Arkansas Post is located 117 miles southeast of Little Rock on the Arkansas River. The site is known as the first settlement in both Arkansas and the Louisiana Territory prior to the Revolutionary War. French explorer Henri de Tonti ordered ten men to build a cabin and a crude fort in 1686 on land given to him by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. The settlement, originally known as "The Post of Arkansaw" and named after the local Native Americans, was situated on a high bluff. The post was controlled by both the French and the Spanish and grew into a center of trade. Early residents included trappers, hunters, priests, and a few women. During the Revolutionary War the Spanish operated a fort located at Arkansas Post that consisted of a few homes, cabins, and warehouses.
When Arkansas became a territory of the United States, the district seat of government was located at Arkansas Post. Gov. Robert Crittenden called the first legislature together at the post on July 28, 1819. On November 20, 1819, William E. Woodruff printed the first copy of the Arkansas Gazette at the settlement. Gov. James Miller won the first general election and oversaw the special session that made Little Rock the seat of territorial government. In 1817 Arkansas Post established one of only two post offices in the territory. The local economy was based on cattle, corn, and cotton production. Heavy river traffic resulted in Arkansas Post becoming an important center of trade and the county seat of Arkansas County. In 1860 the population of Arkansas County numbered 3,923 Whites, no free Blacks, and 4,921 enslaved people.
Arkansas Post was a strategic point in the defense of Arkansas. The post was located 117 miles downriver from Little Rock, and twenty-five miles above the mouth of the Arkansas River. The battle at Arkansas Post during the Civil War resulted in a Confederate surrender and contributed to a Union hold on Arkansas. On September 28, 1862, Maj. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes, commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department, placed Col. John W. Dunnington in charge of the river defense of Arkansas. The fort was defended by the Nineteenth Arkansas Infantry Regiment, Crawford's Arkansas Infantry Battalion, the Sixth Texas Infantry, the Twenty-fourth Texas Cavalry (dismounted), the Twenty-fifth Texas Cavalry (dismounted), Denson's Company of Louisiana Cavalry, and Hart's Arkansas Battery.
On November 2, 1862, a Texas Confederate cavalry regiment known as the "Lane Rangers" was assigned to Arkansas Post by Gen. T. H. Holmes, commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department. Upon their arrival, Confederate Capt. Gil McKay informed them that, "in his opinion, this is Ft. Donelson No. 2." From December 1862 to January 1863 the Texans performed scouting and picket duty. The garrison was augmented by the Tenth Texas Infantry and the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Texas Cavalry (dismounted) under the command of Col. James Deshler.
On December 10, Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Churchill was transferred from the Department of East Tennessee to the Trans-Mississippi Department and was assigned command of Arkansas Post. On December 20, Union Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman shifted his expeditionary force of three divisions toward Arkansas Post to join a fourth division under the command of Gen. Frederick Steele. On January 4, Union Gen. John A. McClernand directed his army towards Arkansas Post. He was accompanied by Union Adm. David D. Porter's fleet of three ironclads and six gunboats.
Confederate General Churchill anticipated the Union assault and hastily completed fortifications. The completed fort was a 100-yards-squared, full-bastioned fort. Armaments included two 9-inch columbiads, an 8-inch columbiad, four 10-pound Parrott rifles, and four 6-pound smoothbores. The fort also contained three frame buildings, two stocked magazines, and a well. On January 9, 1863, a Federal fleet of seventy or eighty transports escorted by gunboats was reported near the post. A number of piles secured by log chains were driven into the riverbed in an attempt to prevent the Union fleet from running by the fort. On January 9, nearly 32,000 Union soldiers unloaded and surrounded the post.
Deshler's Brigade was positioned on the right of the earthworks and Dunnington's unit was on the left. Deshler's soldiers were armed with double-barreled shotguns and a diverse range of rifles. Among the 1,600 soldiers, only 315 possessed Enfield rifles. Five companies of infantry belonging to Garland's Brigade served as skirmishers. William Hart's six-gun Arkansas Battery was posted on the right near the Arkansas River. At eight o'clock in the morning on January 11, Union gunboats Rattler and Black Hawk opened fire on the Confederate positions. By eleven o'clock in the morning the Union advance against Arkansas Post began. At one o'clock the Union gunboats renewed bombardment signaling the Union advance. William Williston Heartsill of the Lane Rangers reported, "The enemy has just been driven back from his SEVENTH attempt against our works on the left. One gunboat has passed the Fort and will soon be landing troops from the south side of the river in our rear Surrender is now our only fate."
Confederate soldiers recalled that the fire of the 10-inch Dahlgreens of the De Kalb were most costly to their defense. By four o'clock in the afternoon the Union gunboats were ordered past the fort, and within a half hour the Union Army closed on the Confederate entrenchments. Prior to General McClernand's order for an assault, white flags of surrender appeared above the fort. In an effort to overtake Confederate works, Union Gen. Charles E. Hovey ordered two 12-pound Napoleons to fire point blank at the Confederate positions. Only two shots were fired before white flags were displayed above the earthworks.
Confederate General Churchill was outnumbered five to one and surrendered at five o'clock in the afternoon. William Heartsill of the Lane Rangers recalled, "Thirty five hundred Confederate soldiers surrendered to over sixty thousand United States troops, they have in addition to this large army; 13 gunboats, 4 land Batteries of light Artillery and 91 transports." Confederate Gen. Thomas C. Hindman and Gen. John G. Walker attempted to reinforce the post but could not arrive before the surrender occurred. Union casualties were 134 killed, 898 wounded, and 29 missing. Confederate casualty reports were incomplete but listed 60 killed and 80 wounded. More than one-third of the Union casualties were from Stephen G. Burbridge's Brigade. The Federal Army captured 4,791 Confederate soldiers, 7 stands of colors, 17 pieces of artillery, 10 gun carriages, 3,000 stands of small arms, 130 swords, 50 colt pistols, 40 cans of powder, 1,650 rounds of shot, 375 shells, 46,000 rounds of small arms ammunition, and 563 animals.
The loss of Arkansas Post was a shock to the people of Arkansas and facilitated the subsequent Union occupation of Little Rock. On January 12, the Confederate prisoners were transported on the Sam Gatey, Tigress, Nebraska, and the John J. Roe to St. Louis. On March 16, 1863, orders were issued to exchange Arkansas Post prisoners at City Point, Virginia. Union forces remained at Arkansas Post and captured public property and destroyed fortifications until January 17. Following the war the post declined as a trade center and dwindled to a few homes and buildings.
On January 24, 1931, Ballard Deane introduced a bill to the House of Representatives that created an Arkansas Post State Park Commission consisting of seven members for a period of fifty years. An appropriation of $5,000 was provided for the restoration of the first settlement of Arkansas. Fred Quandt owned eighty acres on the site that he donated to the Arkansas Park Commission for historical preservation.