Admiral David Porter’s Report on the Mississippi Squadron at the Battle of Arkansas Post
In early January 1863, Major General John A. McClernand led a Union Army expedition up the Arkansas River to attack Confederate Fort Hindman located at small town at a bend in the river called Arkansas Post. McClernand’s force included two divisions of the 13th Corps under Brigadier General George W. Morgan, and two divisions of the 15th Corps under Major General William T. Sherman. McClernand had about 32,000 troops in all, including infantry, cavalry, and artillery units. The operation against Arkansas Post was part of the Vicksburg Campaign. Confederate forces, especially gunboats, operating out of Fort Hindman were a threat to Union supply lines and bases on the Mississippi River. The reduction of Fort Hindman would eliminate this base of operations, and help open up the Arkansas River for future operations as far as Little Rock.
The expedition to Arkansas Post was a combined army and navy operation. Admiral David Porter accompanied the army with part of his Mississippi Squadron, the Federal brown water navy that operated on the rivers of the western theatre of the war. Porter’s fleet included the ironclads Baron De Kalb, Cincinnati, and Louisville and the more lightly armored tinclads Rattler and Glide. Rounding out the fleet were the timberclads Tyler and Lexington, the ram Monarch, and Porter’s flagship the U.S.S. Blackhawk.
This large Union army and navy force faced approximately 5000 Confederates in and around Fort Hindman, under the command of Brigadier General Thomas J.Churchill. The first elements of the Union force arrived via river transports on January 9th and made contact with the Rebel defenders in the garrison’s outer rifle pits. The rest of Federal force arrived the next day and the army moved into position to surround the fort and prepare for an attack while the navy provided supporting fire. By the time all the ground troops were in position, it was deemed to be too late to attack due to the short winter daylight, and the final assault was postponed until January 11th.
On the 11th, Porter’s gunboats and the army’s land based artillery pummeled the fort and destroyed the Confederate artillery positions, while the infantry advanced closer to the fort itself. Before a final all out assault was ordered, Confederate forces surrendered.
The U.S. Navy had played an important role in the capture of Fort Hindman. Admiral Porter filed this report on the Mississippi Squadron in the Battle of Arkansas Post:
U. S. MISSISSIPPI SQUADRON,
Arkansas Post, January 11, 1863.
SIR: I have the honor to inform you that on the 4th of January General McClernand concluded to move up river upon the Post of Arkansas, and requested my cooperation. I detailed three ironclads, the Louisville, Baron De Kalb, and Cincinnati, with all the light-draft gunboats, all of which had to be towed up the river. On the 9th we ascended the Arkansas River as high as Post of Arkansas, when the army landed within about 4 miles of the fort [Hindman].
The enemy had thrown up heavy earthworks and extensive rifle pits all along the levee. While the army were making a detour to surround the fort I sent up the ironclads to try the range of their guns, and afterwards sent up the Rattler, Lieutenant-Commander Watson Smith, to clear out the rifle pits and the men behind an extensive breastwork in front of our troops. The Black Hawk also opened on them with her rifled guns, and after a few fires the enemy left the works and our troops marched in.
At 2 o’clock General McClernand told me the troops would be in position to assault the main fort, a very formidable work, and I held all the vessels in readiness to attack when the troops were in position. At 5:30 p.m. General McClernand sent me a message, stating that everything was ready, and the Louisville, Baron De Kalb, and Cincinnati advanced to within 400 yards of the fort, which then opened fire from three heavy guns and eight rifled guns and with musketry. The superiority of our fire was soon manifest; the batteries were silenced and we ceased firing, but no assault took place, and it being too dark to do anything all the vessels dropped down and tied up to the bank for the night.
The Baron De Kalb, Lieutenant-Commander Walker; Louisville, Lieutenant-Commander Owen; and the Cincinnati, Lieutenant-Commanding Bache, led the attack, and when hotly engaged I brought up the light-draft vessels, the Lexington and the Black Hawk, to throw in shrapnel and rifle shell. This fire was very destructive, killing nearly all the artillery horses in and about the fort. When the battery was pretty well silenced, I ordered Lieutenant-Commander Smith to pass the fort in the light-draft ironclad Rattler and enfilade it, which he did in a very gallant and handsome manner, but suffered a good deal in his hull in doing so. 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. He got past the fort, but became entangled amongst the snags placed in the river to impede our progress and had to return.
In this evening’s attack the vessels of all the commanders were well handled, particularly the ironclads. It was close quarters all the time, and not a gun was fired from our side until the gunboats were within 400 yards of the fort. The condition of the fort attests the accuracy of fire, and the persons inside give the Baron De Kalb, Lieutenant-Commander Walker, the credit of doing the most execution.
I was informed again this morning by General McClernand that the army was waiting for the navy to attack, when they would assault the works. 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 Louisville, Lieutenant-Commander E. K. Owen; Baron De Kalb, Lieutenant-Commander J. G. Walker; and Cincinnati, Lieutenant Commanding G. M. Bache, and I ordered the Black Hawk up for the purpose of boarding it in front. Being unmanageable, she had to be kept up the narrow stream, and I took in a regiment from the opposite side, to try and take it by assault. As I rounded to do so, and the gunboats commenced firing rapidly, knocking everything to pieces, the enemy held out a white flag, and I ordered the firing to cease. The army then entered and took possession.
Colonel Dunnington, the commander of the fort, sent for me and surrendered to me in person. General Churchill, of the rebel army, surrendered to the military commander. Our army had almost surrounded the fort, and were preparing to assault, and would no doubt have carried it with ease. They enfiladed it with rifle fieldpieces, which did much damage to the houses and light work, leaving their marks in all directions.
I do not know yet what were the operations on the land side; I was too much interested in my own affairs and in placing the vessels as circumstances required.
In all this affair there was the greatest zeal on the part of the officers commanding to carry out my orders, and not a mistake of any kind occurred. No fort ever received a worse battering, and the highest compliment I can pay those engaged is to repeat what the rebels said: “You can’t expect men to stand up against the fire of those gunboats.”
A large number of persons were captured in the fort, I don’t know how many, and at sundown the army were hurrying in the cavalry and artillery.
I herewith enclose the report of the commanding officers and a list of killed and wounded, and will take another occasion to mention to the Department the names of those officers who have distinguished themselves particularly, though it is hard to discriminate, when all did their duty so well.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
DAVID D. PORTER,
Acting Rear-Admiral, Commanding Mississippi Squadron.
Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.
The Campaign for Vicksburg, Volume I by Edwin C. Bearss
“The Conquest of Arkansas” by Thomas L. Snead. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume III, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel.
Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron by Gary D. Joiner.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 24.