Disaster At Mark's Mills
A 200-wagon supply train arrived at Camden from the federal base at Pine Bluff on 20 April, but it only carried half-rations for ten days. With supplies short, Steele ordered Lt. Colonel Francis Drake, Commanding Officer of the 36th Iowa, to take temporary command of the 2nd brigade to escort these wagons back to Pine Bluff. At Pine Bluff, Drake was to refill the wagons and escort the train back to Camden.
The train would be heavily escorted by the 36th Iowa, Major A.H. Hamilton in temporary command, the 1st Indiana Cavalry and elements of the 5th Missouri Cavalry, 43rd Indiana Infantry, 77th Ohio Infantry, and a four-gun light battery from Captain Peetz's 2nd Missouri Light Artillery. The 1st Iowa Cavalry Regiment, which had served its 3 years and was on its way home on furlough and for re-enlistment, was scheduled to follow and catch up with Drake's train. The brigade also included a section of 75 civilian Negro pioneer laborers whose job it was to move ahead of the train, felling trees and laying them down to build corduroy roads over the muddy, difficult route. The train with escort left Camden on Friday, 22 April and Drake soon found that an additional entourage of some 50–75 civilian wagons carrying teamsters, sutlers, cotton speculators, about 300 Negro refugees and other assorted camp followers had joined the expedition. Due to very muddy road conditions, progress was slow and according to Company B's Captain Seth Swiggett, the column was harassed by rebel skirmishers and snipers throughout Saturday and Sunday. By mid-afternoon Sunday, Drake's column had reached the western approach to the Moro River—essentially a large creek that habitually went out of its banks in a wide swath during spring rains. Swiggett recounted in his memoirs that, while no surface water could be discerned in the Moro Bottom, the ground was so saturated by the recent rains that anyone or anything attempting to cross it would become hopelessly buried deep in mud and muck.
Steele had ordered Drake not to attempt to cross the Moro Bottom after dark, and additionally, the civilian teamsters were starting to get out of hand, complaining to Drake about the rigors of the pace, according to Swiggett. Rather than proceed, therefore, Drake halted the column on the west bank of the Moro Bottom. In his official after-action report, Drake stated that he stopped the column that Sunday "evening". The timing is very much in dispute, for Captain Swiggett later noted in his memoirs that the column halted long before nightfall and in fact had gone into camp on the west bank at 2 pm Sunday. Captain Swiggett opined that, had Drake exhibited more backbone by insisting on moving across Moro Bottom Sunday afternoon, the entire train could have crossed safely before nightfall, would have been well on its way to Pine Bluff, and would have avoided the tragedy to come. Although Drake could perhaps claim later that he was technically following Steele's orders by going into bivouac when he did, Swiggett noted that there was a strong sense of gloom and foreboding in the federal camp as they lay there immobile on Sunday afternoon. As it was, Drake posted cavalry squads of 25 troopers each 2 miles to his front and 5 miles to his rear on Sunday, with orders for them to scout all roads for 5 miles in all directions at daybreak on Monday.
Sunday night passed without incident and, having received no reports of the enemy from his scouts on Monday morning, Drake ordered the march resumed. The 43rd Indiana Infantry Regiment was deployed to lead the way, while the 36th Iowa marched on the flank of the wagons. Drake ordered the 77th Ohio to form the rear-guard and that regiment lagged almost 3 miles to the rear. As the column crossed the Moro Bottom with difficulty and headed to higher ground, federal scouts informed Colonel Norris in command of the 43rd Indiana that they had discovered signs of large, hastily abandoned cavalry encampments to their immediate front. Norris sent that report back to Drake, who dismissed it rather curtly and sent forward orders for the 43rd to pick up the pace. A short distance further, in a clearing at a fork in the road occupied by a few log cabins, the 43rd Indiana was fired on by dismounted rebel cavalry from General Fagan's command. Fagan had evaded Union scouts the previous night by crossing the Ouachita River below Camden and making a forced march (52 miles) to get into position ahead of Drake’s train between the Moro and Pine Bluff. That morning they were lying in ambush near the crossroad clearing, known locally as Mark's Mills, just east of present-day Fordyce in Cleveland County.
Forming line of battle, the 43rd's Norris ordered his command to charge Fagan's dismounted cavalry. As the charge commenced, Confederate General William Cabell's mounted cavalry revealed itself from concealed positions in the trees on the south, or right flank. What began as a skirmish at around 8:30 am quickly developed into a very hot firefight with the federals firing in two directions to beat off the assault. The well-aimed fire from the veteran federal infantry was devastatingly effective and temporarily slowed Fagan’s advance. Drake ordered the train to pull off the road into an empty field and then ordered Major Hamilton to deploy the first battalion of the 36th Iowa Infantry up and onto the firing line on the 43rd Indiana’s left flank. Just as Companies A, B and C came on line, the Confederates charged the center and took another devastating musket volley from the federals. Drake then ordered up Peetz's 2nd Missouri Battery at the double-quick. As Peetz’s gun crews swung their cannon into position, the federal infantry was ordered to move to both flanks to open a hole in the center. This was done with alacrity and Peetz's gun crews opened fire on the rebels with grapeshot at less than 200 yards. This stunned the Confederates, resulting in a momentary lull in the battle, but musket fire quickly resumed. As the Iowa and Indiana infantrymen were concentrating on the rebels to their front and right flank. General Joe Shelby's cavalry brigade swooped down on them from the left flank. Three companies of the 36th Iowa, the entire 43rd Indiana and Peetz’s battery were now pressed on three sides and were in danger of being encircled. Drake ordered the remainder of the 36th Iowa Infantry, still positioned near the wagons, to charge into Cabell's troopers on the right to push them back, prevent encirclement and attempt a link-up with the 77th Ohio, which was now moving forward to join the battle. Before this charge could be accomplished however, the rebels closed the trap. As the federal troops were surrounded, it quickly became a confused entanglement of small units fighting small units and then it became, according to Captain Seth Swiggett, "Every man for himself."
The federals fought bravely but were now surrounded and receiving fire from all sides. The fight was hotly contested and veterans reported that it lasted fully 5 hours. Some men of the 36th Iowa’s first battalion took cover in the log cabins and kept up a withering and deadly fire, holding out from those protected positions until long after the others had surrendered, and until they exhausted their ammunition. When the insurgents threatened to burn the cabins down, the Iowans surrendered. In his after-action report, Cabell stated that 17 prisoners were taken from the larger of the two cabins. According to Captain Swiggett, when capture became certain, most of the Iowa men smashed their rifles against trees rather than hand them over to their captors.
As the men of the 36th and 43rd Indiana were being rounded up and dis-armed, a last-ditch effort to break into the Confederate ring by some brave federal cavalrymen created enough confusion and a diversion for some of the Iowa soldiers to bolt. Several disappeared into the nearby woods and a few headed to the rear to warn the 77th Ohio of the overwhelming size of the enemy force to the front. Reaching the 77th a mile to the rear, the 36th Iowa men were accused of being deserters and their report was not believed. The Commanding Officer of the 77th ordered his regiment forward at the double quick into the melee and soon that regiment was also overwhelmed by the three rebel cavalry divisions and surrendered.
Some of the men who escaped evaded re-capture by moving across country, carefully avoiding rebel patrols. Half starved, exhausted and unarmed, some reached the safety of Union lines at Pine Bluff, while others managed to reach Little Rock. There they reported the news of what had befallen their comrades at Mark's Mills. Colonel Powell Clayton, the federal commander at Pine Bluff, reported to General Sherman a few days after the battle that 186 Union cavalry and about 90 federal infantrymen had managed to escape and report in at Pine Bluff and at Little Rock. The 36th Iowa Infantry had ceased to exist by 3 pm on 25 April 1864.
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