Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Saga of CSS Arkansas Continues

On the morning of 15 July, 1862 three Union vessels were sighted steaming toward CSS Arkansas -
  • the Ironclad Gunboat Carondelet, armed with a total of 14 guns and a veteran of several river battles with Confederate forces
  • the wooden Gunboat Tyler, with 7 guns
  • the wooden Ram Queen of the West, with 4 guns
Arkansas, armed with a total of 10 guns (2 8-inch guns in the forward ports, 2 6.4-inch rifled guns in the stern ports and and three different guns in each broadside) was both out-numbered and out-gunned. Her Confederate Army gunners had never fired such large guns before and they had no training as naval gunners. Her gunpowder, soaked by a boiler leak only the previous day, was suspect at best. Protected by makeshift armor and facing three well-equipped ships and with two large Union fleets nearby, Arkansas was facing near-certain destruction just days after entering service...

A running gun battle quickly ensued. The two smaller ships fled downriver, hoping to reach the safety of the large Union fleet above Vicksburg. Carondelet, a veteran of several river battles, closed with Arkansas. In the words of one witness:

    "The Arkansas ranged up along side her" (Carondelet) "and, pouring a broadside into her with her port guns, compelled the Carondelet to strike her colors and run ashore in a sinking and crippled condition." John A. Wilson, Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 33, Page 5

Her Commanding Officer wounded in the battle and her pilot killed, Arkansas now had to face the Union fleet above Vicksburg. In all, there were 33 Union vessels. This well experienced Union force had fought down the Mississippi River, winning battle after battle against Confederate opponents. Yet having won one battle, CSS Arkansas was ready for a second. In the words of a Union sailor,

    "On the morning of the 15th of July, at about 7 o'clock" (a.m.) "we were suddenly aroused...The first words I heard were "the Rebel ram Arkansas is coming down upon us."..."Around us lay the combined power of Farrgut's and Davis's fleets. Frigates, gunboats, iron-plated boats, wooden rams and iron-cased rams were anchored along the banks for a mile and a-half."

    "And slowly steaming along the hollow of the bend in the river, just above us, was a long, low, dull, red, floating object."

    "Slowly, steadily, gallantly, the Rebel Ram kept on her way, as though she belonged to us and was quietly choosing an anchorage."

    Benton, Hartford and gunboats below poured a perfect shower of balls upon her."

    "It did not even hasten her speed, and proudly she turned a point, disappeared from sight and anchored under the batteries at Vicksburg."

    "I doubt whether such a feat was ever before accomplished and whoever commanded her should be known and honored."
    Letter written by a Union crewman aboard USS Richmond, Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 12, Page 167
Safely under the guns at Vicksburg, Arkansas needed to repair the damage done that day before she could fight again. Her Army gun crews were detached to rejoin their unit, and in the words of one of Arkansas' officers,

    "As well as we could, we put the ship to rights and the day wore away. As soon as dark began to set in, it was evident that the enemy meant mischief." LT George W. Gift, CSN

Yet even damaged, Arkansas' mere presence was enough to cause the Union forces problems. One of the mortar boats in the Union fleet ran aground and rather than even risk capture, it was set on fire and allowed to blow up.

The Union fleet was forced to keep steam up constantly, which in addition to quickly burning up the available supplies of coal, also greatly added to the discomfort of the hot Southern summer.

Arkansas' saga is not yet over...

Photograph of CSS Arkansas model courtesy of Old Steam Navy, Dallas, TX. Lower artwork courtesy of the Naval Historical Center.


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