Tag Archives: Fort Hindman

The Fall of Fort Hindman: Grant Disapproves

January 16, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant disapproved of Major General John A. McClernand’s unauthorized capture of Fort Hindman, and McClernand tried going over Grant’s head to justify his actions.

Maj Gen J.A. McClernand | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Grant did not receive notice that McClernand’s “Army of the Mississippi” was moving up the Arkansas River to attack Fort Hindman (also known as Arkansas Post) until the day the Federals captured the fort. Grant, who was McClernand’s immediate superior, quickly responded:

“I do not approve of your move on the Post of Arkansas while the other is in abeyance. It will lead to the loss of men without a result… It might answer for some of the purposes you suggest, but certainly not as a military movement looking to the accomplishment of the one great result, the capture of Vicksburg… From the best information I have, Milliken’s Bend is the proper place for you to be…”

Grant then reported to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “General McClernand has fallen back to White River, and gone on a wild-goose chase to the Post of Arkansas. I am ready to reinforce, but must await further information before knowing what to do.”

Halleck responded the next day: “You are hereby authorized to relieve General McClernand from command of the expedition against Vicksburg, giving it to the next in rank or taking it yourself.” Grant had initially planned to send his army south to take Vicksburg while he remained at headquarters in Memphis. But this would mean that McClernand, the ranking commander under Grant, would be in charge in the field. Grant therefore opted to lead the army himself to prevent McClernand from making any more unauthorized movements.

Meanwhile, McClernand submitted his report on the victory at Fort Hindman. When it reached the northern press and public, it was met with great enthusiasm because it was a much needed Federal victory after a series of military failures (including Grant’s own failure to take Vicksburg in December). With McClernand now hailed as a hero, Grant did not act upon Halleck’s authorization to relieve him.

Gen U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Grant also held back on relieving McClernand because he learned that his close friend Major General William T. Sherman, not McClernand, had proposed capturing Fort Hindman in the first place. And pressure from Washington to send reinforcements to Major General Nathaniel P. Banks in Louisiana slackened, thus giving Grant more autonomy.

Grant began planning to attack Vicksburg from the water since Sherman had been repelled from land. However, a waterborne approach seemed just as difficult because of the countless “bends” in the Mississippi River above the city. Moreover, as Grant learned on the 16th, the navy would not be able to support him for another 10 days due to their participation in capturing Fort Hindman. He ordered McClernand to meet him at Milliken’s Bend to discuss the situation personally.

McClernand responded that he would “immediately return with my command” to the Mississippi, even though “I would sail from here to Little Rock, and reduce that place but for want of sufficient water in the channel of the Arkansas River.” Then he shirked Grant’s order and informed the Federal commander at Helena, “I shall delay a day or two in order to threaten Little Rock and Pine Bluff as a diversion in your favor.”

As Grant prepared to leave Memphis for Milliken’s Bend, Confederate prisoners from Fort Hindman began arriving on transports. Since McClernand sent no word on what should be done with these men, Grant appealed to Major General Samuel R. Curtis, commanding the Department of the Missouri (which included Fort Hindman): “As I am leaving Memphis and can take no orders for the disposal of these prisoners, I hope that you will have the kindness to take charge of them…”

Meanwhile, McClernand received Grant’s message refusing to authorize the Fort Hindman expedition and admonishing him for capturing the fort without permission. McClernand angrily responded that he had expected “approval of the complete and signal success which crowned it rather than your condemnation.” Responding to Grant’s claim that the expedition detracted from the goal to capture Vicksburg, McClernand shot back, “From the moment you fell back from Oxford, and the purpose of a front attack upon the enemy’s works near Vicksburg was thus deprived of co-operation, the Mississippi River Expedition was doomed to eventuate in a failure.”

McClernand then wrote directly to President Abraham Lincoln, who had authorized him to conduct an independent operation against Vicksburg last fall. McClernand complained, “I believe my success here is gall and wormwood to the clique of West Pointers who have been persecuting me for months,” and these West Pointers (such as Grant) were “chagrined at the success of your volunteer officers (i.e., McClernand).”

Although no threat of dismissal had been given yet, McClernand pleaded, “Do not let me be clandestinely destroyed, or, what is worse, dishonored, without a hearing.” He then argued that Grant could not effectively command his (McClernand’s) force: “The Mississippi River being the only channel of communication, and that being infested with guerrillas, how can General Grant at a distance of 400 miles intelligently command the army with me? He cannot do it.”

McClernand’s response to Grant and his letter to Lincoln indicated that he considered himself Grant’s equal, even though the War Department order of late December clearly stated that McClernand would merely command a corps within Grant’s army. But McClernand hoped that Lincoln would override that order, writing that his “army” “should be made an independent command, as both you and the Secretary of War, as I believe, originally intended.”

Lincoln did not respond to McClernand’s request for independence, but he did respond to a prior letter from McClernand complaining about Halleck micromanaging his affairs:

“I have too many family controversies, (so to speak) already on my hands to voluntarily, or so long as I can avoid it, take up another. You are now doing well–well for the country, and well for yourself–much better than you could possibly be, if engaged in open war with Gen. Halleck. Allow me to beg, that for your sake, for my sake, & for the country’s sake, you give your whole attention to the better work.”

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 341-42; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 137

The Fall of Fort Hindman

January 11, 1863 – Major General John A. McClernand reorganized his Federal forces and acted upon Major General William T. Sherman’s recommendation to attack a Confederate fort on the Arkansas River.

As the new year began, Sherman’s 30,000-man XIII Corps remained at Chickasaw Bayou. He learned that the Confederates on the bluffs were being reinforced, and his men could hear trains continuously rolling in and out of Vicksburg, indicating that even more troops were on the way. He therefore abandoned his plan to take the bluffs, loaded his troops back onto their transports, and headed back down the Yazoo River to the Mississippi.

Maj Gen J.A. McClernand | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

McClernand, who had arrived at Memphis too late to join the Chickasaw Bayou expedition, met up with the Federals at Milliken’s Bend, on the west bank of the Mississippi, to take command of the corps. Apparently disregarding the War Department order placing him under Major General Ulysses S. Grant, McClernand split his four divisions into two corps and renamed XIII Corps the Army of the Mississippi.

When Sherman passed command to McClernand on the 4th, he shared an idea to avenge the Chickasaw Bayou defeat by capturing Fort Hindman, also known as Arkansas Post, about 120 miles northwest of Vicksburg on the Arkansas River. Some 5,000 Confederates garrisoned the fort, which threatened Federal communications on the Mississippi. McClernand was reluctant but finally agreed to conduct the expedition when Acting Rear Admiral David D. Porter assured him that his Mississippi River Squadron would provide gunboat support.

However, McClernand never asked Grant for permission to proceed, and nobody in the Federal high command knew that such an action was even being considered. Moreover, Arkansas was part of Major General Samuel R. Curtis’s Department of the Missouri, outside the jurisdiction of McClernand or even Grant. However, McClernand had discussed the threat Fort Hindman posed with Curtis late last year, so Curtis at least had an idea that McClernand might attack the fort when he told Curtis that he was proceeding on the 5th.

McClernand’s force headed out by water on the 8th. The fleet consisted of three ironclads, 10 rams and gunboats, and 50 transports conveying 30,000 soldiers. McClernand finally informed Grant about the expedition, explaining that one of the objectives was “the counteraction of the moral effect of the failure of the attack near Vicksburg and the reinspiration of the forces repulsed by making them the champions of new, important, and successful enterprises.” Grant did not receive this message until the 11th, long after the Federals had gone up the Arkansas.

Fort Hindman sat atop a hill overlooking a bend in the Arkansas, about 120 miles below Little Rock. It was a strong but unfinished Confederate work used to disrupt Federal navigation on the nearby Mississippi. Three Confederate brigades of mostly Texans manned the garrison and its outlying area; the one brigade in the fort was led by Colonel John W. Dunnington, and Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill commanded the other two outside the fort. They numbered about 3,300 effectives, or one-tenth of the enemy force heading their way.

The Federal fleet arrived within gun range of Fort Hindman on the afternoon of the 9th, and the troops began landing under cover of Porter’s warships. The next day, the Federals finished landing and McClernand deployed his artillery, which joined with Porter’s vessels to bombard the fort as the flotilla slowly made its way up the river.

The Federal troops blocked the road to Little Rock to prevent the garrison from escaping or reinforcements from arriving. Churchill’s Confederates returned fire from their entrenchments until about 4 p.m., when the Federal guns cleared them out. 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.”

The Confederates tried answering with their 11 cannon but were 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.

McClernand planned a ground attack the next day. That night, Churchill received a message from General Theophilus Holmes, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department at Little Rock, directing him “to hold out till help arrived or until all dead.”

Federal troops assumed their positions at noon on the 11th, and a ferocious artillery barrage began an hour later. It took the Federals three hours to silence all the Confederate guns except one. The Confederates continued firing from the trenches and rifle pits, but they were surrounded by infantry on three sides and the gunboats on the river. The white flag went up.

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). The Federals captured the most men since taking New Madrid in the spring of last year. They also seized seven stands of colors, all the Confederate guns, and large amounts of commissary, ordinance, 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 with 6,500 prisoners, and the destruction of a powerful ram at Little Rock, which could have caused the Federal Navy in the west a great deal of trouble…”

He added, “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.’”

While this victory did little to affect any of the major campaigns at the time, northerners celebrated it as a rare success following a string of failures. It also stopped Confederate commerce between the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers, it cleared the way for Federal ships to continue on to Little Rock, and it served as the preface to a new campaign against Vicksburg.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 252-53, 255; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 77-78, 133-34; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 248, 250-51, 253; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 23; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 68; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 307-08, 310-11; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 156-57; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 569-70; Simon, John Y., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 456-57; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 138-39