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Story of the C.S.S. Arkansas

The C.S.S. Arkansas was constructed at Memphis, Tennessee during the winter of 1861-62. In April 1862 the Arkansas was removed to the Yazoo River in Mississippi to prevent capture as Memphis fell to the Federal Navy. Her sister ship, the Tennessee, was burned in her dock because she could not escape.

In May of 1862 Captain Isaac N. Brown of the Confederate States Navy received orders at Vicksburg from the Navy Department in Richmond to proceed to Greenwood, Mississippi and assume command of the Arkansas. His orders were to finish and equip the vessel.

When Captain Brown arrived he found a mere hull, without armor, engines in pieces, and guns without carriages. The railroad iron, intended as armor for the ship was lying at the bottom of the river. A recovery mission was ordered and the armor was pulled up out of the mud. Captain Brown then had the Arkansas towed to Yazoo city where he enlisted the assistance of the Army for construction crews. After five weeks of extraordinary make-do engineering under the hot summer sun, the ship had to leave due to falling river levels. She had been fully outfitted except for the curved armor intended to surround her stern and pilot house. Boiler plate was stuck on these areas "for appearances sake".

Captain Brown determined that the time had come to take the offensive. He crewed his vessel with about 60 Missouri soldiers. These soldiers had never served big guns and most of them had probably never served aboard a ship before. Captain Brown stated "The only trouble they ever gave me was to keep them from running the Arkansas into the Union fleet before we were ready for battle." Captain Brown then set sail for the Union fleet.

After approximately 15 miles it was discovered that steam from the boilers had leaked into the forward magazine and rendered the gunpowder wet and useless. Captain Brown and his men found a clearing along the bank, landed the wet powder and spread it out on tarpaulins in the sun to dry. With constant stirring and shaking the powder was dry enough to ignite by sundown. The Arkansas proceeded on her way.

After sunrise three Federal vessels were sighted steaming towards the Arkansas, the iron-clad Carondolet, the wooden gunboat Tyler, and the ram Queen of the West. The Federal vessels gave chase and a running battle ensued. The Carondolet was quickly disabled with a shot through her steering mechanism. Attention was turned to the Tyler and the ram which quickly turned away and ran for their fleet with the Arkansas pursuing.

Soon the massive Federal fleet of about 20 ships came into view around the river bend above Vicksburg, "a forest of masts and smokestacks..." Captain Brown determined to steam directly into the line staying as close to the enemy vessels as possible in order to prevent his being rammed and to sow confusion. The Arkansas and its crew of Missouri "sailors" pounded their way through the midst of the enemy fleet and emerged on the other side bound for Vicksburg itself, the stunned Federal fleet was unable to pursue due to their "steam down" condition.

The Arkansas arrived at Vicksburg to the sound of the enthusiastic cheering of the citizens and within sight of the lower Federal fleet. That night the upper fleet, that they had bloodied that morning attempted to join up with their compatriots and sink the Arkansas at the same time. Before the Arkansas could sally forth she was struck in the engines by a passing shot causing considerable damage. The Vicksburg batteries forced the attacking vessels away from the Arkansas but could not prevent the two fleets from linking up below Vicksburg. The Arkansas lay at Vicksburg the following week, repairing under the less than effective plunging fire of the Federal fleets.

With repairs completed the Arkansas again was able to menace its enemies forcing them to keep up steam 24 hours a day in the hottest part of the summer. This grew quite tiresome and the Federal commanders resolved to attack and destroy the Arkansas before they all died of heat stroke. Attempts were made to ram the Arkansas by the Essex and the Queen of the West. The Essex drifted away without power after being struck point-blank by an Arkansas broadside and the Queen ended up being towed back to the upper fleet after both a broadside and a punch from the Arkansas's deadly bow gun. This knife fight of a battle took place in such close quarters than men from the Arkansas received powder burns from the Federal guns. The crew consisted of twenty men after the battle.

After this defeat the Federal commanders had no choice but to end the blockade of Vicksburg with the lower fleet heading south towards New Orleans and the upper fleet back towards St. Louis. The Union navy would not reappear in front of Vicksburg for four welcome months, until after the Arkansas was gone. The greatest naval force ever assembled in the western hemisphere had been dispersed by a hastily built gunboat constructed in a swamp, with scrap metal, and manned by a handful of volunteer soldiers. One of the most incredible feats in naval history.

With the seige lifted General Van Dorn at Vicksburg ordered the Arkansas to support a land attack at Baton Rouge. The Arkansas departed without Captain Brown, who was ill at Grenada. Upon hearing this, Captain Brown had himself placed on a train and angrily rushed to Vicksburg where he found that she had left four hours before, his orders having been overruled by Van Dorn with the support of another Navy officer.

The Arkansas under the command of her first officer broke down within sight of the Federal fleet in front of Baton Rouge. Efforts were made by the crew to repair the cranky engines even as the enemy steamed toward them. The first officer, seeing that he could bring no guns to bear on the approaching enemy ordered his men ashore and personally set fire to his vessel. Within minutes she exploded, her colors still flying gallantly.

Make a good movie, don't you think?

Suggested Reading
The Saga of the Confederate Ram Arkansas: Mississippi Valley Campaign, 1862
Good book that really covers the whole campaign of 1862 and the role of the Arkansas in the 'big picture'. The last section of the book has an excellent narrative of her magnificent run.
Southern Thunder: Exploits of the Confederate States Navy
Has a complete section on the Arkansas that covers her story in great detail. Has excellent engravings of many of the ships and people involved. It also has some pretty good maps of the areas where the Arkansas exploits took place.
Battles and Leaders of the Civil War
Contains several references to the Arkansas and the Vicksburg campaign including the story of the Arkansas in Captain Brown's own words.
By Valour and Arms
A novelized version of the Arkansas story by James Street, published in 1944. 
Copyright © 1998, Arkansas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, all rights reserved