Wednesday is National Maritime Day, which gives us the opportunity to reflect on the role Arkansans have played in American maritime activity.
For a small land-locked Southern state, Arkansas has a surprisingly rich maritime history.
For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, Indians living in what is today Arkansas made impressive use of the state’s rivers. Canoes carved from tree trunks were used by Indians for fishing, transportation of goods, and as Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto discovered, in warfare. A few prehistoric canoes have been found in Arkansas.
The arrival of the first steamboat in the Arkansas Territory in 1820 ushered in a new era of commerce and travel for the newly created territory. Within a few years it was possible to make a trip from Little Rock or Camden to New Orleans, conduct business, and return home in less than a week. Cotton, deer hides, be aroil and countless other products of Arkansas forests and farms could be shipped to markets in a planned and timely manner. Within a few years of its arrival, the steamboat had become an integral part of the economy. It also brought romance and drama to towns across the state.
Archaeologist and historian Leslie Stewart-Abernathy summed up the rapid growth and penetration of steamboats in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “By about 1875, steamboats had reached everywhere in the state, up the Little Red River, into the Fourche La Fave, up the St. Francis River and Bayou Bartholomew, and eventually up the Buffalo River as far as Rush.”
Arkansas earned a note in American maritime history on April 27, 1865, when the steamboat Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River upriver from Memphis, killing about 1,800 people, mostly Union army soldiers on their way home. The Sultana explosion has been called America’s worst maritime disaster, causing more deaths than the sinking of the Titanic. It is believed that the Sultana, probably containing human remains, lies buried in Mississippi County.
Arkansas has lent its name to several warships, including a wooden steamer during the Civil War, a single-turret monitor launched in the 1890s, and the battleship USS Arkansas. During the Civil War, the CSS Arkansas had a short but brilliant history as a ram on the Mississippi River in defense of Vicksburg. The commander of the CSS Arkansas, Lt. Isaac Newton Brown, was awarded the Confederate Medal of Honor for successfully making his way through a dense Union blockade into the port at Vicksburg.
The USS Arkansas, launched in January 1911, participated in both world wars and received four battle stars for service in World War II. The vessel measured 562 feet by 93 feet, had a crew of 58 officers and 1,005 men, and could make a top speed of 21 knots. She was armed with 12 12-inch guns with a 16,000-yard range.
The city of Little Rock was the namesake of a light cruiser that was launched late in World War II and saw little action. The USS Little Rock went through several incarnations during its life. In 1957 the Little Rock was converted to a modern guided missile cruiser, becoming the first U.S. Navy vessel to carry the new Talos missiles, capable of delivering a nuclear warhead about 700 miles. The USS Little Rock was the first ship to come to the aid of the USS Liberty, which had been attacked by Israeli naval and air forces on June 8, 1967. In 1969-70 it was the flagship of the Sixth Fleet. Decommissioned in 1976, the Little Rock was donated to a military park in Buffalo, New York.
In 2011 Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that a new combat ship will be named the USS Little Rock. Mabus, who served as a youthful and bewhiskered lieutenant (junior grade) aboard the Little Rock in 1971-72, is proud of his service on the ship.
The new USS Little Rock will be what the Navy calls a Littoral Combat Ship, with the purpose of defeating “growing littoral [near-shore] threats and [providing] access and dominance in the coastal waters,” according to a Defense Department press release. This would include “missions close to the shore, such as mine warfare, anti-submarine warfare, and surface warfare.” With a length of 378 feet, the craft will displace about 3,000 tons.
That is quite a maritime history, and I did not even mention Pine Bluff-born Admiral John S. Thach, famed for developing a maneuver which helped stave off defeat in the early days of World War II in the Pacific.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in Farmington, Ark. Email him firstname.lastname@example.org
Editorial, Pages 74 on 05/19/2013
Print Headline: Arkansas at sea
Reprinted from the Sunday, May 19th, 2013 issue of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette with the kind permission of the author.