January 11, 1863 (Sunday)
General Ulysses S. Grant, upon hearing about John McClernand’s decision to take two of his corps up the Arkansas River to attack Confederate Fort Hindman was incredibly unhappy. William Tecumseh Sherman had tried to take Vicksburg and failed. Grant viewed McClernand’s move to hit Fort Hindman, well off the Mississippi River, as pointless.
By the time he received McClernand’s message telling him that he was going to make the attack (both of which happened on this date), it was too late. Grant’s reply, which would also arrive too late, didn’t forbid McClernand from launching the assault, but it didn’t really give him permission, either. But then, McClernand wasn’t seeking permission.
In Grant’s mind, the key to the entire Mississippi River was Vicksburg. Anything that detracted away from a campaign against Vicksburg was a blatant waste of time.
The previous day, McClernand’s 30,000 troops landed and deployed above Fort Hindman. They quickly beat the 5,000 Rebels back into their fortifications, took the high ground and fired down into the fort until nightfall.
McClernand spent this beautiful and sunny morning making plans for the final assault. Finally, around 1pm, David Dixon Porter’s gunboats opened upon the Confederate works. According to the plan, Porter was given a half hour to soften up the Rebels, at which time, the infantry would march in.
General Sherman, however, couldn’t wait. After seeing that the Confederate artillery had but little response, he ordered his corps forward, well before the 1:30 mark.
The relative handful of Rebel defenders put up a fierce fight, throwing everything they had at Sherman’s men, who had taken to crawling on their bellies towards the escarpments.
The battle, with Dixon’s gunboats hammering Fort Hindman, raged wildly for nearly two hours. Confederate General Thomas Churchill had admonished his men to hold out until reinforcements from Little Rock arrived, or until the last man was dead.
But the Rebels manning the fort were not that foolhardy. Around 3pm, white bits of cloth signifying surrender began popping up all throughout the Confederate works. When Sherman’s men stormed the works, the Rebels wisely threw down their guns.
Churchill had other plans. He wanted to hold out until nightfall, not for reinforcements, which he knew wouldn’t arrive in time, but to sneak out as many of his men as possible under cover of darkness.
As the nearly 4,800 surrendered Rebels were filed into the waiting Union transports, Federal soldiers began confiscating what contraband they could, before destroying the fort itself. Churchill lost 60 killed, 80 wounded and 4,793 captured – nearly all of his force. McClernand’s men suffered 134 killed, 898 wounded and 29 missing – a grisly testimony to how vicious a fight the Rebels put up.
Though Grant had opposed the idea, it had all worked out pretty well for the Federals. The Confederates in Arkansas, under Theophilus Holmes, were now in some serious peril. Fort Hindmand was the only fort separating Little Rock from the Union-controlled portion of the Mississippi River.1
Your Boys Fought Like Devils
Theophilus Holmes wasn’t just worried about Little Rock. At the end of December, before McClernand began to steam up the Arkansas River, he had sent John Marmaduke and 2,500 Confederate cavaliers north into Missouri. For the past week, they had captured and destroyed several Union bastions and roused the panic of Unionists across the southern portion of the state.
But following the loss at the Battle of Springfield, Marmaduke was ready to go home. He and his entire raiding party had gathered near Marshfield the previous day amid growing rumors that Federals were pursuing him from Springfield. This wasn’t true, but still, it gave him pause.
That night, he set his men in motion towards the town of Hartville, which one of this two larger columns, under Joseph Porter, had captured a couple of days prior. Marmaduke, believing that he was caught between two Union forces coming east from Springfield and west from Hartville, decided to push the latter back into the small town.
During war, especially in the night, directions and chronology can get lost as easily as an advance regiment led by a shoddy guide. Each of the accounts in the Official Records gives a slightly different account of how this date’s actions got rolling.
Somehow or another, Marmaduke’s Raiders, with Porter’s men out in front, ran into Federal infantry under Col. Samuel Merrill, who had left Hartville the previous evening.
Merrill’s ground was horrible, but he and his 700 or so men put up a fight, retreating across hills and streams as they returned fire. Merrill was mostly worried about Marmaduke’s force, rumored to be 6,000-strong. If all were brought against him, he would be enveloped and captured.
Strangely, only Porter’s men made the attack and Merrill’s Federals held strong until the Rebels fled off to the south. Merrill took the opportunity to race his men back to Hartville to regroup and make a stand.
It wasn’t long after he got there that Marmaduke’s Rebel force bent around the town to the south. Commanding any troops that were not Col. Porter’s (who was not yet on the scene), General Joseph Shelby readied his command. We’ll let him take it from here:
Almost immediately after dismounting, I threw out skirmishers, and advanced the whole line upon the town and upon the woods beyond, knowing that within the dark shades of the timber the crouching Federals were waiting for the spring. After gaining the town, and just upon entering the woods, the brigade received a terrible and well-directed fire, which was so sudden that it almost became a surprise. The men stood all its fury well, and it was not until the tornado had passed did they begin to waver; some fell back, it is true; some stood firm, and others crouched behind obstructions that sheltered them; but the left of the First Regiment closed in on them, and the fight raged evenly there; Gordon fell back a little with his regiment, formed their lines anew, and marched again upon the foe.
The battle, like most battles tend to do, raged on, with troops charging and counter charging, meeting “death’s black banner,” before the Rebel “banner of the bars waves again high over the lurid light of the fight.”
Merrill’s Yankees begin to retreat, the artillery ammunition nearly spent. All but 250 Iowans receive the order to pull out. These forgotten soldiers, who had spent much of the battle pinned under the fire of the Rebel sharpshooters, waited out the dusk, until Marmaduke’s men pulled back from the town.
And finally, the battle was at an end. Merrill’s men lost 7 killed, 64 wounded, and 7 missing or captured. Marmaduke sustained 12 killed, 96 wounded, and 3 missing. Among the dead were Col. Emmett MacDonald, the daring cavalry commander who had captured Fort Lawrence not a week before. “Let us drop one tear upon the grave of the departed hero,” wrote his second in command after the battle, “and pass on to renewed victories and to avenge his death.”
Marmaduke had been impressed by how well the Iowan Yankees fought, repeatedly expounding their virtues to all who might listen. “Why, lieutenant,” he exclaimed to a captured Union officer, “your boys fought like devils!”
But the raid was at an end. Marmaduke turned south. They would trudge through a nasty winter storm with little food or provisions, to finally arrive in Batesville, Arkansas, along the White River, where they set up their winter encampment.2