The “Blue Wing”
Following the aborted raid on Arkansas Post Hovey’s troops were absorbed into a division being formed under BG Frederick Steele. The new division was assigned to MG William T. Sherman’s force that had come down from Memphis. Sherman’s task was to try the direct approach to Vicksburg via a northern approach from the Yazoo River. As the force sailed away from Helena the new commander of the District of Arkansas, BG Willis Gorman , was left with only 7000 troops of all kinds to cover his area of responsibility. At Arkansas Post BG Thomas Churchill, was transferred from Tennessee to be assigned commander of Arkansas Post. He reorganized the forces in his new command into three brigades. First Brigade (6th Texas, 24th Texas, Denson’s Louisiana Cavalry, and Hart’s Arkansas Battery),under Colonel Robert Garland; Second Brigade (10th Texas, 15th Texas, 17th Texas, 18th Texas), under Colonel James Seshler; Third Brigade (19th Arkansas),under Colonel John Dunnington; the status of the other forces (24th Arkansas (Detachment), Nutt’s Louisiana Cavalry and two companies of Texas cavalry) was unclear and they may have served as unattached troops. Churchill made note of the decreased activity on his side of the river created by the Union move against Vicksburg and determined to take advantage. The stretch of the Mississippi River from Helena to Milliken’s Bend was especially vulnerable. Raiding from the fort to interdict Sherman’s supply line grew bolder.
Late in December, in the most aggressive move to date, Churchill sent his raiders to the river. Captain L. M. Nutt’s Louisiana Cavalry established a battery of guns on Cypress Point the Confederates waited. The unarmed steamer Blue Wing, heavily laden with ordnance stores and towing two coal barges, soon came into range. The Blue Wing was taken under fire. In an apparent effort to gain speed one coal barge was cut free, but the steamer was soon grounded and surrendered to the joyous Confederates. In a report of the incident a disgusted Acting Rear admiral David D. Porter announced that “there is no doubt of the complicity of the captain.”
The expected seasonal rise in the Arkansas and White Rivers allowed the captors to take their prize to the fort. The valuable munitions on board were used to fill the magazines which were nearly empty. Other cargo provided relief for the bored troops at the fort. The mail and newspapers being sent to Sherman’s troops were circulated through the garrison. The letters amused the soldiers with the exception of one Texas officer who informed his wife that he “had no idea there was so much vulgarity in the letters from wives to their husbands.” Little did they know that the vessel that delivered this diversion would bring great suffering. On December 28th the steamer Sunshine reported that they had been hailed by two men ashore an island in the river. The men proved to be members of the Blue Wing who had been stranded at the boats capture. They reported that “there is still a large force at Arkansas Post.” The incoming commander had no inclination to allow this type of disruption to his supply lines. He immediately started planning an expedition to reduce the fort.Arkansas Post (Campaign Series)