General Thomas Churchill
Few Civil War forts could match the miserable conditions at Arkansas Post. Located on the Arkansas River, about 25 miles from its mouth on the Mississippi, the crude Confederate fortress was built at the site of an old French trading post. Despite its strategic location in the rich Arkansas River Valley, nearby swamps were a welcome host for disease, mosquitoes, and insufferable humidity. The fort hospital was crammed daily with the sick and dying. “We are losing men every day,” wrote Texan Robert Hodges. “It looks as though we are all doomed to die in this detestable country. We can hear the dead march nearly all the times of the day and sometimes at night.” Lieutenant Flavius Perry wrote, “This country was never made I don’t think for white people to live in, nothing but frogs and crawfish can live here long.”
General Theophilus Holmes, the nearsighted, deaf commander of Confederate forces in Arkansas, ordered the construction of the fort in September, 1862. Built mostly by impressed slaves, the fort featured three Dahlgren cannons removed from a Confederate gunboat. The Dahlgren’s casemates were constructed of oak logs and railroad iron. Outside the fort were 720 yards of trenches manned by an Arkansas battery, a motley collection of Arkansas conscripts, and two Texas brigades. The Texans were a diverse collection of infantry and dismounted cavalry regiments commanded by Colonel James Deshler and Colonel Robert Garland. Dismounted cavalry were actually cavalrymen ordered (due to infantry shortages) to send their mounts back home and become infantry - a huge dishonor among the Texans, who generally preferred service on horseback rather than as a lowly “mud slogger.” General Thomas Churchill, a former postmaster general from Little Rock, commanded the Arkansas Post garrison. In honor of Thomas Hindman, Arkansas’ fiery Confederate general, the fort was christened Fort Hindman.
The garrison, however, gave it a second christening - “Fort Donelson No. 2,” a reference to the fallen bastion in Tennessee. Most of them realized they couldn’t hold out against a determined, overwhelming assault. There was no avenue of escape, no Confederate naval presence on the river, and no ready source of reinforcements. General Holmes’s written order to “hold out until help arrived or until all are dead” inspired little, if any, confidence. One Texan wrote: “Had the fort been built anywhere else, it could doubtless have been held successfully against a large force, but there was not a place on the Arkansas River less capable of successful defense against a large force than Arkansas Post, but we were stationed there with orders to hold the place against all hazards.”
By 1863, Union generals began to view Arkansas Post as a growing threat to their plans to conquer the Mississippi. Fort Hindman units attacked Union steamboats with artillery rounds. One Union supply boat, the Blue Wing, was forced to surrender – a real boon for the supply strapped Confederates. Illinois politician turned general, John McClernand, saw an opportunity for personal gain. With a presidential authorization from Lincoln in hand, he appropriated the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman and named it the “Army of the Mississippi.” This army, made up of two Union army corps would be used to assault Fort Hindman. Sherman had recently led the same troops in a failed assault on Chickasaw Bayou near Vicksburg. Eager for redemption, his men were hungry for a victory. Accompanying McClernand were three ironclads and four river gunboats under Admiral David D. Porter. He would assault the fort by land while Porter would bombard it from the river. A force of 30,000 men - with gunboats - against a Confederate garrison of 5,000 (healthy and sick) would suggest a blue tidal wave was about to roll over a hapless, disease ridden fort.
General John McClernand
On the morning of January 9, 1863, Fort Hindman’s garrison awoke to a forest of smokestacks on the Arkansas River. The trenches were manned while McClernand’s men splashed ashore below the fort, packed their gear, and made their way through the swamps to Arkansas Post’s defensive line. Some of them tried to capture feral hogs for supper but met with little success. While Union troops continued landing on the following day, Texans began pulling down their own winter cabins for logs to help fortify their trenches. Their adversaries bedded down within earshot of their bugles and construction work.
The following morning, January 11, Porter began pounding the fort at point blank range. The fort’s big naval guns were silenced while Union infantry confidently rose and charged forward. At 80 to 100 yards from the Confederate line, they were met with a hail of minie balls, artillery shells and shotgun pellets. One Ohioan wrote, “The enemy seemed determined to hold the fort. The men in the ditches fought like so many tigers, and it was like running against a stone wall to attempt to drive them out.” Union General A.J. Smith’s brigade lost 60 men during their initial assault. “We were ordered to retreat, and back we rushed pell mell for the woods, all in confusion,” wrote Thomas Marshall of the 83rd Ohio. “There we were rallied and cursed by General Smith, and again started forward.”
Again they started forward and again they started forward; the Yankees’ sheer numbers were starting to have their effect. After the fort’s Dahlgrens were disabled, naval fire began hitting the rebel trenches. The effects were horrifying as men once whole were blown to pieces. Robert Chalk of the Sixth Texas wrote: “One shell from the gunboats fell in our lines, just under my feet. It killed and wounded 7 of our company. Little Frank McLaughlin was lying just in front of me; he had a big leather belt on. The shell cut him in two and his belt was left lying in the ditch.” It was only a matter of time before the Confederate line would be breached. Most of the Texans preferred to continue the fight. Members of the 24th Texas Regiment, Garland’s brigade, had other plans – they initiated the fort’s surrender.
Without authorization from General Churchill, white surrender flags began flying in front of the 24th’s section of trenches. Confusion reigned as Confederate officers were unsure if they should continue fighting or surrender. Deshler’s men kept firing as jubilant Federals rushed out into the open thinking the Confederates had surrendered. More white flags began to appear. Union troops began to enter the Confederate works as the firing ceased. Churchill had little choice but to surrender his entire command. Mounted on his horse, he met with Sherman. “Well Sherman,” he said. “I have made the very best fight in my power.” Sherman replied, “And a very gallant fight you have made of it.” Churchill rode his horse along the trenches to halt any stray shooting. He argued heatedly with Garland over his unauthorized white flags.
The Confederate dead were buried in the trenches they fought in. A.J. Withrow of the 25th Iowa wrote, “The sight which met my eyes made my heart sick. In one spot, I counted ten rebels who had been killed by one shell. Some were cut in two, others had both legs shot off and blood, brains, and fragments of bodies lay all around, added to this dead horses, broken wagons, tents, clothing and indeed everything that makes up the paraphernalia of a camp lay about in grand confusion.” Field hospitals were unintentionally riddled with shell fragments, killing the Confederate wounded inside. For Union troops, prebuilt wooden coffins, stacked ominously on their transports, were used to bury their dead. Confederate casualties were 709 dead, wounded or missing while Union casualties were higher at 1,060. Sherman ordered the fort burned and leveled. Confederate prisoners suffered extended misery after being herded onto river steamers and shipped north to Chicago’s notorious Camp Douglas. Exposed to freezing temperatures, many Texans had no coats (they had left them behind before the battle). Many fell ill onboard as their diseases were transmitted to fellow prisoners and captors alike.
Arkansas Post would become a footnote to the overall Vicksburg Campaign commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant. Angered by McClernand’s attack on Arkansas Post, Grant brought an abrupt end to McClernand’s political maneuverings and added his command to his own. A quarter of the Confederate forces in Arkansas were suddenly lost, causing a panic in the streets of Little Rock, Arkansas. Colonel Garland, who many blamed for the fort’s early surrender, would never command another regiment. Until the end of the war, he was passed over for promotion. Garland later died of tuberculosis; a disease he picked up while in prison camp. Colonel Deshler was killed by an artillery shell at Chickamauga.