Confluence of historical tides


When we think about the battles of the American Revolutionary War, most of us probably imagine conflicts somewhere on the eastern seaboard. Places like Lexington and Concord, Saratoga, Yorktown and Bunker Hill come to mind. While less prominent in the annals of history there were a number of skirmishes that took place far more inland than those listed above. In fact, one occurred right here in Arkansas.

On this day, April 17, exactly 230 years ago (1783) a small band of 82 British partisans, led by British Captain James Colbert, launched a surprise raid on Fort Carlos (modern-day Gillett, in Arkansas County), located on the banks of the Arkansas River. The “Colbert Raid” was the only Revolutionary War action to take place in Arkansas.

Colbert’s raid began around 2 a.m. The attack on the Spanish-controlled fort was staged in response to Spain’s decision to ally with the continental revolutionaries. Spain? Yes, Spain. This was 1783, which was 17 years before Spain would cede Louisiana to the French in a secret treaty — and 20 years before the French would sell Louisiana to the United States.

Geography lesson aside, the 40 Spanish soldiers stationed at Fort Carlos enlisted the help of their Quapaw Indian allies to repulse the British action. After a six-hour battle, Spanish Commander Jacobo Du Breuil ordered a sortie, which forced the retreat of the British.

It bears noting that the battle took place almost five months after the November 1782 signing of the initial peace treaty with Great Britain. Just two days before the battle, the Continental Congress officially ratified the preliminary peace treaty with Britain.

Absent the niceties of today’s communication infrastructure, news traveled much more slowly then. In fact, word of the peace treaty did not reach either the British or American troops located in the Mississippi Valley until well after the raid.

While the indigenous people of the Delta had long understood the value of the Fort Carlos location — near the mouth of the Arkansas River — the first European to recognize its worth was a French trader and lieutenant of La Salle, Henri de Tonty. In 1686, he established the Poste de Arkansea near the Quapaw Indian village of Osotouy.

Throughout modern history, the swampy peninsula has played an important part in several struggles to control the Mississippi River Valley.

As above, Arkansas Post became part of the United States following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. By 1819, the post was a thriving river port and the largest city in the region. It also served as the first capital of the Arkansas Territory.

While the pre-Louisiana Purchase history of the area is largely obscured to all but the more historically minded, Arkansas Post’s role in the Civil War is much better known.

During the Civil War, Confederate troops sought to maintain tactical control of the area. In 1862, they constructed a massive earthen fortress known as Fort Hindman. In January 1863, federal troops destroyed the fort, ensuring their control of the Arkansas River.

Today the area is protected as a National Historic Landmark. The U.S. National Parks Service and the Arkansas State Parks Department both provide engaging interpretation of the related sites. Given its proximity to us, it’s well worth an afternoon trip.

Owing to shifts in Old Man River, the location of the outpost has changed over time. This in itself provides a metaphor for our understanding of history. While the furor of inflamed passions may make things seem exigent, the Earth is yet more patient. How often do we wage “wars” over things that in retrospect seem trivial or somehow less important?

Time, like the river, carries us on a course we often cannot predict. Perspective allows us to retain that which matters and set aside all else.