150 Years Ago: Who showed the white flag? Surrender at Arkansas Post

The simple act of putting a flotilla of warships and transports on the Arkansas river practically assured the Federals of victory at Arkansas Post.  Major General John McClernand’s Army of the Mississippi, with 33,000 men on some fifty transports supported by nine warships, vastly outnumbered the defenders at Fort Hindman.  Confederate Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill’s command numbered around 5,500 men.  Most of those were dismounted cavalry regiments.  Dismounted Texas cavalry, mind you.

As described in yesterday’s post, the Federals brought most (but not all) of their weight to bear on the defenders, with artillery and naval bombardments coupled with advancing infantry, during the afternoon of January 11.   I discussed the Federal perspective of this action earlier, so let us turn to the Confederate perspective.  In his report of the action, filed in May of 1863, Churchill wrote about his dispositions, indicating that Colonel James Deshler’s brigade held the left of the line; Colonel Robert Garland’s held the right, anchored at Fort Hindman; and Colonel John W. Dunnington held the fort and river defenses.  From the theater commander.  Churchill’s orders were “to hold out till help arrived or until all dead.”

Confederate dispositions (Yellow) and Federal lines (Red)

Churchill indicated the Federal bombardment began at around noon, with four (!) ironclads dueling with the three guns of Fort Hindman.  While the gunboats managed to silence the fort and pass upriver, Churchill felt the land defenses held up better, driving back the Federals “with a great slaughter in no less than eight different charges.” But the line would not hold for long:

The fort had now been silenced about an hour, most of the field pieces had been disabled, still the fire raged furiously along the entire line and that gallant banal of Texans and Arkansians having nothing to rely upon now save their muskets and bayonets, still disdained to yield to the overpowering foe of 50,000 men, who were pressing upon them from almost every direction.  Just at this moment, to my great surprise, severea1 white flags were displayed in the Twenty-fourth Regiment Texas Dismounted Cavalry, First Brigade, and before they could be suppressed the enemy took advantage of them, crowded upon my lines, and not being prevented by the brigade commander from crossing, as was his duty I was forced to the humiliating necessity of surrendering the balance of the command. My great hope was to keep them in cheek until night., and then, if re-enforcements did not reach me, cut my way out. No stigma should rest upon the troops. It was no fault of theirs; they fought with a desperation and courage yet unsurpassed in this war, and I hope and trust that the traitor will yet be discovered, brought to justice, and suffer the full penalty of the law. My thanks are due to Colonels Anderson and Gillespie for the prompt measures taken to prevent the raising of the white flag in their regiments. In the Second Brigade, commanded by the gallant Deshler, it was never displayed.

Churchill certainly considered the surrender premature and placed the blame on Colonel Garland.  His report, originally written while Garland was a prisoner of war after the battle, contained more details of the initial display of the white flags:

About 4 o’clock p.m. Colonel Dunnington, commanding the fort, called on me for a re-enforcement of 100 men, and although one-half of my command was already detached, deeming the holding of the fort of vital importance to us, I directed Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson to throw the two right companies of his regiment into the fort. While this was being executed two gunboats passed the fort, delivering their fire immediately opposite. The fort and the two guns on this part of the line being silenced, the enemy’s batteries and gunboats had complete command of the position, taking it in front, flank, and rear at the same time, literally raking our entire position. It was during this terrific cross-fire, about 4.30 o’clock p.m., that my attention was attracted by the cry of “Raise the white flag, by order of General Churchill; pass the order up the line,” and on looking to the left, to my great astonishment, I saw quite a number of white flags displayed in Wilkes’ regiment (Twenty-fourth Texas Cavalry, dismounted), from the right company extending as far as I could see toward the left. At this time I was near the left company of the Sixth Texas Infantry. This regiment refused to raise the white flag or to pass the word up the line; but being deceived by the sudden and simultaneous display of white flags (for I could not conceive it possible that a white flag could be thus treacherously displayed in any part of our line with impunity), as well as by the cessation of firing on the left and the repeated and emphatic manner in which the words came coupled with the name of the commanding officer, I was convinced at the time that the order had originated from the proper source though not conveyed through the ordinary channel–as at this time the enemy’s fire of artillery and small-arms was so intensely hot that no one could have passed from the general’s position to mine without being struck–and directed the words to be passed to the fort as they had come to me. As the order did not reach me through the ordinary channel I did not feel authorized to give any order on the subject, and particularly as no order could have been of any avail, the act having already been consummated before it came to my knowledge. As the white flags were not displayed on the line from the right of Wilkes’ regiment to the fort the enemy’s batteries kept up fire on this part of the line for some minutes after the firing had ceased on the left and until they had taken possession of the fort. From all the information I can obtain on this subject the white flag which thus treacherously deceived the rest of the command was raised in Wilkes’ Twenty-fourth Regiment Texas Cavalry (dismounted), and the interest of the service, as well as justice to the rest of the brigade, demands a thorough and immediate investigation.

Beyond doubt, it was the 24th Texas Cavalry which first displayed the white flags.  But the question remained as to who authorized such.   Garland, as a point of honor, demanded an inquiry to establish the points of fact in the matter.  For over a year, Garland pressed this request to no avail.

Historian Edwin C. Bearss, in The Vicksburg Campaign: Vicksburg is the Key (Volume one of three in his history of the campaign), concluded the Garland was responsible for the surrender.  Garland, a regular army officer before the war, should have brought some order to the confusion, particularly where he saw the alleged surrender order passed in a manner contradictory to normal procedures.  My take is who actually wave the white flags first is of lesser consequence.  In the larger context, the Confederate command faced questions as to why the garrison was left exposed and unsupported in the first place.

While commanders can issue orders braced with ironclad resolve to “hold to the death”, such grim determination is hard to convey to the men in the trenches.  Particularly a dismounted Texas trooper standing in the mud on a cold January day at a some unimportant remote garrison.  The 24th Texas Cavalry, with the rest of the garrison, surrendered that day and were later exchanged.  This was not their last battle in 1863.  Those Texans from Arkansas Post would fight on other fields.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 17, Part I, Serial 24, pages 780-790).


150 Years Ago: Army Parrotts or Navy Dahlgrens tearing open Fort Hindman?

(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.)

With the countermarches of January 10, 1863 behind him, Major General John McClernand focused on bringing the weight of his two army corps to bear on Fort Hindman. The previous evening, troops from Brigadier General David Stuart’s division gained the road leading north out of Arkansas Post. Further isolating the fort, Colonel Daniel W. Lindsey’s brigade of Brigadier General Peter J. Osterhaus’ division (Major General George Morgan’s Thirteenth Army Corps) deployed on the opposite bank upstream of the fort, along with a section of 20-pdr Parrotts of Captain Jacob Foster’s First Wisconsin Battery.


Now the swamps and bayous that prevented the Federals from successfully enveloping the fort also prevented the Confederate retreat. Still the confined space prevented the Federal numbers – two corps – from simply overwhelming the fort on the morning of January 11. McClernand spent most of the morning arranging the infantry and artillery for an attack coordinated with the navy. Positioned on the left of the line, and closet to both the river and the fort, Osterhaus’ two remaining brigades moved up:

My orders being to form the extreme left wing of the investing troops, leaning with my left on the river and with my right on the left of General Smith’s division, I improved the delay caused by the passage of the artillery through the swamps by making a thorough reconnaissance of the field to which my action would be limited.

After a good deal of labor my command were, at 10 o’clock, in the positions I assigned to them. One of the four bastions and the lower casemate were directly in my front ; the distance was about 800 yards, and I therefore concluded to place the 20-pounder Parrott guns in battery….

Osterhaus, a former Prussian army officer, was among the better foreign born field commanders of the war.

Earlier in the year, he’d demonstrated his skill placing artillery during the battle of Pea Ridge. Now again the Prussian placed the guns to good effect. This section of 20-pdr Parrotts were those of Lieutenant Daniel Webster, also from Captain Foster’s First Wisconsin Battery. At around noon, the ironclads moved up with a cannon shot signaling the commencement of a two hour bombardment. Of Webster’s guns, Foster wrote:

On the morning of the 11th the right section moved on to within 1,000 yards of the fort and opened fire about 12 m. upon the right casemated gun of the enemy. This gun after a short time ceased firing, which was evidence that it was silenced; whether done by the gunboats or us is but little matter; it was done. The attention of this section was then called to a heavy 8-inch gun, mounted en barbette, and after firing several times it was also disabled and rendered useless, the muzzle being shot off. This work we claim to have done: First, that no other guns were firing at this time upon it; second, that the indentation and breaking show plainly that the shot proceeded from the same caliber as our 20-pounder shell found in it. The unmistakable evidence of the holes through boards being found where the shell had gone through sidewise just fitting our sized shell, and the distance from whence they came, gave proof conclusive that our efforts to do our enemy great injury were not unavailing, and to us the satisfaction that the enemy to our beloved country bled in a cause as unjust and shameful as is ours right and glorious.


Osterhaus agreed the honor of destroying the right casemate belonged to Webster, adding:

… I consider it my duty to state that I never saw a better officer or better men serving artillery. Cool, deliberate, and intrepid, they sent their deadly shot against the enemy’s stronghold, their commander controlling every round and its effect, the men quietly obeying his orders without the very superflous huzzaing and yelling, which is incompatible with the dignity of the arm of artillery. I heartily congratulate Lieutenant Webster and his men on their great success. The reduction of the lower casemate and the silencing of three or four formidable guns are their exclusive merit.

In addition,Osterhaus credited the 20-pdrs with silencing the Confederate fire which was, in his view, damaging the Federal gunboats.


On the opposite bank, the other section of 20-pdr Parrotts, supported by two 3-inch Ordnance Rifles of the Chicago Mercantile Battery, under Lieutenant Frank Wilson, moved up to a position closer to the fort.

Detail of Map showing artillery and gunboat positions

From there, the gunners enfiladed the fort and other defensive works to good effect. Foster described the effects:

Every shell burst and just at the right point. As a proof more positive of the destruction we had caused, I immediately after the surrender hurried to the ground upon which we had been firing and found 10 mutilated bodies of men who had been killed by exploding shell, and numerous pieces of 20-pounder Parrott shell, some of which I now have in my possession.

I’m reminded here of Colonel E. Porter Alexander’s post-battle examination from Fredericksburg.

However, the Navy was attacking the same fortifications at the same time. Admiral David D. Porter had a slightly different take as to what silenced the Confederate guns:

I ordered up the ironclads, with directions for the Lexington to join in when the former became hotly engaged, and for the frailer vessels to haul up in the smoke and do the best they could. The Rattler, Lieutenant-Commander Smith, and the Glide, Lieutenant-Commander Woodworth, did good execution with their shrapnel, and, when an opportunity occurred, I made them push through by the fort again, also the ram Monarch, Colonel Charles Ellet, and they proceeded rapidly up the river to cut off the enemy’s retreat by the only way he had to get off. By this time all the guns in the fort were completely silenced by the Lousiville… Baron De Kalb … and Cincinnati ….

With that pressure, from the army’s artillery and the navy’s gunboats, along with the infantry which had surged into the works, the Confederates were forced to surrender. Porter noted that Colonel John W. Dunnington, commanding the fort, surrendered to him, while Brigadier General Thomas Churchill surrendered to the army. Discrepancies between the reports of Porter and McClernand caused no small bit of friction between the services.

And in a battle filled with many disputes over facts and contested points of honor, we have to wonder if it was the Army’s Parrotts or the Navy’s Dahlgrens that tore open the northeastern casemate.


Or perhaps a little of both? I think the infantryman and the sailor on the right are working that question out.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 17, Part I, Serial 24, pages 746-749. ORN, Series I, Volume 24, page 108.)

150 Years Ago: The turning of the leaves and changes of command

After the Confederate campaigns into Maryland and Kentucky petered out in the fall of 1862, there were several changes in the lineup of Federal field commanders. I suspect most readers are familiar with the relief of George McClellan, replaced by Ambrose Burnside, which occurred this week 150 years ago. At the end of last month, I wrote about William Rosecrans moving to command the “new” Department of the Cumberland which was really the “old” Army of the Ohio.

But there was another change of command queued up for the fall of 1862, and it also occurred, on paper at least, during the early days of November:

Washington, November 8, 1862.
By direction of the President of the United States Maj. Gen. N. P. Banks is assigned to the command of the Department of the Gulf, including the State of Texas.

By order of the Secretary of War:
Assistant Adjutant-General.

And with General Banks then in charge of the Department of the Gulf, who was on the outs?

More explicit orders came the next day from General Henry Halleck:

… The President of the United States having assigned you to command of the Department of the Gulf, you will immediately proceed with the troops assembling in transports at Fort Monroe to New Orleans and relieve Major-General Butler….

McClellan, Buell, and Butler…. all going on the bench. Burnside, Rosecrans, and Banks now taking the field. And meanwhile some fellow named John McClernand was traveling west with these orders in hand:

Washington City, October 21, 1862.
Ordered, That Major-General McClernand be, and he is, directed to proceed to the States of Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, to organize the troops remaining in those States and to be raised by volunteering or draft, and forward them with all dispatch to Memphis, Cairo, or such other points as may hereafter be designated by the general-in-chief, to the end that, when a sufficient force not required by the operations of General Grant’s command shall be raised, an expedition may be organized under General McClernand’s command against Vicksburg and to clear the Mississippi River and open navigation to New Orleans.
The forces so organized will remain subject to the designation of the general-in-chief, and be employed according to such exigencies as the service in his judgment may require.

Secretary of War.

On the outside, it appeared that even General U.S. Grant was also vulnerable (although through the lens of history we know better).

Were all these changes an indication of failures in the field by these generals? Or was it a change in direction, emanating from the chief strategist in the White House? Or a little of both?

(Citations above from OR, Series I, Volume 15, Serial 21, page 590 and Series I, Volume 17, Serial 25, page 282.)