By James B. McConville M.D.
The Daily Iowegian
---- — Appanoose County men of the 36th Iowa Infantry under Lt. Col. Francis M. Drake of Unionville, Iowa, along with men of the 18th Iowa Infantry under Capt. William Duncan of Osceola and 1st Lt. Joseph K. Morey of Centerville remained embedded deep in Confederate southwest Arkansas in April, 1864. They were part of a large army under Major Gen. Frederick Steele that had become thwarted in their attempt to reach Shreveport, La. Deep in hostile Confederate territory, the army was rapidly running short of rations for the troops and forage for the horses and mules. They had turned back on April 15 on reduced rations to a relatively safe position in Camden, Ark.
On April 17, 1864, a large forage train of 198 six-mule wagons had headed 15 miles west of Camden to collect 5,000 bushels of corn and grain. The armed guard included 383 men of the 18th Iowa Volunteer Infantry and 500 men of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. After loading about 141 wagons, they had started back toward Camden on April 18, when they had been attacked and overwhelmed by a large force of Confederate Missouri cavalry under Brigadier Gen. John S. Marmaduke along with Texas cavalry and Choctaw Indian cavalry under Gen. Samuel B. Maxey. The attack had been devastating with the loss of all the forage wagons. The wagons and corn were burned and destroyed.
The 18th Iowa had lost 59 killed and 21 wounded at Poison Spring. Those captured would be marched to Camp Felder Prison Camp in Texas, where several would die. A burial detail under 1st Lt. Joseph K. Morey of Centerville found that all the wounded and captured black troops of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry had been murdered by the vengeful Confederates. Many had been killed while attempting to surrender. Most of the rest had been stripped and scalped in a grisly and degrading reprisal by the Texans and Choctaws to avenge their previous loss to the same infantries in the Battle of Honey Springs, Indian Territory. Morey was later promoted to Major in 1864 and to Lt. Colonel in 1865. After the war he was elected Appanoose County superintendent but died before taking office.
Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Drake and the 36th Iowa had been ordered to take 40 wagons to Britton’s Mill six miles southeast of Camden to run and guard the only remained steam-driven grist mill in the area, along with 10 hand mills to grind corn for the much needed forage, as the Confederates had destroyed all the rest. But following the disastrous defeat at Poison Spring, Drake and his men were recalled back to Camden on April 18 under cover of darkness to meet with Gen. Steele. The food and forage situation for Steele’s army was becoming day by day even more desperate.
It was decided that a large heavily armed supply convoy wagon train of about 240 six-mule wagons was to be sent back 70 miles to Pine Bluff for food and supplies. Lt. Col. Francis Drake was placed in command, as titular commander Col. Charles W. Kittredge of Ottumwa was listed as sick, along with about 40 men of the 36th Iowa. Five hundred men of the 36th Iowa were sent to guard the wagon train, along with 400 men of the 77th Ohio and 500 men of the 43rd Indiana regiments. Also with them were a light artillery battery and 240 troopers, portions of the 1st Indiana and 7th Missouri cavalries led by Major Mark McCauley. This reinforced brigade was to include about 1,800 men to guard about 240 wagons, each drawn by six mules.
The 36th Iowa Infantry still had about 200 Appanoose County men available including Col. Drake, Capt. Thomas Fee of Company G from Centerville and Capt. Joseph Gedney of Company I, the Bellair Rangers from the Bellair — Numa area. Capt. William Vermilion of Company F was just returning from Appanoose County following a recruiting trip. The regimental surgeon, Sylvester H. Sawyer of Unionville, had been promoted to Major and was head of the Division Medical Department.
Trailing a distance behind the reinforced wagon train were about 520 dismounted troopers of the 1st Iowa Cavalry, who were heading home on furlough. In addition followers included a large number of “… demoralized crowd of citizens, cotton speculators, Arkansas refugees, sutlers, and teamsters mounted on horses and mules” along with 300 some freed Negro slaves.
Drake’s wagon train started out for Pine Bluff early on the morning of April 23, although their progress was slowed by recent heavy spring rains and muddy roads. As they moved cautiously along, they noted small Confederate patrols nearby observing their progress, and passed some burned out Confederate campfires along the way. They camped near the Moro bottom by the Saline River on the night of April 24, after part of the wagon train had already managed to cross.
Meanwhile Confederate Gen. James Fagan had been informed of Drake’s wagon train by scouts and had sent his troops on a forced march of 45 miles to intercept the train near Marks’ Mills. His forces also included cavalry units of Gens. Shelby, Cabell and Dockery from Arkansas and Missouri Confederate units, about 8,000 troopers in all. The attack came early on the morning of April 25 as Drake’s train was still struggling to get across the boggy rain-soaked river bottom.
Confederate Gen. James F. Fagan had brought his men up just in time to intercept Drake’s wagon train. Initially the 36th Iowa and the 43rd Indiana took the brunt of the attack by Gen. Cabell’s cavalry and reeled back. Soon the Indiana troops launched a counterattack and savage hand-to-hand fighting ensued. Major Augustus Hamilton of Ottumwa ordered his Iowa brave troops to “rise up and fire.” The 77th Ohio was still a few miles behind.
As Gen. Jo Shelby’s Confederate troops approached down the road, Col. Drake rode out on horseback to personally to call up the cavalry troopers led by Major McCauley, along with the 36th Iowa reserves led by Capt. Gedney. Out in front of the action, Drake was suddenly struck in the left hip by a .58 caliber minie ball. He reached McCauley and told the major to have his command “charge with drawn sabres and yell and make a letter S through that Rebel line and break it to pieces.” McCauley then noticed blood dripping from Drake’s boot and inquired, “Are you severely wounded, Colonel?” Drake snapped “Yes, but we will support your charge with our infantry!” Before he could reach Capt. Gedney, Drake collapsed unconscious from his saddle and could go no further.
Heavily outmanned and outnumbered by Gen. Shelby’s troops, the counterattack soon failed with lack of a commander. Col. Drake was carried unconscious to a large log house nearby with what was thought to likely be a fatal wound. When Drake awoke, he found himself in the presence of Confederate Gen. Fagan. The rebel leader announced “I am General Fagan, commanding the Confederate forces, about eight thousand. I understand that you are Colonel Drake, the commanding officer of the Federal forces. Can you not arrange for their surrender?” Drake replied, “I am no longer in command.”
Major Hamilton surrendered after a five hour battle. The lost was costly to the Union with the loss of all the wagons, 250 men killed or wounded and 1,300 captured. “Less than 150 of the brigade escaped from the conflict,” Gen. Fagan later admitted. Drake reported that “a large number of Negroes and pro-Union Arkansans were inhumanely butchered by the enemy.”
This was then Appanoose County’s Darkest Day. The 36th was wiped out, losing 166 men from Appanoose County alone in one day, undoubtedly the worst loss in Appanoose County history. Most were captured and taken on a forced march to Camp Ford Prison Camp in Tyler, Texas. There many died. As a result of this defeat, Gen. Steele’s army was forced to retreat back toward Little Rock beginning the very next day.
Col. Drake’s wound was thought likely to be fatal. His care was transferred to the Assistant Surgeon Colin G. Strong, one of the Union 36th regimental surgeons, under a white flag of truce. Surgeon Sylvester H. Sawyer of Unionville had remained back in Camden as Division Medical Director. Amazingly Drake later recovered and returned to service by October, 1864, remaining with the few surviving members of the 36th Iowa in garrison duty. By the end of the war he was brevetted Brigadier General, in large part for his leadership at the Battle of Elkins’ Ford or Elkins’ Ferry. He became and lawyer and merchant and banker in Centerville, later achieving success in the burgeoning railroad business. He became a popular governor of Iowa 1895-97. He helped found and fund Drake University.
Capt. William Vermilion missed the Battle of Marks’ Mills while back in Iowa recruiting. He was returning by river boat at the time of the battle. He returned to command the remaining 36th Iowa bluecoats following the retreat to Little Rock and was promoted to major. After the war he abandoned medicine, studied law and became a successful attorney and legislator. Vermillion Township was named for him. His son became a justice of the Iowa Supreme Court.
Major Augustus H. Hamilton of Ottumwa managed to escape Camp Ford along with Capt. Allen Miller of Company C and Capt. John Lambert of Company K, 36th Infantry. They escaped on July 23, 1864 and finally reached the Union lines on Aug. 24, 1864, walking hundreds of miles while living on berries, green corn, watermelons and rain water.
Capt. Thomas M. Fee and Capt. Joseph K. Gedney also escaped but were tracked down in a swamp by bloodhounds. The rest of the prisoners were freed by March, 1865. Fee later became an attorney and district judge, a member of the County Board of Supervisors and superintendent of Schools. Gedney returned to farm in Pleasant Township and was also on the County Board of Supervisors and president of the Agricultural Society.
Thus ended the most disastrous day in Appanoose County history. To be concluded with Gen. Steele’s retreat from Camden and the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry.
To be continued……