The Arkansas Post Story
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Chapter 19:

Alarmed by Confederate activities on the Mississippi, General John A. McClernand expressed his concern to President Abraham Lincoln. Although an influential politician from Illinois, McClernand was abrasive, disliked West-Pointers, and to the consternation of his peers, was overly ambitious. McClernand was, however, a fearless man. His vigor and bravery in battle won him the support of President Lincoln. In October, 1862, Lincoln authorized the politician-general to raise a large force for a down-river expedition. [1]

McClernand soon arrived at Milliken's Bend brandishing orders giving him command of 32,000 troops stationed there. The politician-general knew of Blue Wing's fate and realized the threat that Confederate troops posed to Federal communication lines. McClernand decided to divert the troops idle at Milliken's Bend, following their repulse at Chickasaw Bayou near Vicksburg, and capture the Post of Arkansas. To the ambitious McClernand, Arkansas Post was a "boot of the right size." [2]

John A. McClernand
Figure 35. Northern General John A. McClernand. A brash glory-hunting ex-congressman from Illinois, McClernand considered Post of Arkansas a "boot of the right size." The Century Magazine Dec. 1884.

McClernand reorganized the entire force, calling it the "Army of the Mississippi." The glory-hunting general divided his army into two divisions—the XIII Corps to be commanded by Brigadier General George W. Morgan, and the XV Corps by William T. Sherman. Each corps had two divisions. Brigadier Generals Peter J. Osterhaus and Andrew J. Smith commanded XIII Corps divisions while Brigadier Generals Frederick Steele and David Stuart led the XV Corps divisions. McClernand knew that he would need the help of the navy if his bold undertaking was to be successful. For this he enlisted the aid of Rear Admiral David D. Porter.

On January 5, 1863, 32,000 Union troops on board 60 steamers departed Milliken's Bend with three of Porter's mighty ironclads and a number of lighter tinclad boats. Three days later the fleet steamed past the mouth of the Arkansas River as a deceptive measure and entered the White River. Twenty miles upriver the fleet crossed over to the Arkansas through the old cut-off channel, and approached Arkansas Post.

David D. Porter
Figure 36. Rear Admiral David D. Porter. Porter provided amphibious support for the Federal assault on Post of Arkansas. The Century Magazine, April 1885.

The Confederates at Post of Arkansas expected an eventual assault against them but never by a force of this magnitude. Late in the afternoon of January 9, a "round eyed" courier reported to General Churchill that "half the yankees in the west" were coming. [3] The surprised general readied his forces to defend the post and fired-off a dispatch to General Holmes for last minute instructions. The reply Churchill received was: "hold out till help arrives or until all dead." Churchill planned to carry out his instructions "in spirit and letter." [4] As the amphibious force drew near, the greyclad soldiers occupied the rifle-pits. Five companies of infantry were advanced as skirmishers, taking position several hundred yards in front of the main line of defense. Churchill posted Captain William Hart and his six gun Arkansas Battery at the edge of the rifle-pits closest to Post Bayou.

On January 9 at 5:00 p.m., transports carrying Sherman's corps pulled into Frederic Notrebe's landing three miles below the Post of Arkansas. The vessels transporting Morgan's corps tied-up nine miles below at Fletcher's Landing.

On the morning of January 10, the Federal infantry moved up to invest the Confederate position. Sherman's corps landed first. Colonel Lionel A. Sheldon's brigade of Osterhaus' Division moved straight up the river road, followed by Smith's and Stuart's divisions. Colonel David W. Lindsey's brigade of Morgan's corps departed Fletcher's Landing and proceeded to Smith's plantation about two miles above the Post of Arkansas. Here the bluecoats wheeled a section of 10-pounder Parrott rifles into position to prevent southern reinforcements from approaching. Colonel J.F. De Courcy's brigade of Morgan's corps was left just above the landing as a reserve unit. Steele's division had orders to head inland from Notrebe's landing, flank the fort and approach from the opposite direction. After floundering in an impenetrable swamp, however, the column retraced its steps. Steele's Division met Morgan's corps at Notrebe's landing and joined the advance.

The vanguard encountered Confederate skirmishers at the first line of rifle-pits. Theirs was only a delaying action, and the Federal infantry soon occupied the entrenchments. With Sheldon's brigade as pivot, each following brigade fanned-out to the right, creating a scythe-like formation that when completed would confront the Confederate rifle-pits protecting the flank of the fort and extending west to Post Bayou.

Meanwhile, McClernand received an erroneous report that all troops were in position. At 5:30 p.m., he conveyed this information to Porter who initiated bombardment of the Confederate fort. Closing within 400 yards of Post of Arkansas, the ironclads Baron de Kaib, Louisville, and Cincinnati opened fire. Porter soon brought up tinclads Lexington and Black Hawk to augment the destructive shelling. The Confederate gunners gave a good account of themselves, but were no match for the gunboats. When Confederate fire slackened, Porter took advantage of the situation, sending Rattler upriver to enfilade the fort from the opposite side. The unfortunate tinclad became lodged against the piles scarcely 100-yards from the Confederate guns. Before she could disentangle herself, Rattler was raked by Confederate fire. Twilight soon ended the assault. Knowing that an infantry attack would not occur at this late hour, Porter ordered the gunboats to return to their moorings.

Figure 37. The gunboat Baron de Kalb. This craft participated in the battle of the Post of Arkansas. The Century Magazine, Jan. 1885.

By the morning of January 11, the infantry was poised and finally ready to advance. The troops faced the main line of Confederate defense. Union field artillery had been moved into strategic positions. Two 20-pounder Parrott rifles manned by Sheldon's brigade were emplaced only 800 yards from the Post of Arkansas. Lindsey's brigade had shifted two 20-pounder Parrots and two 3-inch rifled guns from Smith's plantation and wheeled them into position on Stillwell's Point opposite the fort. McClernand notified Admiral Porter that all was ready.

At 1 p.m., the navy resumed the bombardment. At the sound of the signal shot, the infantry moved forward. Ironciads Louisville, Baron de Kaib, and Cincinnati joined by tinclads Lexington, Rattler, and Glide steamed up the river and opened fire on the Confederate stronghold. Shelling by the Federal fleet continued relentlessly throughout the afternoon.

The First Wisconsin Battery of Sheldon's brigade opened fire immediately after the signal discharge. The two 20-pounder Parrotts enfiladed the northeast bastion of the fort. The big 9-inch columbiad emplaced there had hampered Porter's efforts the day before. Sheldon's fire was most destructive. After six shots from one of the pieces, the big columbiad fell silent.

By 3 p.m., Sheldon moved his men forward in support of the Chicago Mercantile Battery. Captain Charles G. Cooley of the Mercantile Battery had placed his guns in position behind a rise within 200 yards of the fort. Subjected to a storm of shot and shell, Confederate defenders were quickly driven from the parapet of the fort. Seizing the opportunity to end the battle, Osterhaus ordered the 120th Ohio to storm the fort. With a yell of determination the Buckeyes surged forward only to be pinned down by Confederate fire within pistol shot of the east face of the fort. They remained in this precarious position for the next hour.

Figure 38. Troop positions during the battle of the Post of Arkansas. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Small-arms fire cracked up and down the lines as Union infantry advanced toward the rifle pits. Two 10-pounder Parrotts in Hart's Arkansas Battery proved a firm obstacle to the Union advance. Taking cognizance of this threat, Colonel Charles R. Woods of the 76th Ohio deployed sharpshooters, who inched their way into position. Their deadly fire soon drove Hart's gunners from their pieces.

On the Confederate left, Deshler's line held fast. Twice, Union troops were allowed to advance within 100-yards of the entrenchments before being fired upon. Both times the bluecoats fell back with heavy losses. After two more unsuccessful advances, Brigadier General Charles E. Hovey, commanding the Second brigade of Steele's Division, ordered two 12-pounder Napoleans to the front. Confederate rifles were no match for these big guns. After only two rounds had been fired, white flags began appearing along the Confederate line to Deshler's right.

bombardment of Arkansas Post
Figure 39. Bombardment of Post of Arkansas on January 11, 1863. The Arkansas History Commission.

By 4:00 p.m., Union troops had moved within 200 yards of the Confederate line of defense. The big guns in the fort had been silenced. Taking cognizance of this development, Admiral Porter sent two tinclads and the ram Monarch upriver to cut off the Confederate line of retreat. The ironclads began lobbing shells into the rifle pits. By 4:30 p.m., a number of white flags were visible above the Confederate works. Federal troops began crossing over to the enemy lines, disarming the greyclad soldiers. Admiral Porter himself ran the tinclads over to the fort and accompanied by a naval landing party and some infantry, clambered through an open embrasure. For all intents and purposes, the battle of Arkansas Post was won. Confusion still prevailed, however, in the sector defended by Deshler.

Having received no order to do so, Deshler refused to surrender. General Steele advanced to the Confederate line under a flag of truce. The two officers argued for several minutes when from the corner of his eye, Deshler observed that the Union troops had advanced within a pistol shot of his position. The Southern officer shouted at Steele: "If you do not command 'Halt', I will command 'Fire'." [5] Steele stopped his eager soldiers from advancing and the discussion continued. The stalwart Deshler would not surrender without express orders from the lips of General Churchill. It was not until Churchill personally commanded Deshler to surrender that he allowed the Yankees to cross Confederate breastworks.

The Federal attack on Arkansas Post lasted two days, resulting in a Confederate surrender. Union casualties numbered 134 killed, 898 wounded, and 29 missing. Among the Confederates, 60 were killed, 80 wounded, and 4,800 taken prisoner. Strategically, McClernand's campaign contributed little to the goal of capturing Vicksburg. He had at least, denied the Confederates continued use of Arkansas Post as a base for their attacks on Union shipping supplying the Mississippi. Major General Ulyses S. Grant was outraged that McClernand had disappeared into the western wilderness with a "Caesar's half" of the army. He further described McClernand's campaign as "a wild goose chase." McClernand was subsequently relegated to a corps commander and his "Army of the Mississippi" dissolved only two weeks after its constitution. The politician-general accepted the demotion poorly and complained to President Lincoln that "my success . . . is gall and wormwood to the clique of West Pointers who have been persecuting me for months." [6]

Federal troops storm Post of Arkansas
Figure 40. Federal troops storm Post of Arkansas. The Arkansas History Commission.

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Last Updated: 13-Feb-2006