The First Attempt
It didn’t take Federal military officials long to sniff out the activity on the Arkansas River. By November 3rd the Union commander at Helena, BG Alvin Hovey, was seeking permission to conduct operations against the developing Confederate strongpoint. The emphasis on operations against Vicksburg, however, precluded any chance of authorization for the requested move. Hovey, anticipating a positive response, had already embarked on his expedition and missed receiving the rejection of his plan. Hovey enlisted the assistance of Captain Henry Walke, commander of the naval forces in the area. Walke was only too ready to take part but warned that low water could pose a problem.
Walke informed his superior that he would take two gunboats to the mouth of the White River and wait. “If the general should not give up the plan” he would proceed up the river as far as the water level would allow. On November 16th Hovey loaded 8,000 men on thirteen transports and headed up stream in company of a gun boat and a tug. Such a movement was unlikely to go unnoticed and that proved to be the case. No sooner had the convoy departed than reports were received by MG Earl Van Dorn in northern Mississippi. Van Dorn passed the information along to LTG John Pemberton. The early assumption was that the force was headed to Vicksburg and that prompted Confederate Secretary of War Randolph to order 10,000 men from Holmes’ command in Arkansas to move to the Vicksburg area. This order and others drawing strength away from Holmes would have disastrous effects on the campaign for Arkansas Post for the Confederates.
On the river Hovey ran into immediate trouble. After being assured that there was “5 ½ feet of water over the bar” and no known obstructions ahead he landed his cavalry force. Colonel Cyrus Bussey had instructions to seize the ferry at Wild Goose Bayou. Also dispatched was the 11th Indiana aboard the steamer Rocket to destroy the ferry at Napoleon, Arkansas. Unopposed the infantry destroyed their objective and gained some relevant intelligence as well. Locals in the area informed Colonel George McGinnis that reinforcements had recently crossed the river from Mississippi to reinforce Arkansas Post. Indeed the fort had been reinforced. Colonel James Deschler’s brigades of Texans (10th Texas Infantry and the 15th, 17th, and 18th Texas Cavalry [dismounted]) had arrived at the fort and was busily assisting in the final preparations of the defenses. Bussey’s cavalry, who had reached their objective only eight miles from the fort, were suddenly recalled.
Hovey’s transports had struck an unexpected sand bar that denied them access. With only thirty inches of water his transports were stuck. Hovey began to assemble a plan for an overland march to Arkansas Post. Before he could begin the orders that had missed him at Helena caught up. He was instructed that “other movements might require our forces at another point” and was forced to call off the expedition. Bussey’s troopers were loaded back onto the transports and the convoy returned to Helena. The first attempt to remove the Confederate fort had led to nothing but failure and frustration.Arkansas Post (Campaign Series)