The Camden Expedition (March 23 – May 2, 1864) was a military campaign in southern and central Arkansas during the American Civil War. It involved Union forces stationed at Little Rock and Fort Smith under the command of Major General Frederick Steele.
The United States War Department, under the direction of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, had developed a strategic goal to reassert Federal control over Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. This was part of a much larger effort to move simultaneously against Confederate forces in a number of theaters. Separate Union columns were to destroy the remaining Southern troops in South Arkansas and Northern Louisiana, then join together for an all-out push into Texas, essentially ending the war in that region.
The Arkansas phase of this Red River Campaign was entitled the Camden Expedition, an effort endorsed by Ulysses S. Grant. The plan called for Steele's force to march to Shreveport, Louisiana, where it would link up with an amphibious expedition led by Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks and Rear Admiral David D. Porter, whose force was to advance up the Red River Valley; once joined, the Union force was to strike into Texas. Steele would garrison Shreveport while Banks forged ahead into northeastern Texas. But the two pincers never converged, and Steele's columns suffered terrible losses in a series of battles with Confederate forces led by Maj. Gen. Sterling Price and Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith.
Union Major General Frederick Steele led a combined 8,500-man Union force of infantry, artillery and cavalry from the Little Rock Arsenal on March 23, 1864, with the objective of joining forces with Major General Nathaniel Prentice Banks at Shreveport, Louisiana. Confederate forces in Arkansas were directed from Washington, where the Confederate government of the state relocated after the fall of Little Rock. Confederate Major General Sterling Price ordered Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke to harry the Union column and to prevent it from crossing the Little Missouri River as it moved toward Washington.
Steele's route was through a thinly populated wilderness with little provisions. He hoped to occupy Camden, a port city on the Ouachita River to re-supply. As all the bridges on the Little Missouri River were impassable, the Union troops had to ford the muddy river. Steele's men reached Elkin's Ferry before the Confederates, but on April 3, they were attacked by Brig. Gen. Joseph O. Shelby's cavalry. The following day, John S. Marmaduke's cavalry also attacked the Union forces as they were trying to cross the river. The Federals were able to fend off both of these attacks and then cross the river. The outnumbered Confederates were forced to withdraw, and General Price established a defensive position, lightly fortified by earthworks, on the road between Elkin's Ferry and Washington at the western edge of the sparsely-populated Prairie d'Ane, a roughly circular area of prairie surrounded by woodlands.
After waiting for the arrival of reinforcements, General Steele advanced on April 9, but was stopped in the Battle of Prairie D'Ane, a series of encounters that ended on April 12. Sterling Price's Confederates returned to Prairie D'Ane on April 13, falling upon Steele's rearguard under Thayer. After a four-hour battle, Price disengaged, and Steele's column continued to Camden. Steele made a feint toward Washington, but then withdrew to Camden, in order to resupply his army, which was then on half-rations. Price had stripped Camden of personnel in order to defend Washington, and the Union forces occupied the city on April 15 against no significant opposition, but found no supplies awaiting him.
After a two-day wait, General Steele sent out foraging parties into the countryside and awaited news from Banks. However, Banks was in retreat, having been defeated at the Battle of Mansfield, and now more of Kirby Smith's forces were heading into Arkansas to intercept Steele. Dwindling supplies for his army at Camden forced Steele to send out a 1,200-man foraging party to gather corn that the Confederates had stored about twenty miles away. After loading the corn into over 200 wagons and proceeding about 5 miles on April 18, Col. James M. Williams's party was savagely attacked by John Marmaduke's and Brig. Gen. Samuel B. Maxey's Confederates at the Battle of Poison Spring. Williams was forced to retreat northward into a marsh, where his men finally regrouped and fell back to Camden, minus the wagonloads of much needed corn.
Steele was relieved on April 20 when a wagon train arrived from Pine Bluff with welcome supplies. One week later, the Battle of Marks' Mills resulted in the capture of 2,000 more of Steele's men and many more wagons. Steele decided to abandon Camden under the cover of darkness and retreated to Little Rock on April 26. Three days later, he reached the Saline River at Jenkins' Ferry and began constructing a pontoon bridge. Smith's Confederates arrived on April 30 and repeatedly attacked the retreating Federals in windy and rainy conditions. Steele repulsed the attacks and finally crossed with what was left of his force, destroying the bridge to prevent Smith from following. He was compelled to abandon most of his remaining supply wagons in the swamp north of the river. A badly chagrined Steele finally reached his base at the Little Rock Arsenal on May 3.
The Camden Expedition was perhaps the greatest Federal military disaster of the Civil War in Arkansas. Union forces suffered over 2,500 casualties, lost hundreds of wagons and failed to take Shreveport or Texas. Confederate forces freely roamed rural Arkansas, while the Federals stayed in their fortifications at Fort Smith, Pine Bluff, Helena, and Little Rock. Confederate success in Arkansas did not come without a cost, however. Resources might have been used more effectively against Porter and Banks while delayed due to low water on the Red River. Instead, Porter's fleet was able to escape nearly intact.
Nine historic sites associated with the expedition were, as a set, designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1994.