Monday, July 16, 2012

CSS Arkansas Defies the Union Fleet on the Mississippi River

CSS Arkansas as drawn in 1904 by R.G. Skerrett
150 years ago this week, the CSS Arkansas touched off one of the most dramatic naval battles of the War Between the States.

Vicksburg, then commanded by Major General Earl Van Dorn, was under attack from a massive river fleet. Admiral David G. Farragut had brought his large ships up the Mississippi after taking New Orleans and Baton Rouge. A U.S. Army flotilla of gunboats and ironclads had come down the river and the two forces were threatening Vicksburg.

Confederate Battery at Vicksburg, Mississippi
General Van Dorn, who proved himself a much more capable commander on the defensive at Vicksburg than he had on the offense at Pea Ridge in Arkansas, ordered the Arkansas from her construction port in the  Yazoo down to assist in the defense of the city. With a makeshift but courageous crew, Captain Isaac N. Brown brought the makeshift ironclad up to full steam and headed for the Mississippi.

A steam leak dampened gunpowder in the forward magazine and caused a delay, but the Arkansas was approaching Vicksburg by the morning of July 15, 1862 (150 years ago yesterday). She quickly came under attack from the U.S. gunboats Carondelet (ironclad), Tyler (wooden) and Queen of the West (ram). Most of the men making up the gun crews on the Arkansas had never handled cannon the size of those on board the ironclad, but they quickly fired a shot that disabled the Carondelet.

Wartime Image of CSS Arkansas at Vicksburg
The approach of the Confederate ironclad caught the Union fleet napping. Most of the ships did not have their steam up and Captain Brown took his vessel close by them, exchanging fire as he passed. Despite fierce cannon fire, he soon tied up at Vicksburg.

Farragut was not content to have had his entire fleet shown up by a single Confederate ship, so he prepared to exact his revenge that night. The same Chicago reporter witnessed the attack:

...Commodore Farragut made an ineffectual attempt to sink her. His entire fleet passed down the river, each vessel pouring a broadside into the Arkansas as she passed her. The Rebels acknowledge that one 7-inch steel pointed shot went through the Arkansas, but assert that this is the only damage she sustained. A reconnoissance next morning showed that the Arkansas was undergoing repairs, but she did not appear in any danger of sinking.

Old Courthouse at Vicksburg, Mississippi
General Van Dorn described the attack in a telegram dispatched from Vicksburg to the Confederate War Department in Richmond 150 years ago today:

...Enemy opened all their guns and mortars last evening, and shelled the city and batteries until after dark, when eight of their vessels of war passed down under fire of batteries and Arkansas' broadsides. What damage was done to them I have not learned, though they were repeatedly pierced by shot of the heaviest calibre. One heavy shot passed through the side of the Arkansas, killing two men and wounding three. This was all the damage done to us, with the exception of one house burned down in the city. Our troops here have a contempt for the fleet and bombardment, and await cooling for troops to land. The Arkansas is the admiration of all, and her daring and heroic act has inspired all with the greatest enthusiasm....

Total losses suffered aboard the Arkansas during her daring passage and the subsequent Union attack were 12 killed and 18 wounded, including the casualties mentioned by General Van Dorn. The Union fleet lost 23 killed, 59 wounded and 10 missing (lost in the river). The Confederate general's report was accurate, the Southern ironclad had been pierced only once despite the massive number of Union guns that fired on her.

I will continue the story of the CSS Arkansas over coming weeks, so be sure to check back for more. You can learn more about historic Vicksburg by visiting

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