July 2015– Underneath the levee near present day Southern University in Baton Rouge lies an iron mass discovered several years ago through the efforts of adventure novelist, Clive Cussler. Many believe that the mass is the deeply buried hulk of one of the most storied ships in the annals of American naval history— one whose very existence seems a tale of fanciful lore rather than recorded fact. And one whose short record could serve as a metaphorical symbol of the cause for which she fought. For the C.S.S. Arkansas was thrown together by the efforts of a people, civilian and military, whose strength, tenacity and courage shown brilliantly for a season.
The origins of the C.S.S. Arkansas parallel and illustrate the origins of Confederate States of America, itself, which, in its early days, found herself extremely rich in talent and devotion but very short of materiel. Everything had to be hurriedly created with whatever resources were available.
The Arkansas endeavor too, was, by necessity a hurried work. Its keel had been laid in Memphis along with what was to be a sister gunboat, the C.S.S. Tennessee. By early 1862, however, Federal Admiral David Farragut fought past Confederate positions on the Lower Mississippi River, captured New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Natchez and was sailing almost unimpeded in his mission to place the “Father of Waters” under Federal control. Fearing capture or destruction of both vessels, and reacting to the few available options of the moment, the Confederate government burned the Tennessee and moved the Arkansas into the Yazoo River and the relative safety of Greenwood, Mississippi.
A very able seaman, one Isaac Newton Brown, was assigned the mission of completing the construction and then commanding the Arkansas— a task that proved to be challenging in the extreme. The urgency of the assignment was reflected in the orders Lt. Brown received to finish the gunboat “without regard to expenditure of men or money”.
Born in Kentucky, Brown had been reared in Mississippi. In 1834, at age 17, he entered the U.S. Navy and was commissioned in 1846. He circumnavigated the world twice and served in the Mexican war. A seasoned and accomplished soldier, he was an excellent choice for the assigned task.
Upon arrival in Greenwood, Brown discovered the difficulty of the project. In his own words, the vessel was a “mere hull”. The guns lacked carriages, the engines were “apart” and much of the railroad iron needed for armor plate was on a barge that had sunk in the Yazoo River. It was also the “overflow season”, a condition that added its own dynamic to the challenge.
Undaunted, Brown proceeded. The sunken railroad iron was recovered, and the gunboat was moved down the river to the Confederate naval docks at Yazoo City, Mississippi. Here, Brown hoped to find a good logistical lodging for his work.
The move proved to be advantageous. Within a “short time after reaching Yazoo City”, as Brown recorded, over 200 men from nearby army detachments joined in the work, aided by 14 blacksmith forges on loan from nearby plantations. Additional iron, too, was gathered from the countryside, much of which came by wagon from a rail station 25 miles away.
The mounts for Arkansas’ 10 guns proved to be another challenge, because “such vehicles had never been built in Mississippi,” recalled Brown, who considered this “the most difficult work of all.” Two gentlemen from Jackson, however, accepted a contract and successfully supplied the mounts.
The frenzied work schedule was prompted by the urgent desire to go onto the offensive. Vicksburg, 50 miles away by water, commanded a wide field of fire on the river and presented a serious challenge to Adm. Farragut’s Federal fleet, especially if the fortress could be reinforced by the Arkansas.
Meanwhile, Farragut’s fleet had been reinforced from above Vicksburg by the naval forces of Charles Henry Davis. The goal of the combined force was to eliminate “Rebel” resistance on the Mississippi, divide the Confederacy and weaken its fighting capabilities. From the Yazoo City dock, Lt. Brown and his workmen could hear the sound of cannon fire at Vicksburg, as the work progressed.
At last, on July 12, 1862, after five weeks of constant round-the-clock effort, the Arkansas was ready. Her crew of 100 were drawn from naval and army veterans. After a trial run down the Yazoo toward Satartia, the gunboat landed at a sandbar where her crew received a day of training. On July 14, the ship departed Satartia and moved toward Vicksburg, while the men became familiar with the limitations of the unusual vessel. The following morning, July 15, 1862, at 3:00 a.m., from a position 15 miles from the Mississippi River, the C.S.S. Arkansas cast off and sailed into naval history.
Meanwhile, the Federals had been warned that a “rebel ram” would attack down the Yazoo on July 15. As a defensive measure, three Yankee steamers were sent upriver: the light ironclad, Carondelet, the wooden gunboat, Tyler, and the wooden ram, Queen of the West. At full steam, shortly after sunrise on that date, they encountered the Arkansas.
Battle was engaged immediately. The Carondelet, commanded by Lt. Brown’s former U.S. Navy messmate, Henry Walke, fired on the Arkansas as all three Federal ships turned to flee. In the exchange that followed, Brown, in full dress uniform and standing ahead of his forward guns received a “contusion on the head” from a piece of shrapnel. He later wrote that “this gave me no concern after I had failed to find any brains mixed with the handful of clotted blood I drew from the wound and examined.” On returning to his post, he was knocked unconscious by a Minie ball and awoke to find himself laid “among the killed and wounded.” Again, he resumed his position.
The Carondelet was forced to run aground, while the other two Federals continued to flee toward the protection of their fleet at Vicksburg. Meanwhile, the Arkansas struggled on. A shot from the Carondelet disconnected the flue from the smokestack, so much of the heat from the firebox stayed in the engine room. Temperatures rose to 130 degrees, and replacement relays of 15 minutes duration were implemented. The disconnected smokestack also caused a drastic reduction in speed from the two fractious engines, which required constant attention from the beginning of the Arkansas’ journey. Each engine turned one screw. Should one be stalled, as had happened, the other would cause the ship to go in circles.
Though slowed by battle damage, the current of the Mississippi was taking the Arkansas directly into the Federal maelstrom. Confederate commander at Vicksburg, Gen. Earl Van Dorn, had reported to Brown that at least 37 Federal warships awaited him downstream.
Though they had been warned, the Federal fleet was so taken by surprise at the arrival of the Arkansas, as it came around the bend from the Yazoo and then down the Mississippi, that many had no time to get “steam up”, so they could not maneuver. Still, they could shoot. All fired on the Arkansas as opportunity allowed. Some shots found weak spots in the Southern vessel’s armor causing a spray of shrapnel, maiming, death, and destruction. Lt. Brown likened the experience to being in the center of a volcano, because, though she was being pounded, the Arkansas was blasting the Federals, who were all around.
Brown related that though the inside temperature rose to 120º, “our people kept to their work.” Smoke from the guns was so thick that aim had to be made toward the flashes produced by the enemy cannon fire. After what seemed an eternity, the battered and bloody Southern gunboat passed into the protection of friendly guns on the Vicksburg bluffs. The first battle had ended.
Lt. Brown, to secure and care for his wounded, and to repair as much as he could, landed at the foot of Jackson Street. The people of Vicksburg were jubilant! They had watched from the bluffs as this rag-tag gunboat, their champion, had at last answered the Federal challenge in the manner they so earnestly desired. Those who were able to view the gunboat up close, however, soon realized the price their countrymen had paid. The interior was covered in the evidence of a bloody and deadly naval encounter, where shot and shell burst upon and often penetrated iron plate— all in an instant, so that a man had no time to react. To keep from slipping down in the gore that resulted, sand was sprinkled onto the floor, as the battle continued to rage. Many of the walls were stained red, and body parts, too, were readily evident.
Reacting with the stamina of his character, Lt. Brown wisely proceeded to prepare the Arkansas for further action. Two further attempts were made by the embarrassed Federal fleet to destroy the Arkansas over the next two days before the conflict reached a stalemate.
Isaac Newton Brown, in his single jerry-rigged gunboat from Yazoo City had the whole Federal fleet where he wanted them. The Arkansas became the center of attention. The Federals were required to be on guard with steam up at all times, depleting their coal supply and weakening their morale. As history and Lt. Brown record, “soon after, the lower fleet started for the recuperative atmosphere of salt water [the Gulf of Mexico], and about the same time the upper fleet… steamed for the North… Vicksburg was now without the suspicion of an immediate enemy.”
The battle at Vicksburg had crippled the Arkansas in ways that could not be repaired. Still, she had battles to fight, and she did her utmost until the very end, which came on August 5, 1862 as she was attempting to participate in the Battle of Baton Rouge. As she struggled downriver, her engines broke down repeatedly and finally, there being no better alternative, she was scuttled to prevent her from falling into the hands of the enemy.
The C.S.S. Arkansas, laid in Memphis, moved to Greenwood, and completed in Yazoo City, had removed the harassment and threat of the Federal naval host, and Vicksburg remained under Confederate flags and control. For all who served in building her, supporting her, and fighting upon her decks, we, their honored “sons and daughters” who support limited, Constitutional government thank God for such heroic ancestors. We pray that the “Rebel” spirit will rise again.
Author: Walter H. Trisler