Expedition from Helena to Arkansas Post (November 16–21, 1862)

A Union expedition against the Confederate forces at Arkansas Post in November 1862 was defeated due to low river levels and bad weather.

Confederate officials in Arkansas, fearing a possible Union move against the capital at Little Rock (Pulaski County) via the Arkansas River, ordered fortifications built at high points along the river. One of the places selected was Arkansas Post, where construction began on a large earthwork to be named Fort Hindman and defended by the big guns of the CSS Pontchartrain under the command of Colonel John W. Dunnington.

In November, Brigadier General Alvin P. Hovey, commander of the District of Eastern Arkansas in Helena (Phillips County), determined to take a combined army-navy taskforce and attack the Confederate base at Arkansas Post. He contacted Captain Henry Walke, commander of Union gunboats operating near Helena, on November 13, asking if he would supply naval warships for an attack on the post. Though he was concerned that the White River would be too shallow to allow access to his ships, Walke agreed to cooperate.

Hovey loaded 6,000 Union infantrymen and 2,000 cavalry troopers aboard thirteen transport vessels and left Helena on the morning of November 16. Travel was slow along the Mississippi River, which was shallow in the winter months, and it took three days to reach Montgomery Point at the mouth of the White River, where the Federal cavalry, led by Colonel Cyrus Bussey of the Third Iowa Cavalry Regiment, disembarked with a goal of reaching Prairie Landing and seizing a ferry there.

The Union horsemen proceeded through a vast swamp that had been swollen by recent rains. The cavalrymen rode “single file, floundering through swamps, many of the horses miring down until 8 o’clock p.m. [when they] lost the road and got fast in grape vines.” The troopers spent the night in the swamp under a continuous cold rain before proceeding to Wild Goose Bayou, about eight miles from Arkansas Post.

The rest of the expedition continued up the White, though Walke and his flagship USS Carondolet were unable to follow them. As Walke continued down the Mississippi to take on a Confederate battery that had been shelling shipping vessels on the river, Hovey and the transports soon encountered a sandbar that left only thirty inches to float the vessels. Hovey began to disembark his men to proceed toward Arkansas Post on foot when he received word from Major General Samuel Curtis that the Helena troops might be needed for operations against Vicksburg, Mississippi. He re-called Bussey’s cavalry and returned the entire force to the transports, reaching Helena on November 21, 1862. Hovey and his troops would participate in the expedition from Helena to Grenada, Mississippi, when it began six days later.

While Hovey’s expedition failed, a journalist accompanying the Union troops held that “there is no doubt but that the force under General HOVEY would have made a second Fort Donelson of it, as they would have bagged every man of them.” However, this was not the end of Federal operations against Arkansas Post. Confederate troops, under the command of Brigadier General Thomas Churchill after December 10, 1862, captured the steamboat Blue Wing No. 2 on the Mississippi River on December 28, which led Major General John McClernand to attack Arkansas Post with 30,000 troops and a fleet of gunboats, crushing the 5,000-man Confederate garrison in the January 9–11, 1863, Battle of Arkansas Post and eliminating its potential threat to the Union rear amid ongoing efforts to conquer Vicksburg.

For additional information:
Bearss, Edwin C. “The Battle of the Post of Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 18 (Autumn 1959): 237–279.

Christ, Mark K. Civil War Arkansas, 1863: The Battle for a State. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.

Civil War Reminiscences of Cyrus Bussey, 1864, p. 23–6, Iowa State University Special Collections. https://digitalcollections.lib.iastate.edu/islandora/object/isu%3ACivilWar_1483/ (accessed April 19, 2022).

“From Helena.; General Hovey’s Expedition.” New York Times, November 30, 1862. Online at https://www.nytimes.com/1862/11/30/archives/from-helena-gen-hoveys-expedition.html (accessed April 19, 2022).

Official Record of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Vol. 23, p. 488–492. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1910.

The War of the Rebellion: A compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vol. 13, pp. 358–360. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1885.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System

Last Updated: 04/19/2022

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