It was a stormy Saturday night, both outside and inside the lounge on the Federal steamer Tigress, tied up at Millikin's Bend (below), 20 river miles north of Vicksburg, Mississippi - 3 January, 1863. The host was military anarchist, Major General John Alexander McClernand, and he was in a foul mood even before his guests arrived.
In his view, 2 weeks earlier this pair had conspired to steal "his" army and had taken it for a joy ride up the Yazoo River. And now the thief-in-chief , the tempestuous ginger-headed bipolar General William Tecumseh Sherman, had surrendered those men back to the arrogant pompous jackass from Illinois who outranked him - i.e. Major General McClernand. And finally, Vice Admiral David Porter who controlled the gunboats and transports was....well, nobody was ever really certain just what Porter was thinking. A Chicago newspaper dubbed him, ‘The greatest humbug of the war." Porter
had been promoted over 80 superior officers for his new job commanding the "Inland Squadron", in part because he assured his superiors he had no problem working with "The Aurora Beacon", as the press labeled McClernand . But when the inflated McClernand announced that he alone would lead the expedition to Fort Hindman , it was Porter who threw a temper tantrum and petulantly stormed out of the meeting.
The target was a new rebel fort (above), which had been named after the 35 year old politician and now General Thomas Carmichael Hindman, Jr;. He had been wounded at the bloody battle of Shiloh. His earthen namesake stood 25 miles from the Mississippi River, on 25 foot bluffs above the Arkansas River, supposedly protecting the rebel state capital in Little Rock, 50 miles upstream.
But it's 5,000 man garrison, mostly horseless Texas cavalry, were short of discipline, food and clothing. They had been short of ammunition, but in mid December, 1862, rebels had captured the Federal steamer The Blue Wing, pulling two barges of shot and shell down the Mississippi River. This impudent assault on their supply line inspired Sherman and Porter to plan an punitive expedition - to sail a division and a couple of "tin clad" ironclads up the Arkansas and reduce the fort to dust. And then McClernand replaced Sherman as ground commander. Suddenly, like the ancient Athenian attack on Syracuse, a great ego swelled the raid into a full blown invasion, with all 34,000 men at Millikin's Bend moving not south toward Vicksburg, but north and west, off into the wilderness of Arkansas.
That was what sent Porter (above) storming out of the meeting. He knew with the certainty of Moses that at the first easy victory, this wobble head blowhard would march his little army right off the map and out of the war. Sherman knew it too, but since Porter had exploded, Sherman was forced to play the peacemaker.
In a forward cabin, Sherman (above) reminded Porter that his orders required him to support only operations against Vicksburg. Fort Hindeman was in Arkansas, for God's sake. Still they would be on very shaky ground refusing to obey McClernand. So they agreed that Porter would agree to support McClernand's expanded Fort Hindeman operation, but only if Sherman accompanied the move, in a responsible position.
Back in the lounge the conspirators discovered that McClernand (above) the ego maniac had left the room, leaving in his place McClernarnd the politician. Before Sherman and Porter could make their demands, the "Beacon" announced - magnanimously, of course - that he would need Sherman to lead half the expedition - 15,000 men. And, of course, he would listen to any advice offered from "Cump", because, after all, it was his idea. And it was a good idea - as far as it went.
The year had ended in a seemingly senseless waste of money, sweat and blood at Chickasaw Bluffs. The army was demoralized and frustrated. What the troops needed was a quick, easy victory. But about the only thing that everyone could agree upon was that the army did not respect McClernand. As the correspondent for the Illinois Journal put it, "No one thinks McClernand is the man for the place." Ignoring that reality, the next morning McClernand announced that his little 3 division corps was now the mighty Army of the Mississippi.
There was no official approval for a new "army". All supplies still had to be funneled through the quartermaster of the Army of Tennessee, under Grant. No fancy executive order changed any of that. And since Grant was still the ranking officer assigned to capture Vicksburg, McClernand's men were still in his "Army of Tennessee". And Arkansas was not in Grant's area of command. But Grant was still out of telegraph contact with Washington. Until he was reconnected, McClernand was "off the leash" and running free, chasing glory anywhere his attention deficit syndrome attention span might spy it. He did take the time on 8 January to pen a letter, informing Grant that he had hijacked an entire wing of Grant's army. Turnabout is fair play in politics, and it must also be true in the military. Right? But McClernand was confident that by the time this letter reached Grant, the operation would be over.
On the same day McClernand sent his note to Grant - Thursday, 8 January, 1863 - Sherman arrived 140 river miles north of Millikin's Bend, at the pinch point of Beulah Bend, where similar currents had driven the Blue Wing within rebel cannon range, near the town of Napoleon, Arkansas (above), at the mouth of the Arkansas River. Under protection from Porter's ironclads, Sherman's men landed and destroyed the positions used to shell the Federal supply line. And then Sherman's men simply disappeared. It was smartly and professionally handled.
In fact,, screened by the raiding party, the entire Federal armada had sailed past Napoleon, further north to the mouth of the White River (above), below Montgomarys Point. Steaming up the White RIver for 15 miles allowed the Federals to use the 8 mile "cut off" between the White and Arkansas Rivers, reducing sailing time and avoiding warning Fort Hindman of their approach. And at about 5:00pm on Friday, 9 January, McClernand started landing skirmishers on the plantation of the late one time French Bonaparte Colonel, Frederick Notrebe, less than 4 miles from the earthen walls of Fort Hindman.
After emigrating from France in 1809, Colonel Notrebe had built a fortune trading axes, guns and matches to the native Americans for furs. And he turned that into a bigger fortune with a town, called Arkansas Post, a bank and eventually a plantation. Frederick was the man most responsible for introducing cotton to the region, and he built another fortune doing that. But when he died of pneumonia in 1849, his son-in-law took over the property, stealing the widow's share Within a few years most people left the Post for the new state capital of Little Rock, 50 road miles up the road and river to the north west.
Facing his duty inside the diamond shaped earth fort was 38 year old Brigadier General Thomas James Churchill (above). On paper he had almost 5,000 men. Fit and ready for duty he could muster maybe 3,000. The impressive fort had only 2 ten pound and 2 six pound rifled Parrot guns. And the abrupt appearance of a Federal army out numbering his 6 to 1, impelled Churchill to telegraph for help and advice from his boss in Little Rock, 58 year old Major General Theophilus H, Holmes, less than affectionately known as "Granny" Holmes. The General's reply did not inspire confidence. With no troops to send, Holmes told Churchill he should “... hold out till help arrived or until all dead.” In short, the rebel high command offered no help what so ever.
On Saturday, 10 January, 1863 the Federal ironclads began blasting the fort from 400 yards - almost point blank range. Meanwhile the mass of Federal infantry stumbled ashore, and got organized. McClernand did not get his men into position on the Confederate left until 4:30pm. As it was, half the force - Sherman's half - was not in position when McClerand launched his glorious charge.
The Confederates put up a stiff but short fight before white flags began appearing along the rebel line. Just who ordered them displayed remains unclear, but once they did, logic dictated they became general. Porter claimed he was first through the parapets on the river side, but the soldiers got most of the credit. And they paid in blood for the privilege - 134 federal dead, almost another thousand wounded. The rebels lost 709 dead and wounded, and the remaining 4,000 taken prisoner - 25% of all rebel troops in the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy had been wiped off the board in this single move.
While the infantry pushed the fort's walls into the river, Porter probed up the Arkansas, looking for a mythical rebel ironclad, and infantry was dispatched into the surrounding countryside to steal or destroy crops and livestock. These necessary operations were violent and cruel, but the Union soldiers were not nearly as efficient as they would be a year later in Georgia. And none of them met significant rebel resistance.
And then, just as the operation was nearing its successful completion, as his supporters feared and his enemies had predicted, Major General John Alexander McClernand (above) peed in his own water bucket. On Wednesday, 14 January he issued a memo to Admiral Porter and General Sherman, informing them of his intention to march against Little Rock.
Did he believe his proposal would be accepted in Washington? Or did he hope to get started before Washington would find out? The Arkansas state capital was 100 miles away from the Mississippi River, and 240 miles from Vicksburg. Even such a buffoon as McClernand must have known what a deeply, deeply stupid idea this full scale invasion of Arkansas was. But it put him further away from Grant. It kept his command independent. And clearly he could convince himself that keeping his little command was worth weakening the Union war effort. Proof yet again that greed and ego makes you stupid.
Both Sherman and Porter sent a howl up the chain of command, Porter to the Secretary of the Navy and Sherman to Grant. The gist was that McClernand was incompetent to lead any large body of men. Thankfully Grant had finally reached Memphis, putting him back in the "loop". General of the Army Hallick cabled Grant that he could remove McClernand, if necessary. “General Banks is a personal friend of the President, and has strong political supporters in an out of Congress...I think the President will hesitate to act, unless he has a definite request from you ...as a military necessity..." So Grant restrained himself. He ordered McClernand to stay put and explain his plans in more detail. Three days later - Tuesday, 17 January, 1863, he ordered McClernand to move his men and ships troops back to Millikin's bend.
And for the rest of the Vicksburg campaign, Grant(above) would be forced to keep McClernand where he could control him, meaning right under his thumb. Grant would have to move the focus of his campaign to the river, and he would have to begin the new phase from Millikin's Bend. This was not by choice, but by necessity. As the old saying goes, "Some men are born great, but most have greatness thrust upon them." The same could be said of a broken leg.
- 30 -