Tag Archives: Thomas J. Churchill

Arkansas: The Jenkins’ Ferry Engagement

April 30, 1864 – Confederates attacked Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas as it tried crossing the Saline River to get back to the safety of Little Rock.

Steele, whose 10,000 Federals had been holed up in Camden, decided to abandon that town and return to Little Rock because his supply train had been destroyed and he was now 70 miles deep in enemy territory. This ended Steele’s efforts to reach Shreveport, his original objective. The Federals left Camden and marched north through Princeton, slowed by heavy rain and mud.

Confederate General E.K. Smith | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the 10,000 Confederate troops outside Camden, did not know that the Federals had left until mid-morning on the 27th. The Confederates quickly entered the town and began repairing the pontoon bridges over the Ouachita River so they could pursue. According to Smith’s aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Edward Cunningham:

“It took us all day and all night to construct a bridge over which the infantry could pass. At sunrise on the morning of the 28th, the troops commenced crossing. The enemy had 26 hours’ start of us. On the night of the 29th, the head of our infantry was at Tulip, 14 miles from the Saline, at Jenkins’ Ferry, and 40 miles from Camden… The rear of the enemy’s column had passed Tulip at 8 o’clock that morning. The Saline Bottom was, however, a quagmire five miles wide, and it was possible his trains had not been gotten over. We had but little expectation of getting a fight. Our pontoon train had not yet come up, and even with it we could not cross the river in face of the enemy.”

Smith hoped that Brigadier General James F. Fagan’s cavalry might catch up to the Federals, but Fagan informed him that the cavalry had gone to Arkadelphia for supplies. On the Federal side, Captain Charles Henry, Steele’s chief quartermaster, reported, “The command reached the Saline River on the 29th,” and since they had left Camden, “a large number of animals had broken down on account of having no forage.”

The Federals were to cross the Saline at Jenkins’ Ferry, but Steele wrote that the river was “continually rising from the rain which continued to fall. From the same cause the bottom, being cut up by our artillery and baggage trains, was becoming almost impassable and required corduroying.”

Federals worked all night to build a pontoon bridge so the men could cross. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Samuel Rice and about 4,000 troops set up a line of breastworks and abatis about two miles from the crossing to face the oncoming Confederates.

Henry wrote, “The pontoon bridge was laid and the crossing commenced, which continued through the night and the next day, over four miles of the worst swamps in Arkansas. Our rear guard was attacked before the bridge was laid…” Smith had directed Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill’s Confederates to stop the Federal crossing. Henry continued:

“At 1 o’clock (a.m.) the column moved forward through deep mud, rain coming down in torrents. At daylight the two divisions were up with the cavalry advance, having marched 52 miles in 46 hours. We could hardly believe there was any large force of the enemy on our side of the river. The firing became more general, Churchill’s Division was thrown forward.”

Churchill ordered Brigadier General James Tappan to send one of his three regiments forward. Tappan reported:

“We had hardly finished building fires before we were ordered to advance. The enemy’s skirmishers were posted on a line about the center of the field, their line of battle being in the woods at the end of the same. My command drove in their skirmishers and became heavily and hotly engaged with their main line.”

Tappan sent the rest of his brigade forward and called for reinforcements. Churchill reported, “Like veterans they moved steadily forward across an open field, undaunted by a most destructive fire, with which the enemy met their advance.” He directed Brigadier General Alexander Hawthorn’s brigade to move up–

“… and gallantly did he come to the rescue. The firing, now incessant, was terrific, and the struggle was desperate beyond description. Still our brave and fearless troops maintained their ground and drove the enemy before them; but he was again heavily re-enforced, and being overpowered we slowly and stubbornly yielded the ground, inch by inch, after two hours of severest fighting I ever witnessed.”

Brigadier General Mosby Parsons’s division came up on Churchill’s right, and as Churchill recalled:

“The battle raged with the greatest fury along our entire line, and the roar of musketry was almost deafening. Nothing could surpass the valor and courage of our troops. They dashed forward with an impetuosity and fearlessness unsurpassed in this war, and it was not until their ammunition was exhausted that they were withdrawn.”

The Confederates actually made little progress due to the swamps and the strong Federal defenses in their front. Also, Smith committed his troops piecemeal rather than in one all-out assault that might have penetrated the Federal line. The fog and smoke of gunfire obstructed the Confederates’ vision more than the Federals, who mostly stayed crouched behind their fortifications. And the marshy ground rendered cavalry and artillery virtually useless.

Smith directed Major General John G. Walker’s Texas division to relieve Churchill, but Walker also committed his men a brigade at a time, which weakened the attack. All three of Walker’s brigade commanders were wounded, and Rice was mortally wounded on the Federal side. As the Confederates fell back to regroup, the Federals got across their pontoon bridge to safety. The fighting ended around 3 p.m.

The Federals sustained 521 casualties (63 killed, 413 wounded, and 45 missing), while the Confederates lost 443 (86 killed, 356 wounded, and one missing). Walker did not submit an official report, and thus his losses were not counted. The Federals claimed a tactical victory by holding Smith off and escaping to Little Rock as planned. Smith claimed victory because he drove the Federals from the field, even though they were trying to leave anyway; he also permanently prevented Steele from joining forces with the Federals in Louisiana.

Steele reported, “The enemy having disappeared from the field, our troops were withdrawn and passed over the bridge without interruption from the enemy.” Smith’s opinion differed: “The complete success of the campaign was determined by the overthrow of Steele at Jenkin’s Ferry.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 106-07; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 65; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 1305-15, 1533-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 425-26; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 176; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 395

Red River: Federals Advance from Natchitoches

April 2, 1864 – Federal forces at Natchitoches, Louisiana, looked to continue further up the Red River on the way to their ultimate goal of Shreveport and eastern Texas beyond.

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

As April began, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf, supported by 10,000 troops under Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith and Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s massive naval fleet on the Red River, held Natchitoches. They were about halfway between Alexandria and the vital cotton-producing city of Shreveport. A correspondent from the New York Tribune noted something strange about this campaign thus far:

“It is a remarkable fact that this Red River expedition is not followed by that anxious interest and solicitude which has heretofore attended similar army movements. The success of our troops is looked upon as a matter of course, and the cotton speculators are the only people I can find who are nicely weighing probabilities and chances in connection with the expedition.”

Banks halted the Federal advance while he supervised an election in Alexandria. Federals decorated the town with flags and bunting to try instilling a patriotic spirit. Residents wanting to vote were required to pledge loyalty to the U.S.; only 300 did. Predictably, they elected fellow Unionists to represent them in the upcoming convention to draft a new Louisiana constitution.

Banks also took the time to finally respond to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s letter from March 15. Grant ordered Banks to return A.J. Smith’s troops to Major General William T. Sherman’s army no later than April 15 so Sherman could launch his spring offensive. Banks was to send the troops back whether he captured Shreveport by then or not. Banks responded by predicting “an immediate and successful issue” of this operation. He continued:

“Our troops now occupy Natchitoches, and we hope to be in Shreveport by the 10th of April. I do not fear concentration of the enemy at that point. My fear is that they may not be willing to meet us there; if not, and my forces are not weakened to too great an extent, I shall pursue the enemy into the interior of Texas, for my sole purpose of destroying or dispersing his forces, if in my power, keeping in view the necessity of the co-operation of some of my troops east of the Mississippi, and losing no time in the campaign in which I am engaged.”

While this seemed to imply that the campaign would extend beyond the deadline that Grant imposed, Banks assured Grant that “General Smith’s command will return to Vicksburg on the 15th or 17th of this month.” However, Banks noted that the Red River was “very low, which has delayed our operations… the gunboats were not able to cross the rapids at Alexandria until day before yesterday.”

Actually, Porter was still working to get all his vessels over Alexandria Falls, and the fleet began arriving at Grand Ecore, about 50 miles upriver from Alexandria. This was the staging area for the next leg of the expedition. By the end of the 2nd, Porter’s entire fleet had finally passed the treacherous falls.

The vessels began concentrating at Grand Ecore the next day, with A.J. Smith’s Federals debarking from their transports and meeting slight Confederate resistance. Banks staged a review of his army at Natchitoches on the 4th, and then confidently wrote his wife, “The enemy retreats before us, and will not fight a battle this side of Shreveport if then.”

Gen Richard Taylor | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

As Banks moved to link with A.J. Smith at Grand Ecore, Confederates under Major General Richard Taylor fell back to Mansfield, about 40 miles west, near the Texas border. General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department over Taylor, vacillated over whether he should make a stand at Shreveport, attack Major General Frederick Steele’s Federals moving south from Little Rock, Arkansas, or fall back into Texas.

Taylor wanted to attack Banks as soon as the two brigades that E.K. Smith pulled from Major General Sterling Price’s army in Arkansas arrived to reinforce him. However, Smith kept the troops that Price had sent at Shreveport rather than sending them to Taylor at Mansfield. Smith was still pondering what to do.

On the 3rd, Smith permitted the Confederates at Shreveport, under Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill, to move to Keachi, between Mansfield and Shreveport. Smith’s refusal to fully reinforce Taylor enraged him. Taylor wrote, “Like the man who had admitted the robber into his bed-chamber instead of resisting him at the door, our defense will be embarrassed by the cries of women and children.”

Having helped defeat Banks in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862, Taylor advised Smith that the Confederates needed–

“Action, prompt, vigorous action. While we are deliberating the enemy is marching. King James lost three kingdoms for a mass. We may lose three states without a battle. Banks is cold, timid, easily foiled. He depends principally on the river for transportation. Steele is bold, ardent, vigorous. Independent of rivers, his transportation has doubtless been made ample for his purposes. If he has anything like the force represented he will sweep Price from his path. He is the most dangerous and should be met and overthrown at once.”

Smith’s reply indicated that he was still unsure whether Banks or Steele was the greater threat and, noting that the two armies were still over 200 miles apart, he wrote that the distance “is far too great for us to concentrate on either column.” Smith continued:

“Our position is a good one. We occupy the interior line, and a concentration is being forced which otherwise could never have happened. While we retain our little army undefeated we have hopes. When we fight, it must be for victory. Defeat not only loses the department, but releases the armies employed against us here for operation beyond the Mississippi.”

Smith explained that he wanted to hold both Louisiana and Arkansas, but to do so, he needed to avoid the destruction of either Taylor’s or Price’s army. Smith informed Taylor that he would leave his Shreveport headquarters and consult with him in person at Mansfield on the 6th.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20613; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 619-20; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 390; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 667-87, 697-707, 773-83, 812-32; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 414; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 54-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 480-81

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