Arkansas Post in the Civil War
Even if you know a fair amount about the Civil War, you may not have heard of the Battle of Arkansas Post. It doesn’t make the indices of the one-volume histories on my shelf. Though a significant action in the Vicksburg Campaign, it was not part of Grant’s widely-studied maneuvers that led to Vicksburg’s fall.
The military historians don’t have much of a story to tell at Arkansas Post National Memorial, the site of a brief siege in 1863. First of all, most of the relevant battlefield is underwater, either washed away by the changing channels of the Arkansas River or flooded behind a dam project managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Only some rifle trenches from 1863 remain to interpret.
Second, military historians like to focus on battlefield tactics and, to a lesser extent, the operational decisions generals make at the campaign level. Those are not very interesting here since the story consists of overwhelming land forces accepting Fort Hindman’s surrender after Union naval guns pound the fort into submission. A park brochure (McCutchen 2003) tells that story, along with three signs along the park’s entrance road, near the rifle pits.
By seeing it in military terms, the park narrative misjudges events at Arkansas Post. The Civil War Battle of Arkansas Post (Fort Hindman) was a political victory by a political general, Major General John McClernand. As it turns out, the most interesting—and most important—aspect of the battle concerns McClernand and army politics.
McClernand was an ally of Stephen Douglas, presidential candidate of the Illinois Democratic Party, and a member of the national House of Representatives from Illinois from 1843 to 1851. He also filled a vacancy in the House briefly in 1860. Though he supported Douglas for president in 1860, McClernand was also a friend of Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. Appointing him as a brigadier general helped President Lincoln maintain relationships with the Democratic Party at home, at a time when many in southern Illinois had Confederate sympathies.
Though vainglorious and self-serving to an extent that annoyed his military colleagues, McClernand proved to be a more reasonable soldier than many other political generals. His success at Arkansas Post was balanced by weaknesses in performance at Fort Donelson and Champion Hill, though a tenacity on defense at Shiloh balanced his slow movements on the advance. Capturing Fort Hindman was not without military advantages, but interpretation exaggerates them. Remarkably, McClernand’s success at Arkansas Post led to his removal.
As commander of the Army of Tennessee, Major General Ulysses S. Grant thought his subordinate’s operation a “wild-goose chase” that diverted a large force of soldiers, transports, and gunboats away from the planned assault on Vicksburg. Historian Brian McCutchen (2003: 2; see also Coleman 1987/2009: 116) provides a more sober summary that, “Although Union losses were high and the victory did not contribute to the capture of Vicksburg, it did eliminate one more impediment to Union shipping on the Mississippi.” That said, McClernand undertook the operation without telling his commander until it was already underway.
Commanding, Grant did not think that prize worth the effort. As he saw it, McClernand diverted forces away from Vicksburg and from Grant’s plans to link up with General Nathaniel Banks as the Army of the Gulf moved upriver from New Orleans. As a general principle, Grant believed it unwise to divide his forces to achieve any goal other than the main objective, and that goal was Vicksburg. This guided his reply to McClernand when he learned what was afoot:
“I do not approve of your move on the Post of Arkansas while the other [Vicksburg] 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. Unless you are acting under authority not derived from me, keep your command where it can soonest be assembled for the renewal of the attack on Vicksburg.” (quoted in Foote 1963: 137)
Grant also informed the General-in-Chief, Henry Halleck, of the action against Arkansas Post. Halleck backed him up, authorizing Grant to relieve General McClernand from command of the Vicksburg campaign, “giving it to the next in rank or taking it yourself” (quoted in Foote 1963: 137). Since McClernand was friends with Lincoln, Halleck presumably cleared this action with the president. Because McClernand enjoyed public acclaim after his success at Arkansas Post, Grant held back from dismissing him immediately “until the time was right to pounce” (Foote 1963: 138).
These internal Army maneuvers were clearly important for the war, but only in hindsight. With McClernand out of the way, Grant could begin planning the campaign against Vicksburg. After some false starts, he ended up producing a model campaign, swinging south and then east of the objective, ignoring his lines of supply and communication to points east of Vicksburg. From there he moved first to take the capital of Jackson before turning west to besiege and then conquer Vicksburg.
That campaign is a classic of American military history, and is rightly featured in interpretation at Vicksburg National Battlefield Park. It would not have happened if McClernand had remained in command of the Vicksburg operations.
None of this appears at Arkansas Post, however. Interpretation does not seem to mention that Grant had McClernand relieved for his actions at Arkansas Post. Instead, the park explains the battle in traditional military terms. A panel in the Visitor Center (“January 1863”) describes the Union attack as a “response to Confederate raids on shipping on the Mississippi.” However, any threat to Union shipping from Confederate gunboats was minor; Fort Hindman could be bypassed at this point in the war. Still, the fort had had some value earlier in the war, which is why Confederate engineers chose to build a fort here, to protect trade along the Arkansas River (Visitor Center, Panel, “Defending the Delta”).
Interpretation reflects the bureaucratic interests of the National Park Service as well as the biases of military historians. As is true at most historic sites, the NPS has a stake in making the events here seem important—whether they are or not. The park’s resource study (Coleman 1987/2009) and administrative history (Carrera 1975/1987) emphasize the military events on site and what little physical evidence remains of them. Though the resource studies mention the political context briefly, park interpretation does not.
Of course, all authors bring their own biases to any narrative. Like most biographers, Ron Chernow (2017: 241) sees the story from Grant’s perspective, emphasizing his successes in internal Army politics while downplaying McClernand’s military successes. Shelby Foote (1963: 133-136) balances the political and the military, as does Robert Huffstot (1969). Both are more attuned to the political context of any war, and my perspective is closer to theirs than to other texts I’ve consulted.
In fairness, the capture of Arkansas Post did have some military advantages that Grant may not have anticipated. First, the battle strengthened Union morale after the defeat at Chickasaw Bayou (December 26–29, 1862). Indeed, finding a reasonably-sized military success had been a goal of generals McClernand and Sherman when they met with Rear Admiral David Porter to decide their next moves (Huffstot 1969: 4-5).
A second important outcome of the battle was the Union capture of almost five thousand rebels, a considerable share of all Confederate forces in Arkansas. With the Union’s successful repulse of a Confederate advance at the Battle of Prairie Grove on December 7, 1862, Lieutenant General Theophilus Holmes’s Trans-Mississippi Department would remain on the defensive (Huffstot 1969).
The park’s focus on battlefield events in 1863 overlooks those military consequences, whether on the Army’s morale, national public opinion, or the weakening of the Confederate position in Arkansas and the Trans-Mississippi theater. The effect on Army politics, by allowing Grant to take over command of the Vicksburg campaign from McClernand, was even more important, paving the way for Lincoln to “put that key in his pocket.”
Carrera, Gregorio S.A. 1975/1987. Arkansas Post National Memorial Administrative History. US Department of Interior: National Park Service.
Chernow, Ron. 2017. Grant. New York: Penguin.
Coleman, Roger E. 1987/2009. The Arkansas Post Story: Arkansas Post National Memorial. US Department of the Interior: National Park Service, Southwest Cultural Resources Center, Professional Papers No. 12. Eastern National.
Foote, Shelby. 1963. The Civil War: A Narrative. Volume II: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Random House.
Huffstot, Robert S. 1969. “The Battle of Arkansas Post.” Historical Times, Inc.: Civil War Times Illustrated.
McCutchen, Brian K. 2003. “The Battle of Arkansas Post ~ January 9-11, 1863: Overview and troop positions.” US Department of Interior: National Park Service, Arkansas Post National Memorial.