Our Confederate Ancestors: The Confederate Gun-Boat “Arkansas” by Capt. Isaac Newton Brown

A Series on the Daring Exploits of Our Confederate Ancestors in the War Between the States.

. . . I received a severe contusion on the head, but this gave me no concern after I had failed to find any brains mixed with the handful of clotted blood which I drew from the wound and examined. . . .

The Confederate Gun-Boat "Arkansas."1

By Her Commander, Isaac Newton Brown, Captain, C.S.N.2

 

After the Appomattox capitulation, the observance of which, nobly maintained by General Grant, crowns him as the humane man of the age, I took to the plow, as a better implement of reconstruction than the pen; and if I take up the latter now, it is that justice may be done to the men, and the memory of the men, of the Arkansas.

On the 28th of May, 1862, I received at Vicksburg a telegraphic order from the Navy Department at Richmond to "proceed to Greenwood, Miss., and assume command of the Confederate gun-boat Arkansas, and finish and equip that vessel without regard to expenditure of men or money."

Capt. Isaac Newton Brown, C.S.N., Commander of the Confederate Ram CSS Arkansas.

I knew that such a vessel had been under construction at Memphis, but I had not heard till then of her escape from the general wreck of our Mississippi River defenses. Greenwood is at the head of the Yazoo River, 160 miles by river from Yazoo City.

It being the season of overflow, I found my new command four miles from dry land. Her condition was not encouraging. The vessel was a mere hull, without armor; the engines were apart; guns without carriages were lying about the deck; a portion of the railroad iron intended as armor was at the bottom of the river, and the other and far greater part was to be sought for in the interior of the country.

Taking a day to fish up the sunken iron, I had the Arkansas towed to Yazoo City, where the hills reach the river. Here, though we were within fifty miles of the Union fleets, there was the possibility of equipment.

Within a very short time after reaching Yazoo City we had two hundred men, chiefly from the nearest detachment of the army, at work on the deck's shield and hull, while fourteen blacksmith forges were drawn from the neighboring plantations and placed on the bank to hasten the iron-work.

Extemporized drilling-machines on the steamer Capitol worked day and night fitting the railway iron for the bolts which were to fasten it as armor. This iron was brought from many points to the nearest railroad station and thence twenty-five miles by wagons.

The building of the Confederate ironclad ram, Arkansas.
The building of the Confederate ironclad ram, Arkansas.

The trees were yet growing from which the gun-carriages had to be made--the most difficult work of all, as such vehicles had never been built in Mississippi.

I made a contract with two gentlemen of Jackson to pay each his own price for the full number of ten. The executive officer, Mr. Stevens, gave the matter his particular attention, and in time, along with the general equipment, we obtained five good carriages from each contractor.

This finishing, armoring, arming, and equipment of the Arkansas within five weeks' working -time under the hot summer sun, from which we were unsheltered, and under the depressing thought that there was a deep channel, of but six hours' steaming between us and the Federal fleet, whose guns were within hearing, was perhaps not inferior under all the circumstances to the renowned effort of Oliver Hazard Perry in cutting a fine ship from the forest in ninety days.

CSS Arkansas, 165 ft long, 35 ft wide, ram at bow, 10 guns, 232 men.
CSS Arkansas, 165 ft long, 35 ft wide, ram at bow, 10 guns, 232 men.

We were not a day too soon, for the now rapid fall of the river rendered it necessary for us to assume the offensive without waiting for the apparatus to bend the railway iron to the curve of our quarter and stern, and to the angles of the pilot-house.

Though there was little thought of showing the former, the weakest part, to the enemy, we tacked boilerplate iron over it for appearance' sake, and very imperfectly covered the pilot-house shield with a double thickness of one-inch bar iron.

Our engines' twin screws, one under each quarter, worked up to eight miles an hour in still water, which promised about half that speed when turned against the current of the main river.

We had at first some trust in these, not having discovered the way they soon showed of stopping on the center at wrong times and places; and as they never both stopped of themselves at the same time, the effect was, when one did so, to turn the vessel round, despite the rudder. Once, in the presence of the enemy, we made a circle, while trying to make the automatic stopper keep time with its sister-screw.

The Arkansas now appeared as if a small seagoing vessel had been cut down to the water's edge at both ends, leaving a box for guns amidships. The straight sides of the box, a foot in thickness, had over them one layer of railway iron; the ends closed by timber one foot square, planked across by six-inch strips of oak, were then covered by one course of railway iron laid up and down at an angle of thirty-five degrees.

CSS Arkansas drawing by crew member S. Milliken.
CSS Arkansas drawing by crew member S. Milliken.

These ends deflected overhead all missiles striking at short range, but would have been of little security under a plunging fire. This shield, flat on top, covered with plank and half-inch iron, was pierced for 10 guns -- 3 in each broadside and 2 forward and aft.

The large smoke-stack came through the top of the shield, and the pilot-house was raised about one foot above the shield level. Through the latter led a small tin tube by which to convey orders to the pilot.3

The battery was respectable for that period of the war: 2 8-inch 64-pounders at the bows; 2 rifled 32s (old smooth-bores banded and rifled) astern; and 2 100-pounder Columbiads and a 6-inch naval gun in each broadside,--10 guns in all, which, under officers formerly of the United States service, could be relied on for good work, if we could find the men to load and fire.

We obtained over 100 good men from the naval vessels lately on the Mississippi, and about 60 Missourians from the command of General Jeff Thompson. These had never served at great guns, but on trial they exhibited in their new service the cool courage natural to them on land.

They were worthily commanded, under the orders of our first lieutenant, by Captain Harris. Our officers were Lieutenants Stevens, Grimball, Gift, Barbot, Wharton, and Read, all of the old service, and Chief Engineer City, Acting Masters Milliken and Phillips, of the Volunteer Navy, and Midshipmen Scales,4 R. H. Bacot, Tyler, and H. Cenas.

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.

On the 12th of July we sent our mechanics ashore, took our Missourians on board, and dropped below Satartia Bar, within five hours of the Mississippi. I now gave the executive officer a day to organize and exercise his men.

The idea exists that we made "a run," or "a raid," or in some way an "attack by surprise" upon the Union fleet. I have reason to think that we were expected some hours before we came.5

On Monday A.M., July 14, 1862, we started from Satartia.

Fifteen miles below, at the mouth of Sunflower River, we found that the steam from our imperfect engines and boiler had penetrated our forward magazine and wet our powder so as to render it unfit for use.

We were just opposite the site of an old saw-mill, where the opening in the forest, dense everywhere else, admitted the sun's rays. The day was clear and very hot; we made fast to the bank, head down-steam, landed our wet powder (expecting the enemy to heave in sight every moment), spread tarpaulins over the old saw-dust and our powder over these.

By constant shaking and turning we got it back to the point of ignition before the sun sank below the trees, when, gathering it up, we crowded all that we could of it into the after magazine and resumed our way, guns cast loose and men at quarters, expecting every moment to meet the enemy.

I had some idea of their strength, General Van Dorn, commanding our forces at Vicksburg, having written to me two days before that there were then, I think he said, thirty-seven men-of-war in sight and more up the river.

Near dark we narrowly escaped the destruction of our smoke-stack from an immense overhanging tree. From this disaster we were saved by young Grimball, who sprang from the shield to another standing tree, with rope's-end in hand, and made it fast.

John Grimball, lieutenant on the CSS Arkansas in 1862, later of the Shenandoah. This photo circa 1864.
John Grimball, lieutenant on the CSS Arkansas in 1862, later of the Shenandoah. This photo circa 1864.

We anchored near Haynes's Bluff at midnight and rested till 3 A.M., when we got up anchor for the fleet, hoping to be with it at sunrise, but before it was light we ran ashore and lost an hour in getting again afloat.

At sunrise we gained Old River---a lake caused by a "cut-off" from the Mississippi; the Yazoo enters this at the north curve, and, mingling its deep waters with the wider expanse of the lake, after a union of ten miles, breaks through a narrow strip of land, to lose itself finally in the Mississippi twelve miles above Vicksburg.

Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1863, one yr. after the daring exploits of the CSS Arkansas.
Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1863, one yr. after the daring exploits of the CSS Arkansas.

We were soon to find the fleet midway between these points, but hid from both by the curved and wooded eastern shore. As the sun rose clear and fiery out of the lake on our left, we saw a few miles ahead, under full steam, three Federal vessels in line approaching. These, we afterward discovered, were the iron-clad Carondelet, Captain Henry Walke, the wooden gun-boat Tyler, Lieutenant William Gwin, and a ram, the Queen of the West, Lieutenant James M. Hunter.

Directing our pilot to stand for the iron-clad, the center vessel of the three, I gave the order not to fire our bow guns, lest by doing so we should diminish our speed, relying for the moment upon our broadside guns to keep the ram and the Tyler from gaining our quarter, which they seemed eager to do.

I had determined, despite our want of speed, to try the ram or iron prow upon the foe, who were gallantly approaching; but when less than half a mile separated us, the Carondelet fired a wildly aimed bow gun, back round, and went from the Arkansas at a speed which at once perceptibly increased the space between us.

The Tyler and ram followed this movement of the iron-clad, and the stern guns of the Carondelet and the Tyler were briskly served on us.

Grimball and Gift, with their splendid sixty-fours, were now busy at their work, while Barbot and Wharton watched for a chance shot abeam. Read chafed in silence at his rifles.

The whole crew was under the immediate direction of the first lieutenant, Henry Stevens, a religious soldier, of the Stonewall Jackson type, who felt equally safe at all times and places.

I was on the shield directly over our bow guns, and could see their shot on the way to the Carondelet, and with my glasses I thought that I could see the white wood under her armor. This was satisfactory, for I knew that no vessel afloat could long stand rapid raking by 8-inch shot at such short range.

We soon began to gain on the chase, yet from time to time I had to steer first to starboard, then to port, to keep the inquisitive consorts of the Carondelet from inspecting my boiler-plate armor.

This gave the nearer antagonist an advantage, but before he could improve it he would be again brought ahead.

While our shot seemed always to hit his stern and disappear, his missiles, striking our inclined shield, were deflected over my head and lost in air.

I received a severe contusion on the head, but this gave me no concern after I had failed to find any brains mixed with the handful of clotted blood which I drew from the wound and examined.

A moment later a shot from the Tyler struck at my feet, penetrated the pilot-house, and, cutting off a section of the wheel, mortally hurt Chief Pilot Hodges and disabled our Yazoo River pilot, Shacklett, who was at the moment much needed, our Mississsippi pilots knowing nothing of Old River.

James Brady, a Missourian of nerve and equal to the duty, took the wheel, and I ordered him to "keep the iron-clad ahead."

All was going well, with a near prospect of carrying out my first intention of using the ram, this time at a great advantage, for the stern of the Carondelet was now the objective point, and she seemed to be going slow and unsteady.

Unfortunately the Tyler also slowed, so as to keep near his friend, and this brought us within easy range of his small-arms.

I saw with some concern, as I was the only visible target outside our shield, that they were firing by volleys.

I ought to have told Stevens to hold off Grimball and Gift from the inon-clad till they could finish the Tyler, but neither in nor out of battle does one always do the right thing.

I was near the hatchway at the moment when a minie-ball, striking over my left temple, tumbled me down among the guns.

I awoke as if from sleep, to find kind hands helping me to a place among the killed and wounded.

I soon regained my place on the shield. I found the Carondelet still ahead, but much nearer, and both vessels entering the willows, which grew out on the bar at the inner curve of the lake. To have run into the mud, we drawing 13 feet (the Carondelet only 6), would have ended the matter with the Arkansas.

CSS Arkansas gets the best of the USS Carondelet, July 15, 1862.
CSS Arkansas gets the best of the USS Carondelet, July 15, 1862.

The Carondelet position could only be accounted for by supposing her steering apparatus destroyed.6 The deep water was on our starboard bow, where at some distance I saw the Tyler and the ram, as if awaiting our further entanglement.

I gave the order "hard a-port and depress port guns." So near were we to the chase that this action of the helm brought us alongside, and our port broadside caused her to heel to port and then roll back so deeply as to take the water over her deck forward of the shield.

Our crew, thinking her sinking, gave three hearty cheers.

In swinging off we exposed our stern to the Carondelet's broadside, and Read at the same time got a chance with this rifles. The Carondelet did not return this fire of our broadside and stern guns. Had she fired into our stern when we were so near, it would have destroyed or at least have disabled us.

Though I stood within easy piston-shot, in uniform, uncovered, and evidently the commander of the Arkansas, no more notice was taken of me by the Carondelet than had been taken of my ship when, to escape running into the mud, I had exposed the Arkansas to being raked.

Their ports were closed, no flag was flying, not a man or officer was in view, not a sound or shot was heard. She was apparently "disabled."

We neither saw nor felt the Carondelet again, but turned toward the spiteful Tyler and the wary ram. As these were no longer a match for the Arkansas, they very properly took advantage of a speed double our own to gain the shelter of their fleet, the Tyler making good practice at us while in range with her pivot gun, and getting some attention in the same way from our bows.

Under the ordinary circumstances of war we had just got through with a fair hour's work; but knowing what was ahead of us, we had to regard it in the same light as our Missouri militia did, as "a pretty smart skirmish."

On gaining the Mississippi, we saw no vessels but the two we had driven before us. While following these in the direction of Vicksburg I had the opportunity of inspecting engine and fire rooms, where I found engineers and firemen had been suffering under a temperature of 120 degrees to 130 degrees.

The executive officer, while attending to every other duty during the recent firing, had organized a relief party from the men at the guns, who went down into the fire-room every fifteen minutes, the others coming up or being, in many instances, hauled up, exhausted in that time; in this way, by great care, steam was kept to service gauge, but in the conflict below the fire department broke down.

The connection between furnaces and smoke-stack (technically called the breechings) were in this second conflict shot away, destroying the draught and letting the flames come out into the shield, raising the temperature there to 120 degrees, while it had already risen to 130 degrees in the fire-room.

It has been asked why the Arkansas was not used as a ram. The want of speed and of confidence in the engines answers the question. We went into action in Old River with 120 pounds of steam, and though every effort was made to keep it up, we came out with but 20 pounds, hardly enough to turn the engines.

Aided by the current of the Mississippi, we soon approached the Federal fleet---a forest of masts and smoke-stacks---ships, rams, iron-clads, and other gun-boats on the left side, and ordinary river steamers and bomb-vessels along the right. To any one having a real ram at command the genius of havoc could not have offered a finer view, the panoramic effect of which was intensified by the city of men spread out with innumerable tents opposite on the right bank.

We were not yet in sight of Vicksburg, but in every direction, except astern, our eyes rested on enemies.

I had long know the most of these as valued friends, and if I now had any doubts of the success of the Arkansas they were inspired by this general knowledge rather than from any awe of a particular name.

It seemed at a glance as if a whole navy had come to keep me away from the heroic city,--- six or seven rams, four or five iron-clads, without including one accounted for an hour ago, and the fleet of Farragut generally, behind or inside of this fleet.

The rams seemed to have been held in reserve, to come out between the intervals. Seeing this, as we neared the head of the line I said to our pilot, "Brady, shave that line of men-of-war as close as you can, so that the rams will not have room to gather head-way in coming out to strike us."

In this way we ran so near to the wooden ships that each may have expected the blow which, if I could avoid it, I did not intend to deliver to any, and probably the rams running out at slow speed across the line of our advance received in the smoke and fury of the fight more damage from the guns of their own men-of-war than from those of the Arkansas.

CSS Arkansas takes on most of the Federal fleet in the Mississippi, July 15, 1862.
CSS Arkansas takes on most of the Federal fleet in the Mississippi, July 15, 1862.

As we neared the head of the line our bow guns, trained on the Hartford, began this second fight of the morning (we were yet to have a third one before the day closed), and within a few minutes, as the enemy was brought in range, every gun of the Arkansas was at its work.

It was calm, and the smoke settling over the combatants, our men at times directed their guns at the flashes of those of their opponents.

As we advanced, the line of fire seemed to grow into a circle constantly closing. The shock of missiles striking our sides was literally continuous, and as we were now surrounded, without room for anything but pushing ahead, and shrapnel shot were coming on our shield deck, twelve pounds at a time, I went below to see how our Missouri backwoodsmen were handling their 100-pounder Columbiads.

CSS Arkansas singlehandedly fighting the Federal fleet in the Missisippi, July 15, 1862.
CSS Arkansas singlehandedly fighting the Federal fleet in the Missisippi, July 15, 1862.

At this moment I had the most lively realization of having steamed into a real volcano, the Arkansas from its center firing rapidly to every point of the circumference, without the fear of hitting a friend or missing an enemy.

I got below in time to see Read and Scales with their rifled guns blow off the feeble attack of a ram on our stern. Another ram was across our way ahead.

As I gave the order, "Go through him, Brady!" his steam went into the air, and his crew into the river. A shot from one of our bow guns had gone through his boiler and saved the collision.

We passed by and through the brave fellows struggling in the water under a shower of missiles intended for us.

CSS Arkansas singlehandedly fighting the Yankee fleet in the Mississippi above Vicksburg, July 15, 1862.
CSS Arkansas singlehandedly fighting the Yankee fleet in the Mississippi above Vicksburg, July 15, 1862.

It was a little hot this morning all around; the enemy's shot frequently found weak places in our armor, and their shrapnel and minie-balls also came through our port-holes.

Still, under a temperature of 120 degrees, our people kept to their work, and as each one, acting under the steady eye of Stevens, seemed to think the result depended on himself, I sought a cooler atmosphere on the shield, to find, close ahead and across our way, a large iron-clad displaying the square flag of an admiral.

Though we had but little head-way, his beam was exposed, and I ordered the pilot to strike him amidships. He avoided this by steaming ahead, and, passing under his stern, nearly touching, we gave him our starboard broadside, which probably went through him from rudder to prow. This was our last shot, and we received none in return.

We were now at the end of what had seemed the interminable line, and also past the outer rim of the volcano.

I now called the officers up to take a look at what we had just come through and to get the fresh air; and as the little group of heroes closed around me with their friendly words of congratulations, a heavy rifle-shot passed close over our heads; it was the parting salutation, and if aimed two feet lower would have been to us the most injurious of the battle.

We were not yet in sight of Vicksburg, but if any of the fleet followed us farther on our way I did not perceive it.

The Arkansas continue toward Vicksburg without further trouble. When within sight of the city, we saw another fleet preparing to receive us or recede from us, below: one vessel of the fleet was aground and in flames.

With our firemen exhausted, our smoke-stack cut to pieces, and a section of our plating torn from the side, we were not in condition just then to begin a third battle; moreover humanity required the landing of our wounded---terribly torn by cannon-shot---and of our dead.

We were received at Vicksburg with enthusiastic cheers. Immediate measures were taken to repair damages and recruit our crew, diminished to one-half their original number by casualties, and by the expiration of service of those who had volunteered only for the trip to Vicksburg.

We had left the Yazoo River with a short supply of fuel, and after our first landing opposite the city-hall we soon dropped down to the coal depot, where we began coaling and repairing, under the fire of the lower fleet, to which, under the circumstances, we could make no reply.

Most of the enemy's shot fell short, but Renshaw, in the Westfield, made very fine practice with his 100-pounder rifle gun, occasionally throwing the spray from his shot over our working party, but with the benefit of sprinkling down the coal dust.

Getting in our coal, we moved out of range of such sharp practice, where, under less excitement, we hastened such temporary repairs as would enable us to continue the offensive.

We had intended trying the lower fleet that evening, but before our repairs could be completed and our crew reenforced by suitable selections from the army, the hours of night were approaching, under the shadows of which (however favorable for running batteries) no brave man cares from choice to fight.

About sunset of the same day, a number of our antagonists of the morning, including the flag-ship Hartford and the equally formidable Richmond, were seen under full steam coming down the river.

Before they came within range of the Arkansas, we had the gratification of witnessing the beautiful reply of our upper shore-batteries to their gallant attack.

Confederate 18-pounder at Vicksburg nicknamed "Whistling Dick" for the sound made by its projectiles.
Confederate 18-pounder at Vicksburg nicknamed "Whistling Dick" for the sound made by its projectiles.

Unfit as we were for the offensive, I told Stevens to get under way and run out into the midst of the coming fleet. Before this order could be executed one vessel of the fleet sent a 160-pound wrought-iron bolt through our armor and engine-room, disabling the engine and killing, among others, Pilot Gilmore, and knocking overboard the heroic Brady, who had steered the Arkansas through our morning's work.

William Gilmore, pilot on the CSS Arkansas, killed July 15, 1862.
William Gilmore, pilot on the CSS Arkansas, killed July 15, 1862.

This single shot caused also a very serious leak, destroyed all the contents of the dispensary (fortunately our surgeon, Dr. Washington, was just then away from his medicines), and, passing through the opposite bulwarks, lodged between the wood-work and the armor.

Stevens promptly detailed a party to aid the carpenter in stopping the leak, while our bow and port-broadside guns were rapidly served on the passing vessels. So close were these to our guns that we could hear our shot crashing through their sides, and the groans of their wounded; and, incredible as it now seems, these sounds were heard with a fierce delight by the Arkansas's people.

Why no attempt was made to ram our vessel, I do not know. Our position invited it, and our rapid firing made that position conspicuous; but as by this time it was growing dark, and the Arkansas close inshore, they may have mistaken us for a water-battery.

We had greatly the advantage in pointing our guns, the enemy passing in line ahead, and being distinctly visible as each one for the time shut out our view of the horizon.

And now this busy day, the 15th of July, 1862, was closed with the sad duty of sending ashore a second party of killed and wounded, and the rest which our exhaustion rendered necessary was taken for the night under a dropping fire of the enemy's 13-inch shells.

Actual picture of the CSS Arkansas after fighting Yankees all day on the Mississippi by Vicksburg.
Actual picture of the CSS Arkansas after fighting Yankees all day on the Mississippi by Vicksburg.

During the following week we were exposed day and night to these falling bombs, which did not hit the Arkansas, but frequently exploded under water near by.

One shell, which fell nearly under our bows, threw up a number of fish. As these floated by with the current, one of our men said: "Just look at that, will you? Why the upper fleet is killing fish for the lower fleet's dinner!"

In time we became accustomed to this shelling, but not to the idea that it was without danger; and I know of no more effective way of curing a man of the weakness of thinking that he is without the feeling of fear than for him, on a dark night, to watch two or three of these double-fused descending shells, all near each other, and seeming as thought they would strike him between the eyes.

In three days we were again in condition to move and to menace at our will either fleet, thus compelling the enemy's entire force, in the terrible July heat, to keep up steam day and night.

An officer of the fleet writing at this time, said: "Another council of war was held on board the admiral's [flag-ship] last night, in which it was resolved that the Arkansas must be destroyed at all hazards, a thing, I suspect, much easier said than done; but I wish that she was destroyed, for she gives us no rest by day nor sleep by night."

We constantly threatened the offensive, and our raising steam, which they could perceive by our smokestack, was the signal for either fleet to fire up.

As the temperature at the season was from 90 degrees to 100 degrees in the shade, it was clear that unless the Arkansas could be "destroyed" the siege, if for sanitary reasons alone, must soon be raised.

The result of our first real attempt to resume the offensive was that before we could get within range of the mortar fleet, our engine completely broke down, and it was with difficulty that we regained our usual position in front of the city.

The timely coming of the iron-clad Essex, fresh from the docks, and with a new crew, enabled the Union commander to attack us without risk to his regular or original blockading force.

They could not have taken us at a more unprepared moment.

Some of our officers and all but twenty-eight of our crew were in hospitals ashore, and we lay helplessly at anchor, with a disabled engine.

I made known to the general commanding at Vicksburg the condition of our vessel, and with great earnestness personally urged him to give me, without delay, enough men to fight my guns, telling  him that I expected an attack every hour.

I was promised that the men (needed at the moment) should be sent to me the next day.

The following morning at sunrise the Essex, Commodore William D. Porter, with the Queen of the West, no doubt the best ram of the Ellet flock (though as far as my experience went they were all ordinary sheep and equally harmless), ran down under full steam, regardless of the fire of our upper shore-batteries, and made the expected attack.

We were at anchor and with only enough men to fight two of our guns; but by the zeal of our officers, who mixed in with these men as part of the guns' crews, we were able to train at the right moment and fire all the guns which could be brought to bear upon our cautiously coming assailants.

With a view perhaps to avoid our bow guns, the Essex made the mistake, so far as her success was concerned, of running into us across the current instead of coming head-on with its force. At the moment of collision, when our guns were muzzle to muzzle, the Arkansas's broadside was exchanged for the bow guns of the assailant; a shot from one of the latter struck the Arkansas's plating a foot forward of the forward broadside port, breaking off the ends of the railroad bars and driving them in among our people; the solid shot followed, crossed  diagonally our gun-deck, and split on the breech of our starboard after-broadside gun.

This shot killed eight and wounded six of our men, but left us still half our crew.

What damage the Essex received I did not ascertain, but that vessel drifted clear of the Arkansas without again firing, and after receiving the fire of our stern rifles steamed in the face and under the fire of the Vicksburg batteries to the fleet below.

Had Porter at the moment of the collision thrown fifty men on our upper deck, he might have made fast to us with a hawser, and with little additional loss might have taken the Arkansas and her twenty men and officers.

We were given time by the approaching ram to reload our guns, and this second assailant, coming also across instead of with the current, "butted" us so gently that we hardly felt the shock. The force of this blow was tempered to us no doubt by the effect of our three broadsides guns, which were fired into him when he was less than fifty feet distant.

Apparently blinded by such a blow in the face, he drifted astern and ran ashore under the muzzles of Read's rifles, the bolts from which were probably lost in the immense quantity of hay in bales which seemed stowed over and around him.

Getting clear of the bank, the ram wore round without again attempting to strike the Arkansas, and steamed at great speed up the river, receiving in passing a second broadside from our port battery, and in the excitement of getting away neglecting the caution of his advance, he brought himself within the range of our deadly bow guns, from which Grimball and Gift sent solid shot that seemed to pass through him from stem to stern.

As he ran out of range he was taken in tow and was run up into the Davis fleet.

Thus closed the fourth and final battle of the Arkansas, leaving the daring Confederate vessel, though reduced in crew to twenty men all told for duty, still defiant in the presence of a hostile force perhaps exceeding in real strength that which fought under Nelson at Trafalgar.

The conduct of our men and officers was on this occasion, as on every former trial, worthy of the American name.

Moving quickly in a squad, from gun to gun, reloading, and running out each one separately, and then dividing into parties sufficient to train and fire, they were as determined and cheerful as they cold have been with a full crew on board.

The closeness of this contest with the Essex may be inferred from the circumstance that several of our surviving men had their faces blackened and were painfully hurt by the unburnt powder which came through our port-holes from the assailant's guns.

It was perhaps as much a matter of coal as of cannon, of health as of hostility, that the Union commanders had now to decide upon.

If the Arkansas could not be destroyed, the siege must be raised, for fifty ships, more or less, could not keep perpetual steam to confine one little 10-gun vessel within her conceded control of six miles of the Mississippi River.

It was, indeed, a dilemma, and doubtless the less difficult horn of it was chosen.

Soon after our contribution to the Essex's laurels, and between sunset and sunrise, the lower fleet started for the recuperative atmosphere of salt-water, and about the same time the upper fleet---rams, bombs, and iron-clads---steamed for the North.

Thus was dissipated for the season the greatest naval force hitherto assembled at one time in the New World.

Vicksburg was now without the suspicion of any immediate enemy.

I had taken, with my brave associates, for the last sixty days, my share of labor and watchfulness, and I now left them for four days, only, as I supposed to sustain without me the lassitude of inaction.

Important repairs were yet necessary to the engines, and much of the iron plating had to be refastened to her shattered sides.

This being fairly underway, I called, Thursday P.M., upon General Van Dorn, commanding the forces, and told him that, having obtained telegraphic permission from the Navy Department to turn over the command of the vessel temporarily to the officer next in rank, First Lieutenant Stevens, I would go to Grenada, Miss., and that I would return on the following Tuesday A.M., by which time the Arkansas, I hoped, would be ready once more to resume the offensive.

Almost immediately on reaching Grenada I was taken violently ill, and while in bed, unable, as I supposed, to rise, I received a dispatch from Lieutenant Stevens saying that Van Dorn required him to steam at once down to Baton Rouge to aid in a land attack of our forces upon the Union garrison holding that place.

I replied to his with a positive order to remain at Vicksburg until I  could join him; and without delay caused myself to be taken to the railroad station, where I threw myself on the mail-bags of the first passing train, unable to sit up, and did not change my position until reaching Jackson, 130 miles distant.

On applying there for a special train to take me to Vicksburg, I learned that the Arkansas had been gone from that place four hours.7

Van Dorn had been persistent beyond all reason in his demand, and Stevens, undecided, had referred the question to a senior officer of the Confederate navy, who was at Jackson, Miss., with horses and carriages, furnished by Government in place of a flag-ship, thus commanding in chief for the Confederacy on the Mississippi, sixty miles from its nearest waters.

This officer, whose war record was yet in abeyance, had attained scientific celebrity by dabbling in the waters of the Dead Sea, at a time when I was engaged in the siege of Vera Cruz and in the general operations of the Mexican war.

Ignorant or regardless of the condition of the Arkansas, fresh from Richmond on his mission of bother, not communicating with or informing me on the subject, he ordered Stevens to obey Van Dorn without any regard to my orders to the contrary.

Under the double orders of two commander-in-chief to be at Baton Rouge at a certain date and hour, Stevens could not use that tender care which his engines required, and before they completed their desperate run of three hundred miles against time, the starboard one suddenly broke down, throwing the vessel inextricably ashore.

This misfortune, for which there was no present remedy, happend when the vessel was within sight of Baton Rouge.

Very soon after, the Essex was seen approaching under full steam.

CSS Arkansas, engines ruined, is evacuated and destroyed by acting cmdr Lt. Stevens as the USS Essex approaches.
CSS Arkansas, engines ruined, is evacuated and destroyed by acting cmdr Lt. Stevens as the USS Essex approaches.

Stevens, as humane as he was true and brave, finding that he could not bring a single gun to bear upon the coming foe, sent all his people over the bows ashore, remaining alone to set fire to his vessel; this he did so effectually that he had to jump from the stern into the river and save himself by swimming; and with colors flying the gallant Arkansas, whose decks had never been pressed by the foot of an enemy, was blown into the air.

CSS Arkansas explodes August 6, 1862, but not before achieving immortality.
CSS Arkansas explodes August 6, 1862, but not before achieving immortality.

NOTES:

1 Isaac N. Brown, C.S.N., Commander, CSS Arkansas, “The Confederate Gun-Boat ‘Arkansas’,” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Grant-Lee Edition, Being for The Most Part Contributions by Union and Confederate Officers. Based Upon “The Century War Series.” Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, of the Editorial Staff of “The Century Magazine”, 4 vols. (New York: The Century Co., 1884-1888), Vol. III, Part II, 572-580; Facsimile Reprint Edition from The Century Edition of 1887-1888 by The Archive Society, 1991.

2 Isaac Newton Brown (May 27, 1817 - September 1, 1889) was born in Caldwell County, Kentucky and was a naval officer in both the US and CS Navy. He served as a lieutenant in the US Navy in the Mexican War and later commanded the famous Confederate ironclad ram, the CSS Arkansas, in the War Between the States. As a result of his bold action on the Arkansas, he was promoted to commander and, for the rest of the war - 1863 to 1865 - served as captain of the CSS Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. After the war he farmed in Mississippi then moved to Texas. He died at Corsicana and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery. The Sons of Confederate Veterans awarded him the Confederate Medal of Honor around 1977 when that program started.

3 In this action 68 shot-holes were made in the stack, and 4 minie-balls passed through the tin tube.--I.N.B.

4 Dabney M. Scales was from the Naval Academy at Annapolis; he distinguished himself afterward in the Shenandoah, and is now a prominent lawyer of Memphis.---I.N.B. [This was written circa 1888.]

5 A Federal letter relating to the Arkansas, and evidently press correspondence, was captured by Confederates at Greenville, Miss. It began by saying, "Last night at 10 o'clock [it seems to have been written on the day of the combat] two deserters from Grandpre's sharp-shooters at the Yazoo, who had stolen a skiff, came alongside the admiral's ship, the Hartford, and reported that the Arkansas had cut the raft and would be down at daylight to attack the fleet. Upon this a council of war was immediately [that night] called on board the Hartford," etc., etc. The same letter, bearing every internal evidence of truth and sincerity, went on to say, "At daylight [following the night council] the little tug which [Admiral] Davis had sent up the Yazoo as a lookout came down like a streak of lightning, screaming, 'The Arkansas is coming! The Arkansas is coming!'' and then follows the account of excitement and preparation. Now all this may have been only in the imagination of the correspondent, but there was a detachment of our sharp-shooters under Captain Grandpre at the raft, and we did cut and pass through it as stated. [See also p. 556.]---I.N.B.

6 Such was the fact.---Editors.

7 I was entirely cured by this intelligence, and immediately hurried to Pontchatoula, the nearest approach by rail to Baton Rouge, and thence arrived nearly in time to see the explosion of the Arkansas.---I.N.B.

 

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2 Comments

  1. I have not been particularly interested in reading about the river boats and ships of the Civil War, but this was written in a manner that even I could understand – what was happening and all the attempts to fight the Union vessels, and Arkansas seemed to be divinely placed with some success! It was a great read! For those of us who are related to men who fought on land in Missouri, it was a great source of entertainment and for teaching what part the river vessels played in the Civil War. Thanks for placing this on your site!

    • Cindy,

      Thanks so much for writing!

      I agree, that was a great story by a commander named for Isaac Newton: Capt. Isaac Newton Brown, C.S.N.!

      I have mostly been interested in the right of secession and causes of the war but the ingenuity, bravery and sacrifice of our Confederate ancestors never cease to amaze me. The story of the Confederate submarine Hunley is another great story.

      I was looking for a story this week that related to events on this day back during the war, and this was the day that the CSS Arkansas was deliberately destroyed by her crew to avoid her falling into Yankee hands: August 6 – 158 years ago today!

      So, when researching, I was looking for a good, well-written narrative. I read several then ran across Capt. Brown’s and knew this was it. He told the story to perfection.

      I’m like you. I am so glad to know all this. I know a lot about the war in Charleston, South Carolina where I live, but I didn’t know that much about the war on the Mississippi.

      So proud of those men and women!

      I had another account by some ladies who were present when the crew was pulled off the Arkansas, just before they destroyed her, and it was equally powerful. They were all together on the top of a hill watching the Arkansas burn. The crew was crying and the girls said they were five among 200 men. They told the story well. It was fascinating to read their perspective. They were fired up to say the least!

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment and good luck to you!

      Gene

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