This is the first part of a two-part story on the Confederate ironclad CSS Arkansas, which made Naval history at Vicksburg in 1862. This second part of the story will be told next week.
It was a strange sight, one not witnessed before or since, and three Confederate generals had the best view of it in the city. They were Earl Van Dorn, John C. Breckinridge, and Steven Dill Lee, and they were in the cupola atop the Warren County Court House. The date was July 15, 1862.
The occasion was the anxiously anticipated arrival of the ironclad CSS Arkansas. It steamed out of the Yazoo River at dawn, taking on the Union fleet that was moored just north of Vicksburg.
It was a strange looking craft, riding low in the water and belching fire and smoke. Rumors that such a boat was under construction struck terror into the enemy.
Construction started in the fall of 1861 in Memphis, but when it became evident that the city would be captured, it was towed down the Mississippi and up the Yazoo, first to Greenwood and then to the Confederate Naval Yard at Yazoo City.
In May 1861, Isaac Newton Brown, who had left the United States Navy to cast his lot with the Confederate States, was put in charge of the vessel.
Within five weeks, she was a formidable warship, but her construction was almost unbelievable: Local planters furnished laborers and sent blacksmith forges, and from a collection of scrap metal, used engines and rusted railroad irons, they created a boat. They had used the railroad irons for plating on the sides, and they blended with the reddish soil along the riverbanks—perfect camouflage. She was manned by volunteers from both the Navy and Infantry.
On July 12, the lines were cast off, the engines started turning, and the Arkansas was on her way. It was hard to believe that four weeks before she began heading downriver, the CSS Arkansas had been what Brown described as “a mere hull, without armor; the engines were apart; guns without carriages were lying about the deck…”
Contact was first made with the enemy at 6 a.m. on July 14 when three Union vessels were steaming up the Yazoo on what might be called a scouting expedition. Two turned and fled, although shells they fired did bounce off the Arkansas’ sides. She ran the third ship aground.
The clumsy vessel headed on toward the mouth of the Yazoo River, arriving just as on of the fleeing boats warned the Union fleet that “The Arkansas is coming!”
Thirty-three Union vessels—including sloops of war, ironclads, wooden rams, gunboats, transports, mortar boats and tugs, which looked to Brown like “a forest of masts and smokestacks”—were lined up along the river. Taking the fleet by surprise (construction of the ironclad had been dismissed by Union officials as just a rumor), Brown ran the boat as close to the enemy vessels as possible to make every shot count, and also to keep any vessel from getting up enough steam to get into the channel.
Though it inflicted considerable damage, and the Union suffered over 100 casualties, the Arkansas terrified the enemy as much or more than it hurt them. Most of all, while humiliating the Yankees, the vessel gave the Confederacy a terrific boost in morale.
The Arkansas had been damaged, and her smokestack was riddled. She tied up at the Vicksburg waterfront for repairs and was an easy target.
One day, the Union ram Essex headed for her “like a mad bull,” but Lt. Brown turned her so that the Essex would strike her sharp bow. The Essex veered to miss and plowed into the riverbank. Then the Queen of the West tried her luck against the Arkansas, but the results were no better. Even while disabled and moored, the Arkansas had won again.
The water level began to fall, and the Union fleet retreated downriver, but the Essex would have another chance.
The Arkansas was ordered downriver to assist Gen. Breckenridge’s assault on Baton Rouge despite her crippled condition. The two boats met just north of Baton Rouge on Aug. 6, 1862. The Arkansas developed mechanical trouble, and her engines lasted just long enough to take her about 300 yards when one of them abruptly quit. She steered toward the bank so her crew could escape, and then her commander set her on fire.
Through the smoke and flames, the Confederate flag was still waving, and the Arkansas, swirling around and around, headed toward the Essex. As she drew near, her old adversary, her loaded guns began booming as the casement became an inferno. Then, with a sudden explosion, the Arkansas sank.
Even unmanned and in her final moments, the Arkansas had struck terror into the hearts of the enemy. Though her fighting career lasted only 21 days, her accomplishments will always be remembered.
She went down with flag flying. No enemy ever sit foot aboard the CSS Arkansas.
Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.
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