By the spring of 1864, the Federal high command set forth a plan to bring pressure across the whole of the Southern Confederacy. Overall Union commander Ulysses S. Grant, thrust Federal armies into Virginia, north Georgia, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The Battle of Prairie D'Ane was part of two larger Federal operations—the Camden Expedition and the Red River Campaign.
On March 23, 1864, Union General Frederick Steele set off from Little Rock, Arkansas. His objective was to be the northern pincer in Nathaniel Banks' Red River Campaign. Banks, with some 30,000 soldiers, was to push north along the Red River in Louisiana, and strike Confederate's under the command of Edmund Kirby Smith near Shreveport, Louisiana. At the same time, Steele's force of some 13,000 Federals would advance on Smith's position from the north. If all went well, the Smith's army would be caught between two Federal armies and destroyed, east Texas would be open to Federal offensive operations, and pro-Union governments could be installed in these regions.
Steele's expedition was hampered by disease and a poor supply line throughout the campaign. Adding to the Federals woes was the fact that expected reinforcements did not materialize in a timely manner. Rations were cut and then cut once more. Compound the Federals numerous problems was the fact that Steele had little faith in the plan or in his counterpart Nathaniel Banks. Ulysses S. Grant himself had to step in to prod Steele forward.
The Federals forced a crossing at the Little Missouri River and moved toward Camden, Arkansas, which was rumored to be filled with desperately needed supplies. Steele made a feint in the direction of Washington, Arkansas, now the Confederate capital of the state—as the rest of his force pushed for Camden.
On April 9, 1864, Steele's main force received reinforcements and moved toward Washington along a military road. In their path lay Prairie D'Ane, a relatively flat and open plain of nearly 30 square miles. The Federals found their adversaries digging in along their direct path to Washington. On April 11th, Steele arrayed his army for battle. His initial battleline supposedly stretched for two full miles. The next day the Federal attack was launched. Many of the Confederates had already started for Washington, and the Federals engaged the rear guard of the Confederate army.
After the Confederates abandoned Prairie D'Ane, the Federals held a council of war. Steele's feint toward Washington had worked. His army, still suffering supply problems, and after receiving word that Banks' force had been bested by Confederate forces commanded by Richard Taylor, Steele made the decision to turn for Camden. He captured the town, but found little in the ways of supplies. Steele abandoned his mission and turned back to Little Rock.