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.