Camden in the early 1860s was a small port and commercial center of about
two thousand persons perched on the hilly west bank of the Ouachita River.
Visitors described it as "an enterprising town" with "many
fine houses and beautiful gardens, speaking well for the taste and culture
of the people." Conditions in Camden changed dramatically when large
numbers of ragged Confederate troops began arriving in the fall of 1863,
By November a resident described the town as "a military camp"
and observed that "stealing is going on at a bold rate." Two months
later he reported that because of looting and vandalism "the dilapidation
of the town and suburbs is fast in progress." A visitor from nearby
Washington saw things in Camden in a more favorable light, probably because
he did not have to live there amidst thousands of poorly-disciplined rebel
soldiers. "One who has not visited Camden for a year," he wrote,
"would be struck with its altered appearance. It is full of life, but
not the old, unquiet bustle of anxious-looking business men about the streets.
It is the military life and activity, exhibited everywhere (2)."
- A good deal of this military activity soon was concentrated along the
outskirts of the little town. Near the end of the year Smith decided to
transform Camden into a sort of Confederate Gibraltar on the Ouachita,
a backwoods bastion which he hoped would deter the Federals in Arkansas
from launching a spring campaign in his direction. Upon receiving instructions
to this effect, Holmes ordered Brigadier General Alexander T. Hawthorn
to clear fields of fire and erect suitable defensive works around Camden.
Hawthorn was a Camden lawyer before the war and may have been selected
for this task because of his familiarity with the town and its environs,
for he had no previous experience in the field of military engineering.
Hundreds of rebel soldiers and such few slaves as were available labored
on the project from January to March 1864. The completed fortifications
consisted primarily of five redoubts, then and now usually referred to
somewhat grandly and incorrectly as forts. Civil War forts tended to be
large, elaborate structures covering several acres.
- 2. J. E. Gaughn, "Historic Camden," Arkansas Historical
Quarterly, XX (Autumn 1961), 249;
- Lonnie White, "A Bluecoat's Account of the Camden Expedition,"
ibid ., XXIV (Spring 1965), 86; John W. Brown Diary (Special Collections,
University of Arkansas Library, Fayetteville); Washington (Ark.) Telegraph,
March 30, 1864.