The Surrender of Arkansas Post

    The surrender of the Confederate garrison at Arkansas Post on January 11, 1863, is one of those Civil War events that remains shrouded in a bit of mystery. It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon when General Thomas J. Churchill, commanding the garrison, heard yelling from the lines and rode out to investigate the cause. “The General was much surprised to find the Federal flag floating in every direction along our lines,” remembered his chief surgeon C.H. Smith. “Upon inquiry, it was ascertained that some traitor in the 24th Texas regiment had raised the white flag and passed the word down the line that General Churchill had ordered a surrender, whereupon all the troops except Colonel Deshler’s brigade immediately surrendered.” Churchill was appalled, but by the time he found out, the Federals were already clambering over the ramparts. This jig was up.

Private Thomas F. Bates of Co. D of the 6th Texas Infantry poses with a D-guard Bowie knife, a Walch pocket revolver, and a checkered scarf around his neck. His regiment was among the seven Texas regiments caught inside Arkansas Post. 


Luke Caraway of the 24th Texas Cavalry (Dismounted) recalled that the garrison had moved into Fort Hindman in the fall of 1862 and “remained there drilling, eating poor pumpkins, mean sorghum, and coarse cornbread very well contended as the winter was unusually mild until just before the battle. The army had gone into comfortable winter quarters and our cabins were of logs and covered with split boards and we felt quite secure from all danger as there was no enemy nearer than Vicksburg. We could hear of the war but had not experienced a taste of its realities. On the night of January 9, 1863, our boys retired after having amused themselves with checkers, chess, and cards. Alas our slumbers were abruptly ended. The stillness and quietude of the night was broken by the alarming announcement that “The Yankees are coming up the Arkansas River with a large fleet of gunboats and transports!”

          One of those observing the hustle and bustle within the fort Surgeon C.H. Smith, who was serving as the chief surgeon of General Thomas J. Churchill’s division. He provided the following account of the subsequent Battle of Arkansas Post for the February 26th 1863 edition of the Mobile Advertiser & Register.

 

Union troops under General Stephen Burbridge scramble over the ramparts of Fort Hindman on January 11, 1863 as Confederates wave white flags of surrender. General Thomas Churchill, commanding the post, did not order the surrender but by the time he discovered what had occurred, the Federals already had climbed into the fort. It was reported that 4,791 Confederates, mostly Arkansans and Texans, were caught up in the surrender. 

Mobile, Alabama

February 24, 1863

          Having recently arrived in your city and seeing that little is yet known in regard to the fight at Arkansas Post by citizens here as well as elsewhere in the Confederacy, I would make the subjoined statement of facts relative thereto for the information of all who may feel interested in the matter.

          The “Post of Arkansas” is situated on the north side of the Arkansas River 60 miles from the mouth. The place was fortified by an earthwork called Fort Hindman, which fort mounted three large-sized guns, two casemated and one en barbette, together with some five or six small pieces, two of which were rifled Parrott guns. One mile below the fort was a trench extending from the river to the swamp and one mile or three quarters of a mile further down the river was yet another trench intended for the defense of the place from a land attack unaided by gunboats. The troops garrisoning the place consisted of three brigades, mostly Texans, and commanded respectively by Colonels Robert R. Garland, James Deshler, and John W. Dunnington, the whole forming a division under the command of Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill and numbering on the day of the fight not more than 3,300 effective men.

           On the 9th of January, a scout brought intelligence to General Churchill of a Yankee gunboat having made its appearance in the Arkansas River at the White River cut-off some 30 miles below the post; towards noon of the same day, another scout brought news of other gunboats followed by transports making their wat up the river. Upon the receipt of this intelligence, General Churchill ordered everything in readiness for an attack, and ere night closed in, all the troops were distributed along the first line of entrenchments where they remained all night in a pelting storm of rain.

          The enemy, in the meantime, had landed a force about two miles below us and we anticipated an attack by daylight the following morning, but in this we were disappointed. They made no demonstration until about 9 or 10 o’clock in the day when they commenced shelling us from their advance gunboats that were cautiously and slowly feeling their way up the river.

          Our troops held the position first taken by them until about 4 p.m. when the General, fearing a flank movement on our left, ordered the men to fall back to a line of entrenchments near the yet unfinished fort which was speedily completed, and all the troops properly distributed before night set in. Just as darkness was drawing near, four gunboats approached the fort and commenced their bombardment. Our guns from the fort answered gallantly and after two hours of terrific shelling, the gunboats retired. One of them, the Eastport, was badly punished and our loss consisted of three men killed and some three or four wounded.

 

“On January 11th, it was easy to divine what to expect. We had our ditches dug, breastworks up, and behind them our thousands of courageous and determined soldiers. We were now ready for the attack, guns in hand, big cannons pointing down the river. While all was calm, General Churchill on his charger rode up our line in full Confederate uniform and said, “Boys, we will hold the fort, or all will be shot down in these ditches.” ~ Luke Caraway, 24th Texas Cavalry (Dismounted), Garland’s Brigade

 

          On the morning of the 11th ultimo at 10 o’clock of thereabouts, the enemy renewed the attack with gunboats and land forces combined. They had also erected a battery on the opposite side of the river by means of which they kept up a terrible crossfire that swept the whole area of ground occupied by us. The firing now continued until 4 o’clock p.m. when it seemed to cease and shortly after the cessation there was a yell that came from the lines which attracted the attention of the General commanding whose headquarters had been established some 400 yards from the trenches. In riding forward to ascertain the condition of affairs, the General was much surprised to find the Federal flag floating in every direction along our lines. Upon inquiry, it was ascertained that some traitor in the 24th Texas regiment had raised the white flag and passed the word down the line that General Churchill had ordered a surrender, whereupon all the troops except Colonel Deshler’s brigade immediately surrendered. He refused to surrender his brigade until ordered by General Churchill.

The 17th and 18th Texas Cavalry regiments were combined after Arkansas Post and transferred to General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee where they fought at Chickamauga and Tunnel Hill during the Chattanooga Campaign. 

          When the General rode into the fort and surrendered, he was met by General William T. Sherman who wished to know where General Churchill’s men were. When General Churchill told him they were all in sight, he seemed surprised and could scarcely credit the fact that so small a body of troops had succeeding in baffling for so long a time and killing so many of his men. The Federals acknowledge the loss of 1,500 killed and wounded [1,092 in total] and I think 2,000 would not be a large figure, whilst we lost only about 160 in killed and wounded.

          General Churchill told General Sherman that he had not ordered a surrender, but on the contrary, he had ordered his men to fight until all were dead in the trenches rather than surrender. He had telegraphed for reinforcements and hoped they would reach him that evening, but I believe none were ever met save about 20-0 from St. Charles on the White River who arrived just in time to be taken prisoners. The number of prisoners taken at this post was probably about 3,500, certainly not more than that number. [General McClernand reported that his army captured 4,791 Confederates at Arkansas Post.]

 

Source:

Letter from Surgeon C.H. Smith, chief surgeon of Churchill’s Division, Mobile Advertiser & Register (Alabama), February 26, 1863, pg. 2

“The Battle of Arkansas Post,” Luke J. Caraway, 24th Texas Cavalry (Dismounted), Confederate Veteran, May 1928, pgs. 171-173


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