The Battle of Poison Spring was fought in 1864 down in southwestern Arkansas, in Ouachita County. Though minor in terms of the Civil War as a whole, the battle is famous for the Confederate slaughter and mutilation of black troops, most of them ex-slaves, from the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry.
Poison Spring is primarily a YA novel, or at least an adult novel with a teenaged protagonist. Young Travis Ford, whose father is off fighting with the 2nd Arkansas Cavalry, is still too young for war. But he has plenty of chores and he takes seriously his job of protecting his mother and siblings from army predation, not to mention the malicious whims of various Home Guard characters.
At first, his family seems safe and relatively well-fed. There are some pleasant interludes when Travis escapes to the family’s sawmill, where he lets his imagination run free, dreaming he’s a musketeer out of Alexandre Dumas. He enjoys writing adventure stories in the notebook Miss Mary Frederick gave him. She’s a slave-owner but kind to Travis. Then this gracious Southern lady beats one of her slaves, and Travis begins to wonder over the contradiction between superficial kindness and inured cruelty.
The Fords lose their mules and chickens, and the entire family almost dies when a radical, probably lecherous Southern preacher turns against Travis’s mother, who has abolitionist leanings. Travis and his mother show cleverness and pluck, but without food, without community support, they can no longer hold their family together.
Things boil over when the Confederate Texans and the Yankees, including the colored infantry, vie for nearby Camden. The Yankees, out of food, try to steal corn from the Confederates, and in the process over-extend their lines. The black Yankees win at Camden but must retreat into the swamp near Poison Spring, where, out of ammunition, they are massacred, then mutilated, by the Texas Confederates. (The Choctaw Confederates are more merciful.)
Soon after, Travis’s father comes home. He was on the Confederate side of the massacre, and even though he did not participate, he’s overcome with guilt. In fact, he has deserted, and now the family must escape. In the process, they smuggle out two old friends who happen to be black. There’s a Dumas-like deception—and redemption for Travis’s father.
Some 300 Union soldiers died at Poison Spring. Most could have been taken prisoner, but weren’t because they were ex-slaves. Of course, as the elder Ford notes, death might have been preferable to life in a Confederate prison, but soldiers can’t make such distinctions. Boggs, the well-known writer of Westerns, illustrates for young people—and adults—that war is barbarism, the breakdown of everything. He brings an obscure, but consequential, battle memorably to life.