animals. More was needed.