January 24, 1863: The significance of Fort Hindman

Battle of Fort Hindman

The New York Times Cairo correspondent takes a rather snarky look at McClernand’s recent conquest in Arkansas. Apparently he doesn’t think the Arkansas river had much value to the rebels for transport. Meanwhile, the U.S. Colored Troops are getting organized out west.

CAIRO, Jan. 18, 1863.

Matters in this department, since the termination of SHERMAN’S brief effort after immortality at Vicksburgh, have been in the main quiet. Nothing of particular importance has occurred, beyond the attack and capture of Arkansas Post, whereof your enterprising cotemporaries have doubtless ere this received full and accurate details from correspondents on the ground — although up to-day, nothing whatever has been received from there save a few rumors across the country by way of Helena.
That this rebel position has fallen is undoubtedly true, and it is no less true that its capture, at the present time, amounts to but little either in forwarding the cause or in answering the great demand of the Northwest — the opening of the Mississippi River. It is a fortification situated on a high bluff on the banks of the Arkansas, and was as little formidable to us as it was of use to the enemy. It is only at long intervals that the Arkansas River is navigable; and even when it is, the navigator has not the slightest guaranty that, although to-day the banks are filled to overflowing, to-morrow there will be enough left in them to float a duck. One hour it will be a swollen discolored torrent, deep enough to float a seventy four, and the next, ever-endless succession of sandbars. Going up one is not certain when he can return, or once down, it is a matter entirely of the most variable and uncertain chances when he will be able to go up. A rise or fall of twenty-four feet in half as many hours, is not a matter of unfrequent occurrence — hence it will be seen that the Arkansas River, as a stream for purposes of navigation, is not particularly valuable.

Arkansas Post contained usually a garrison of from five to seven thousand men, who never gave us or anybody else any trouble. In high water they were in the midst of an ocean; in low water they were surrounded by a swamp. In the former case they could not move for want of boats; and in the latter, the nature of the country made movements a matter of peculiar difficulty. Hence I think that, although the glory of our arms may have been augmented by the capture of this point, our material interests have not been proportionably advanced. So long as the Post was in the rebel possession, it kept some five or six thousand of the enemy out of mischief; they were neither hanging Union men, or shooting innocent passengers on steamboats, as in the case of the Gladiator. They simply staid at the Post, and did the country no worse service than to enjoy themselves in the true Arkansas style — vis.: playing poker, drinking whisky and whittling each other up with bowie-knives.
It was, I think, on the whole, a somewhat unkind and uncalled-for move on the part of Gen. MCCLERNAND to invade this State. She has never done the Union cause any particular damage since the breaking out of the war. Those few of her gallant sons that have enlisted into the rebel service, have invariably run away at or just before the first fire in every battle, as the records of Pea Ridge, Wilson’s Creek, and other historic fields will show. Even that oleaginous poet, PIKE, became disgusted at the universel poltroonery displayed by his fellow Arkansians, and, with a view of getting into more creditable company, put himself at the head of a party of Indians, and went forth to tomahawk and scalp the lovers of the Union. The best way for the Government to deal with Arkansas, is to export into her borders a few thousand barrels of whisky, a hundred thousand or so eighteen inch bowie knives, and then pay no further attention to her. Her sons, engaged in lynching, hunting runaway ” niggers,” getting or rather keeping drunk and stabbing each other in the back, will care as little whether there is one Confederacy or two, as they do relative to the composition and number of Saturn’s rings or Jupiter’s satellites. They would occasionally, perhaps, come out, and from behind a tree take a safe shot at some unarmed transport, but this would only be when the want of whisky or slung shots, or something else, prevented their getting up private “rows” at home.

HINDMAN, their only General of note, was put under arrest for being a thief; their Governor is universally despised through the Confederacy as an imbecile; their present commander, HOLMES, does nothing more serious than to make extravagant war and execute terrible retaliation — on paper. In view of all these things, the conquest of Arkansas is scarcely-worth the trouble it would take to accomplish it. It was probably an understanding of this fact that induced Gen. GRANT to order Gen. MCCLERNAND to return to the mouth of the White River, and not proceed against Little Rock, as he proposed doing after the surrender of Arkansas Post. He has undoubtedly concluded that our forces can be better occupied operating against Vicksburgh than in wasting their time by subduing the semi-civilized residents of Arkansas.

The movement of Gen. GRANT has not yet assumed either magnitude or direction. His troops are rapidly arriving at Memphis, but go no further. All the transports capable of carrying troops, have been ordered to Memphis; but for the present the Commander of the Department seems safisfied with simply holding them there without putting them to further use. Undoubtedly in good time the troops will be embarked, and the expedition inaugurated.

I foresee the most serious difficulties for a fleet passing down the river. On our last expedition to Vicksburgh, we numbered about one hundred transports and gunboats. The coming enterprise will probably require twice or thrice that number. On our return, we could scarcely get sufficient fuel to enable us to get up to White River; and when it did happen that there was a surplus of rails or wood-piles our gallant fellows invariably set fire to them as they did to everything else combustible. The result is, that all there is left between Memphis and Vicksburgh, is chimneys — there are neither houses, wood-piles, or rail fences. Where are we to get fuel in such a case for the use of the immense fleet of steamers necessary to transport a sufficient force for the reduction of Vicksburgh. This is a difficulty of the most serious character, and will require some little time for its solution. This, together with some other circumstances, will delay for some time the departure of the Vicksburgh expedition number three, and will give rise to a good deal of fault-finding and criticism among the strategists of the Press and the Napoleons of private life.

A new feature has lately been added to the complexion of affairs here in the West. By direction of Gen. CURTIS we are to have an organization of colored patriots for the purposes of offence and defence. Col. SHAW, of the Fourteenth Iowa Infantry, passed through here yesterday, en route for Helena, armed with the powers necessary to carry out this laudable purpose. He proposes to enrol them in regiments, brigade them, and for his services, will probably be assigned to the command of the whole Corps d’Afrique – a position which the Colonel is admirably adapted to fill, with infinite credit both to himself and his future command. In a philanthropic vein, there does not exist on earth a more degraded set than the contrabands at Helena. By clothing them as soldiers they will escape freezing; by drilling them they will have something to do, and thereby obtain some exercise which they at present lack, and by feeding them as soldiers they will escape starvation, by which for some time they have been threatened. In these respects the mission of Col. SHAW is a benevolent one; when he leads his dusky levies into action, it will be time to decide as to its military character. GALWAY.

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