Fort Hindman, also known as the Post of Arkansas or Arkansas Post, sat atop a hill overlooking a bend in the Arkansas River, about 120 miles below Little Rock. Three Confederate brigades of mostly Texans manned the garrison and its outlying area; they were commanded by Colonels John W. Dunnington, James Deshler, and Robert R. Garland. Brigadier-General Thomas J. Churchill held overall command, with the force numbering about 3,300 effectives.
By January 9, a Federal army-navy expeditionary force was on its way up the Arkansas River to capture Fort Hindman. This force consisted of Major-General John A. McClernand’s 30,000-man Army of the Mississippi loaded onto 10 transports, and Acting Rear-Admiral David D. Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron of ironclads, rams, and gunboats.
As the massive fleet moved upriver, panicked Arkansans watched them from the riverbanks. A Federal soldier noted “several women and children all huddled together, and they were the hardest looking set of women that my eyes ever rested on. Never have I seen astonishment so well depicted. If the ghastly phantom Death had stood before them with all his terrors they could not have been more so. Their eyes started from their sockets as they strained forward for a better view of our coming.”
Churchill received word that this massive enemy force was heading his way on the morning of the 9th. He ordered two brigades into the outer rifle pits about a mile and a half below Fort Hindman. That night, the Federal troops began landing at a farm two miles below the fort, on the north bank of the Arkansas. Porter’s warships provided cover from enemy fire. A brigade was assigned to ensure that no Confederate reinforcements from Little Rock could reach the fort.
The next morning, the Federals finished landing and McClernand deployed his artillery, which joined with Porter’s vessels to bombard the Confederate rifle pits as the flotilla slowly made its way up the river toward the fort. Most heavy guns within the fort were rendered useless due to recent rains causing what Churchill called “some defect in the powder.” The Confederates in the rifle pits returned fire until about 4 p.m., when the Federal guns cleared them out. As they pulled back to defenses outside the fort, McClernand’s troops seized high ground north of the fort and began positioning guns to fire down into the work.
Meanwhile, Porter’s ships continued pounding the enemy works, with the ironclads in the lead. A soldier on the U.S.S. Montauk described the bombardment:
“Such a terrific scene I have never witnessed. The fort was riddled and torn to pieces with the shells. The ironclads, which could venture up closer, shot into their portholes and into the mouths of their cannon, bursting their cannon and dismounting them. When most of their batteries were silenced, two of the light draft boats and our boat was ordered to run the blockade to cut off the retreat of the rebels above the F(or)t.”
A nearby Federal soldier was also awed by the scene: “Lying in the river is the fleet with their signal lights of various colors, mingling their different hues with the reflection of the beautiful bright stars in the water, while a shell would pass like a fiery meteor through the air, leaving a line of splendor in the water and forming one of the grandest sights the eye ever beheld.”
The Confederates tried to answer with the cannons that would work, but they were hopelessly outgunned. Also, Porter had ordered his men to grease their ships with tallow so that enemy shots hitting them at an angle would slide off. This practice was soon adopted throughout the Federal navy. Despite this, the Confederates did manage to disable one of Porter’s gunboats, which prompted Churchill to report his belief that “the gunboats fell back in a crippled condition.” This would prove to not be the case come morning.
That night, Churchill received a message from Lieutenant-General Theophilus H. Holmes, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department from Little Rock, directing him “to hold out till help arrived or until all dead.” Churchill passed these orders on to his officers and men and informed them that they would be followed literally.
By the sunny morning of the 11th, the Confederates had built a new line of defenses connecting the land-facing side of Fort Hindman with Post Bayou to the west. McClernand’s two Federal corps were positioned to the north, with Major-General William T. Sherman’s corps on the right (west) and Brigadier-General George W. Morgan’s corps on the left (east). To the east was the Arkansas River, where Porter’s warships assembled. The plan was for the ships to bombard the fort’s front while the Federal troops attacked and seized the fort from the rear.
The Federal barrage from both land and water began at 1 p.m. It took the Federals three hours to silence all the Confederate guns except one. But the Confederate troops in the trenches and rifle pits put up a strong resistance, and Churchill hoped to hold out until nightfall, at which time his command would try to slip out undetected if not reinforced.
Churchill wrote to Major-General John G. Walker, whose Confederate command was closest to him, “I am now occupying my inner line of entrenchments. I have strong hopes of success. If I am not overpowered by numbers shall fight to the last, and should I be compelled to leave these works I will withdraw into the ‘fort’ with 2,000 men, and still fight, until every gun is dismounted.” Walker was unable to reinforce Churchill due to foul weather.
Even as enemy troops slowly surrounded the fort on the three land sides, Churchill was fairly confident that he could either hold the fort or escape. But around 3 p.m., some men from Garland’s brigade started raising unauthorized white flags indicating that they had had enough. Churchill reported that before he could get the flags lowered, “the enemy took advantage of them, crowded upon my lines, and… I was forced to the humiliating necessity of surrendering the balance of the command.”
The Federals sustained 1,061 casualties (134 killed, 898 wounded and 29 missing), while the Confederates lost 4,900 (28 killed, 81 wounded and 4,791 mostly captured). This was the largest Federal capture since taking New Madrid in spring the previous year. The Federals also seized seven stands of colors, all the Confederate guns, and large amounts of commissary, ordnance, and other supplies. Porter later wrote:
“The fight at Ft. Hindman was one of the prettiest little affairs of the war, not so little either, for a very important post fell into our hands… No fort ever received a worse battering, and the highest compliment I can pay to those engaged is to repeat what the rebels said: ‘You can’t expect men to stand up against the fire of those gunboats.’”
Federals going into Fort Hindman were horrified by the carnage inflicted. An Indiana solider wrote, “I went into the old fort, the sight was sickening, the gunners and their assistants were all shot and torn, their blood being spattered against the walls. Some had had their clothing burned almost all off of them.” An Iowa solder was more graphic:
“We saw the gaping mouth and glaring eye over which the dull color of the butternut uniform cast its sickly hue. But here a still worse picture met the eye in face contortions; in brainless skulls; in limbless and headless bodies; here an arm, there a leg and close by, two booted and stockinged feet, still standing in their place but from which had crawled away the mangled body, leaving the red stains as the life blood gushed out.”
A Little Rock newspaper reported, “The taking of the Post is an unexpected blow to our people, and one which will be felt throughout our length and breadth.” Blame for the loss of Fort Hindman rested largely on Holmes, who had put Churchill’s command in an untenable position without reinforcement. This wiped out most of the Confederates north of the Arkansas River, allowing Federals in northern Arkansas to start probing deeper into the state.
This expedition demonstrated the potential effectiveness of joint army-navy operations on western rivers, it boosted Federal morale after their defeat at Chickasaw Bayou, and it gave northerners a cause for celebration that was rare at that time. It also cut the Confederate supply link between the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers, and it cleared the way for Federal ships to continue on to Little Rock. But in relation to the campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi, this expedition may have done more harm than good because it gave the Confederates more time to bolster the vital port city’s defenses.
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