Storming the Ramparts of Arkansas Post with the 120th Ohio

    The experience of the Federal army in the assault and capture of Fort Hindman (also called Arkansas Post) couldn’t have been more different than what they experienced at Chickasaw Bayou just a few weeks earlier. The bloody and demoralizing defeat at Chickasaw Bayou had gained nothing but a lengthy casualty list and had shaken the army’s confidence in Sherman’s leadership. With General John McClernand now in command, an army of about 25,000 Federals were sailed up the Arkansas River to take the post and garrison of Fort Hindman. Preceded by bombardment by Federal gunboats, McClernand deployed his men to two wings, the right under General William T. Sherman and the left under General George W. Morgan, the two wings wrapping entirely around the fort and penning up the 4,900 Confederates within the fortifications. On January 11, 1863, the Union army moved in to assault the fort and took it after a short but bloody fight, the Federals suffering about 1,000 killed and wounded but capturing the entire garrison.

          Today’s post features an account from one of the Ohioans who took part in the assault, a captain from Holmes County, Ohio named Benjamin Eason. The 120th Ohio Volunteer had been raised in the fall of 1862 and remained in Ohio until November 24th when they sailed south to join General U.S. Grant’s army at Memphis. The 120th Ohio accompanied Sherman on the Vicksburg expedition and was only lightly engaged at Chickasaw Bluffs, but witnessed the slaughter of Decourcey’s and Blair’s brigades in their doomed assault on December 29, 1862. With that experience fresh in their minds, one can imagine their thoughts when they were tasked with charging over another set of Confederate fortifications held by determined men.

Private Jacob Harker, Co. C, 120th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. This young Ohioan would die of disease May 8, 1863 at Smith's Plantation in Louisiana.
Library of Congress

          Captain Eason’s account was published in the February 19, 1863 issue of the Holmes County Farmer.

On board the steamer Jesse K. Bell, Mississippi River
January 21, 1863

The morning of the 9th of January found us at the mouth of White River some 15 or 20 miles above Napoleon on the Mississippi. Saturday morning January 10th the fleet steamed up White River about eight miles to the Arkansas Cutoff, a channel leading from the White River to the Arkansas, passed through the cutoff into the Arkansas and up that river about 30 miles where we landed four or five miles Fort Arkansas Post, a strongly fortified position held by 8,000 Rebels [4,900]. They appeared to be taken by surprise at our coming for the evidences of burning corn on the river banks and other evidences indicated that they did not expect us, if at all, quite so soon. They however showed no disposition to run or back down from a fight. Indeed, it seemed as though they felt quite safe in their position.

The fort is built on the north bank of the Arkansas River having a river front of 250 yards. It has several heavy guns mounted on the side next to the river, three 120-lb guns, besides other small pieces. These heavy guns were intended to be worked against our gunboats. The other three sides of the fort were defended by well-mounted artillery. It required 3,000 of the Rebels to man the works leaving 5,000 for operations outside in rifle pits.

Our forces consisted of five or six gunboats, a train of some 60 pieces of artillery, the heaviest one being a 64-lbr and most of the other 10- and 20-pound guns, and about 25,000 men. Our boats had not long touched the shore when the right wing under General Sherman made a circuit inland far enough not to attract the attention of the Rebels and took its position above the fort with the right resting on the river. Then the left wing under the command of General Morgan took his position below the fort, his right connecting with General Sherman’s left, and his left resting on the river below the fort, thus forming a semi-circle. On the opposite of the fort were posted General Lindsey’s brigade and Company E (my company) of the 120th Ohio in support of one section (two 20-lb guns) of Captain Foster 1st Wisconsin Battery. This posted, our army formed a complete circle around the fort, and thus the armies stood in position on Sunday morning January 11th.

The morning was pleasant, a cool bracing air and an unclouded sky. All forenoon, it seemed as though both armies intended to enjoy a peaceful Sabbath but this opinion was soon dispelled by the thunder tones of over 100 deep throated cannon. About half past 12 o’clock our gunboats opened. They were posted about three-fourths of a mile from the fort within point-blank range at every discharge and they heavy guns made it tell fearfully upon the enemy’s works. The whole circle of our artillery opened at the same time. The Rebels were not idle, for they replied with every available piece they could bring to bear. During this fearful cannonading, the infantry gradually closed in.

Map of the assault on Fort Hindman on January 11, 1863 shows Sheldon's Brigade hugging the shores of the Arkansas River as it moved in on the works. 

I can only give you the movements of our regiment as it actions are about all that I am acquainted with. Its position was on the extreme left of General Morgan’s wing in General Osterhaus’ division and Colonel [Lionel] Sheldon’s brigade on the river bank below the fort with Colonel French in command. Our regiment had to march about three miles right up the river bank from where it disembarked. We marched over two miles of this distance on Saturday evening and at dark our men lay upon the field on their arms. Soon after daylight on Sunday morning, Colonel French gave the order to move forward. The companies quickly fell in and moved forward, taking a position in the rear of two sections of Foster’s 1st Wisconsin Battery which were under the command of his first lieutenant, the captain being on the opposite side of the river in command of another section. Here our colonel deployed the regiment in line of battle, our extreme left resting on the river and our right immediately to the left of the 69th Indiana.

Company H of the 120th Ohio Volunteer Infantry at Plaquemine, Louisiana in October 1863
Ohio History Connection

This position was held about an hour when by a flank movement to the right we were formed in line of battle in support of the Chicago Mercantile Battery. This position placed us in advance of all the other regiments of our brigade. We had not occupied this latter position more than 15-20 minutes when General Osterhaus rode up and ordered us to move to the left so as to clear the battery and then charge on the double quick and with a yell. No sooner was the order given than Colonel French formed the regiment in double column and threw forward two companies of skirmishers (Captain Downing’s and Captain Conyer’s) under command of Lieutenant Eberhart who led his command to within 80 yards of the enemy’s works and opened fire on them.

The regiment now moved to the left, clearing the Chicago battery and immediately in the front of Foster’s which ceased firing until the regiment had charged forward. The regiment charged upon a line with to the left of our skirmishers when we all laid down. They drew the whole fire of that side of the fort. No Rebel, however, dared to show his head above the works. They stuck their guns over, taking care to exhibit no part of their person but their hands and appeared to fire as fast as they possibly could. They did but little damage, however, as they overshot us nearly altogether. Our skirmishers and front companies now kept up a continuous fire. The artillery opened with more fury than ever- firing right over our regiment as it lay there within 80 yards of the fort. The enemy could not stand this long. The whole of their guns next to the river were by this time disabled by out gunboats and most of their artillery had been dismounted by ours. Soon a white flag was seen from the fort and all was over.

This period rendering of the assault on Arkansas Post shows the Federal fleet bombarding the fort while the men of Sheldon's Brigade in the foreground move in towards the ramparts. The 120th Ohio was the left flank of this attack and would be the closest ground troops in the picture. 

The colonel now gave the command and the color bearer, Sergeant Wallace of Captain McKinley’s company, ran forward, crossed the ditch, mounted the works, and planted first of all the colors of the 120th Ohio conspicuously on the fort. The regiment followed its colors closely and were the first to stand upon the enemy’s works. This was more than our men could stand and remain quiet. Cheer after cheer went up for our success and for our field officers. Colonel French in turn proposed three cheers for the gallant boys of the 120th, modestly saying that to them belonged the praise.

This victory will be one of the crushing blows of the rebellion in the southwest. Some of its fruits are over 7,000 prisoners of war, nearly all Texas men, the destruction of one of their important military positions, and the opening of the principal river in the southwest to the capital of one of the Rebel states. Our regiment lost four killed and nine wounded.


Comments

  1. Gen. Thomas Churchill---in command of the Confederate forces at Fort Hindman---became the father-in-law of my g-g-grandmother's younger brother, Ralph Goodrich. In researching Churchill I discovered that he was from the Louisville area and that one of his brothers started Churchill Downs racetrack. Another brother---a doctor and Southern sympathizer---employed biological warfare during the war. I guess Thomas was pissed when his men surrendered Fort Hindman without his consent. He was outside the fort at the time that his man ran up the white flag.

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