CSS Ram Arkansas and Its Crew
 

Not Forgotten
 

The CSS Arkansas 1862
(Image from the Confederate Veteran, Vol. 6 (1898), pg. 61)

 

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On 15 Jul 1862, a naval event occurred on the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, Mississippi, that in history books rarely gets the notice it deserves.

The heroine, if we may, of this historic event is the Confederate States Steam Ram Arkansas, or CSS Ram Arkansas, a spanking new ironclad with a crew that was a mix of experienced naval men, citizens, and Confederate infantry and artillery soldiers. The crew had been begged for and borrowed from the Navy and Army and surrounding population, and only a handful had been in any watercraft larger than a rowboat.

Vicksburg was besieged in June 1862 by two Federal fleets, that of Flag Officer C. H. Davis' and that of Flag Officer Farragut. The two fleets had joined up at Vicksburg to demand that the city surrender or be attacked. The citizens of the unarmed city refused the threat and Gen. Martin L. Smith passed that message along so adamantly in writing that Gen. Farragut wrote back to his headquarters that the people of Vicksburg did not know how nor did they want to learn how to surrender. On 28 Jun 1862, the two fleets began shelling the city. Onboard cannon and mortars on the mortar barges sent shells bursting in the sky over Vicksburg, like fireworks, day and night, and whistling into the city. Gen. Smith and the citizens stood fast.

Foster Lightcap (left) was one of the citizens killed in the bombardment 23 Jun 1862. He was "A well beloved citizen of Vicksburg." Five days later, 28 Jun, Patience Gamble was hit by a shell fragment as she was walking home.

Rumor was that a Confederate ironclad was being built at a makeshift shipyard located up the Yazoo River. Many scoffed at that, aware that the Confederates had no shipbuilding facilities, industries, or resources in the swampy, wooded area. The Union General David Dixon Porter later wrote that, "they did not believe the Confederates had sufficient resources to build a powerful vessel in such an out-of-the-way place."

But the rumor persisted and, in mid July, three Federal ships -- the Carondelet, Tyler, and Queen of the West -- were sent up the Yazoo to reconnoiter and were caught surprised when they saw the new ram, the Arkansas, heading their way. Click to enlarge painting. A battle ensued during which the Arkansas' crew learned of the fickleness of the boat's two engines when one quit and the other caused the ram to draw a full circle in the Yazoo. The Confederate gunners took advantage of the changes of scenery and took shots at the enemy's boats, sending them racing fast as possible back to their fleet, the rumored ironclad now real and alive and on their tails, despite her speed being hindered by the perforations in her funnel from the enemy shot.

The men in the Federal fleet, hearing the ship cannon booming, watched while their Carondelet and Tyler hurried toward them, the sailors waving and yelling warnings. Then the CSS Ram Arkansas suddenly appeared, as if spit from the mouth of the Yazoo River, sliding into the current of the Mississippi, twelve miles above Vicksburg and only four miles above the ships of Farragut and Davis.

Her appearance on the river surprised the Federal fleet who half-believed that the Arkansas was simply a rumor. Now here she was, chasing two Federal boats she had surprised as they reconnoitered the Yazoo. Her guns were firing as she rounded into the Mississippi, bursting upon the fleet of the unsuspecting and unprepared Federals lining the two banks of the Mississippi. The crews scrambled to their places on their boats and ships, but they had been caught with their boilers down and thus lacked power and maneuverability. They were sitting ducks. Still, they prepared their guns and turned them on the Arkansas, each ship releasing its barrage as the Arkansas passed by them, returning their own furious fire. Flames and thunder leaped from the ten barrels of the Arkansas' guns. The Federal guns, however, inflicted minimal damage thanks to the iron sides of the Arkansas. When the ram's shells found the enemy's engine rooms, the steam boilers exploded, sending many scalded enemy sailors into the river.

The Arkansas' smokestack suffered further and it was increasingly difficult for the firemen to build up steam in the boiler, causing the ram to lose precious speed. The current naturally aided her, as it swept toward Vicksburg. (This smokestack is off the Virginia but is similar that of the Arkansas'. Note the shot and shell damage.)

The battle went on for two hours. The cheering inhabitants of Vicksburg lined the bluffs of the town, and Major Generals John C. Breckenridge, Earl Van Dorn, and Stephen D. Lee climbed the Court House clock tower for a better view. On the river north of Vicksburg, they could see only roiling clouds of smoke. The sounds of the cannons were constant and deafening. All ashore waited to see if the Arkansas would emerge from the thick haze.

Yes! There she was, passing now beneath the protection of Vicksburg's batteries. The few Federal ships that attempted pursuit were met with the fire of the defensive batteries, sending them turning back to the safety of their own fleets.

The Federals were furious with themselves for being caught unprepared. A fuming Farragut wrote to his superiors that he was completely "humiliated." The Arkansas had bested them and, worse, had escaped. They swore to sink her at all costs and save face.

The Arkansas tied up at the Vicksburg landing amid cheers and admiring crowds. Visitors hurried aboard to congratulate the Captain. Swaddling the still-hot guns, the smoke of the battle hung thickly in the air, parting only to reveal the sights of the blood and brains and body parts scattered throughout the gun casement and piled against its sides. The acrid, sickening smell of the carnage followed the visitors as the specter of death walked them off the boat.

When darkness fell that day, several Federal ships came down the river and passed the Arkansas, still tied up at the waterfront, and attacked the ram with cannon as they passed. However, because of the fading light and the clay-color of the siding the boat was hard to see, only its firing, fiery cannon giving away her presence in the twilight.

The next morning, 16 Jul, Capt. Brown turned in a casualty list of 12 soldiers killed, 15 wounded and 3 badly wounded.

For two weeks, the Federal shelling of the city continued, the cannon booming from the ships and the mortars' shells arching in colors from their boats under the river's edge where the Confederate batteries on the bluffs could not reach them. Across the river, on the De Soto, there was the unseen and ever-present danger of the enemy snipers. Sometimes their fire seemed so close that it was impossible to work on the repair Arkansas or even approach it from town without inviting death.

On 28 July, the Arkansas still remained, tied up at Vicksburg, a constant concern to the Federals. Sometimes she would sally out into the river, perhaps to test her moody and undependable engines and to make it clear that she was still there and had no intention of abandoning the city.

Other attempts were made to sink the Arkansas, but they were unsuccessful, though there were Confederate casualties. On 22 July, the Federal boats Essex and Queen of the West, returning to their fleet south of Vicksburg attempted in passing to ram the Arkansas and sink it, but failed in that, but again caused casualties. The river currents carried them on south toward Farragut's fleet, where they remained. On 28 July, Farragut's fleet sailed back south, and Davis took his fleet back north, leaving Vicksburg fairly at peace.

It must have dawned upon some Federal leaders that the Arkansas had not only successfully and heroically passed through the Federal fleet and put herself between them and Vicksburg, but that she had uselessly tied up the  two fleets, Davis' northern fleet and Farragut's southern fleet, there at Vicksburg. And not just tied up the fleets, but also the thousand plus soldiers brought with them on transports to Vicksburg, only to lose hundreds to sicknesses and the unbearable Southern heat. (D. M. Scales later wrote a letter to his father saying that after the Federals left, he and others had explored the Federal camps on DeSoto Island and had seen approximately 600 graves.)

The actions of the CSS Ram Arkansas saved Vicksburg from the Federal fleet and showed the value of a navy in war. And even though the South was lacking in the resources of the industrial North, she had managed, with Southern determination, ingenuity, imagination, and brains, to build from her own backwoods a most formidable fighting machine.

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We are constantly looking for more records on this event and the men of the CSS Ram Arkansas.
If you have information and are willing to share, or if you have questions, please contact us at

soldiersrest@embarqmail.com

 

 
 

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