(In series of posts, continuing here and over the next few days, I figure to examine selected details of the battle of Fort Hindman. For a good overview of the battle, please see the The Battle of Arkansas Post on Civil War Trust’s website or the series of posts at Civil War Daily Gazette.)
As darkness fell on January 9, 1863, Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s gunboats escorted transports with Major General John McClernand’s Army of the Mississippi to a point roughly three miles downstream of Fort Hindman on the Arkansas River. Darkness, rain, and boat handling issues delayed the army’s landing until mid-morning on January 10. Major General William T. Sherman’s Fifteenth Army Corps then had the honor of leading the march to the fort. McClernand’s plan called for one division, led by Brigadier General Frederick Steele, to march around to the north of the Confederate fort, reach the flanks of the defense, and seal off any retreat. Another division, under Brigadier General David Stuart, would move along the right bank of the river directly to the fort, confronting several Confederate defensive lines along the way and drawing attention away from the flanking force.
Envelopment are great when they work, but often difficult to enact. Such was the case 150 years ago today. Looking at the details on a map drawn for the Official Reports, part of the problem facing Steele’s column is spelled “B-a-y-o-u” on the center-right of this close up.
The swamps, sloughs, and bottom land required Steele’s men to march a wide, circuitous route just to reach the Confederate camps outside the fortifications. Sherman described Steele’s march:
Acting on the best information we could obtain, and guided by negroes, the head of General Steele’s column entered the woods back of Notrib’s farm, which soon became a deep, ugly swamp, but wading through it for about 2 miles in an easterly direction the head of the column reached a field and cabin on hard ground. There, upon questioning closely the occupants of the cabin and some prisoners who gave themselves up, we ascertained that in crossing the swamp we were on the south side of a bayou which in a northeasterly direction extended to Bayou La Cruz, a tributary of the White River, and that to reach the Little Prairie, behind the Arkansas Post, we would have to march a circuit of 7 miles, although in an air-line the distance did not exceed 2.
Brigadier General Charles E. Hovey, commanding the second brigade in Steele’s division, described reaching “an apparently impassable bayou” for which his troops managed to find suitable crossing points. Hovey countered Confederate cavalry along the way. But it was a counter-march order, and not the pickets, that turned his brigade about at 2 p.m. Following behind Hovey’s brigade, Brigadier General Frank Blair, commanding the first brigade of the division, described the out-and-back march through the swamps:
General Hovey’s brigade (the Second) took the advance, the brigade of General Thayer followed, and my brigade brought up the rear of the division. After marching a short distance in this order and penetrating through a slough or swamp I received orders from General Steele to countermarch and form the brigade on a plane near the river. About dark I received orders to advance by a road to the left along the bank of the river. This road was so much encumbered by troops that it was not possible to make much progress, and about midnight I ordered the brigade to bivouac for the night.
While Steele’s division marched around, a brigade of Stuart’s division did clear the river road and close upon the outer fortifications. Despite being unable to challenge the fort, McClernand signaled to Porter that the land forces were in position.
The gunboats moved up to challenge the fort. Porter put his ironclad gunboats up front, and used his rifled guns to advantage:
The Louisville, Baron DeKalb, and the Cincinnati will take the lead in attacking Post of Arkansas, and will move up at 9:30 a.m. (if weather will permit), in sight of, but not in range of, the fort. The light-draft vessels will follow to make a show. The Black Hawk will move up to use her two rifle guns at long range.
When the range is obtained by each vessel they will stick up a mark on the bank, opposite which they will remain while firing. The elevating screw must be fitted with a lanyard to the handle, and secured so that the elevation will not alter while firing.
The division of General Sherman will be in a line with our fire, a mile the other side of the Post. It is desirable to drop our shells in or near the fort, that we may not trouble him as he advances. The front casements and forward part of the pilot houses of the ironclads must be covered with tallow or slush; it will make the shot glance.
When the range is obtained, fire as rapidly as can be done with a proper regard for accuracy. Commence with 10-second shell. I will direct when to move up or fall back. If the heavy ammunition should give out, move the rifle guns forward.
The DeKalb will try her range first; 1,330 yards is the bursting point of a 5-second fuse, 10-second, at about 2,700 yards.
That, my friends, is how you bring a gunboat flotilla into action!
The heavy guns in Fort Hindman did land a few hits, but bad powder limited the effectiveness of the defenders. Brigadier General Thomas Churchill, commanding the Confederate forces, offered an impression that, “… the gunboats were compelled to fall back in a crippled condition.” Porter, however, felt his fire was “… very destructive, killing nearly all the artillery horses in and about the fort.” Sensing the batteries silenced, Porter even ordered the tinclad USS Rattler to make a pass of the fort.
Obstructions at the bend prevented the Rattler from moving past, and not before receiving considerable damage. “All his cabin works were knocked to pieces, and a heavy shell raked him from stem to stern in the hull; strange to say, two heavy shell struck his iron plating (¾-inch) on the bow and never injured it.” With the land forces unable to press the fort, the navy withdrew for the day.
At dusk on January 10, all McClernand had to show for a day of operations against Fort Hindman was a “beachhead” on the Arkansas River.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 17, Part I, Serial 24, pages 754-5, 764, 765, and 780; ORN, Series I, Volume 24, pages 104 and 107-8.)