Events Leading to the Battle of Arkansas Post
After the Union’s successes at the Battle of Fort Henry and Battle of Fort Donelson in 1862, Union leaders turned their attention to the Mississippi River. If the Federals could gain control of the Mississippi, they could deny the Confederacy easy access to supplies from the Gulf of Mexico and territories in the American West. Admiral David Farragut captured the port city of New Orleans on May 18, 1862, closing down Confederate access to the Gulf. In June, the Union tightened its grip on the Mississippi when Federal forces captured the river city of Memphis, Tennessee. Nonetheless, the South still controlled traffic on much of the river because of its strong fortifications at Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Vicksburg sits on the eastern side of the Mississippi, south of the mouth of the Yazoo River. Once known as “The Gibraltar of the Confederacy” the city rests on a high bluff overlooking a horseshoe-shaped bend in the river. The bluff upon which the city sits made it nearly impossible to assault from the river. Farragut made two attempts to do so in May and June 1862, but both failed. To the north, nearly impenetrable swamps and bayous protected Vicksburg. To the east, a ring of forts mounting 172 guns shielded the city from an overland assault. The land on the Louisiana side of the river, opposite Vicksburg, was rough, etched with poor roads and many streams.
Battle of Chickasaw Bayou
In July 1862, President Abraham Lincoln recalled General Henry Halleck to Washington and promoted him to the chief of all Union armies, leaving Major General Ulysses S. Grant in charge of operations in the western theater. In December, Grant divided his Army of the Tennessee into two wings and launched his first attempt to capture Vicksburg. Grant ordered Major General William T. Sherman, commanding the right wing of his army, to travel down the Mississippi River and attempt to assault Vicksburg from the north. Sherman engaged Confederate forces led by Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton and Brigadier General Stephen D. Lee from December 26–29, 1862, however, just 13,000 Confederate defenders badly defeated Sherman’s 30,000 Federals at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou.
After the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, Major General John A. McClernand replaced Sherman as commander of the right wing of the Army of the Tennessee. McClernand was a Democratic politician from Southern Illinois who raised a brigade of volunteers at the beginning of the Civil War and served under Grant during the early Union victories in Tennessee. McClernand was also an ambitious man who was well-connected with fellow Illinoisan, Abraham Lincoln. In October 1862, McClernand used his political influence to gain authorization from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to raise an army for an expedition against Vicksburg. Because he had more seniority than Sherman, McClernand annexed Sherman’s command, combined it with the army he raised, and renamed it the Army of the Mississippi.
Attack on Fort Hindman
After assuming Sherman’s command, McClernand launched an attack on Fort Hindman, near Arkansas Post, rather than assault Vicksburg, as he had told Stanton he would do. The Confederates constructed Fort Hindman, on the Arkansas River, in 1862 to discourage an attack on the Arkansas capital at Little Rock, and to serve as a base for disrupting Union traffic on the Mississippi River. Grant and other Union generals did not consider the fort and Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill’s 5,500-man garrison enough of a threat to distract them from their main objective of capturing Vicksburg. In late December 1862, however, Rebels operating out of Fort Hindman captured a Federal steamer on the Mississippi. McClernand, eager for a victory of any sort, considered that enough provocation to divert the 33,000 soldiers under his command, plus Flag Officer David D. Porter and his Mississippi naval fleet, to subdue the fort.
On January 9, 1863, thousands of Union soldiers began disembarking from troopships and advanced up the Arkansas River toward Fort Hindman. Led by Sherman, the Federals quickly overran the outnumbered Rebels, forcing them back into the fort. The next day, Porter’s naval fleet moved into position and bombarded the fort. On January 11, McClernand’s artillery joined in with another barrage, silencing the defenders’ remaining big guns. As the infantry prepared for an attack, Porter’s fleet moved upstream to prevent a Rebel retreat. Hoping for reinforcements, Churchill ordered the Confederate garrison to defend the fort at all costs, but when McClernand’s infantry advanced, some Rebels realized that their situation was hopeless. At about 4:30 in the afternoon, defenders on one side of the fort began raising white flags of surrender. Unaware of the white flags, soldiers on the other side of the fort fired on Federals who exposed themselves in response to the flags of truce. Eventually, those inside the fort resolved the confusion, and they raised white flags on both sides.
Outcome of the Battle of Arkansas Post
Losses at the Battle of Arkansas Post were moderate. The Federals suffered a little over 1,000 casualties, including 134 killed. On the Confederate side, 709 soldiers perished and nearly 4,800 surrendered, almost one-fourth of the total Rebel armed forces stationed in Arkansas. In addition, the Union soldiers commandeered Confederate arms, ammunition, and other supplies before razing Fort Hindman. The Battle of Arkansas Post contributed little toward the success of the Vicksburg Campaign, but it eliminated a minor impediment to Union shipping on the Mississippi River.
After the battle, McClernand informed Sherman and Porter that he intended to mount an excursion up the Arkansas River to assault Little Rock. Grant, however, was unimpressed with McClernand’s victory and considered it a diversion from the real task at hand. He countermanded McClernand’s plans and ordered him to rejoin the Union campaign against Vicksburg. McClernand complied and served as a corps commander throughout the rest of the campaign after Grant disbanded the Army of the Mississippi and returned its troops to the Army of the Tennessee.