15 Jul 1862, a naval event occurred on the Mississippi River at
Vicksburg, Mississippi, that rarely gets the notice it deserves in the
heroine, if we may, of this historic event is the Confederate States
Steam Ram Arkansas, or CSS Ram Arkansas, a spanking new ironside 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.
Rumor was that a Confederate ironside 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. 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 gunner's took
advantage of the changes of scenery and took shots at the enemies
boats, sending them racing
fast as possible back to their fleet, the rumored ironside 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 sides 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 sailors into the river.
The Arkansas' funnel suffered further
and it was increasingly difficult for the firemen to build up steam,
causing the ram to lose precious speed. The current naturally aided
her, as it swept toward Vicksburg.
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
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 Arkansas
or even approach it without inviting death.
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
heat. (D. M. Scales later wrote in his diary that after the Federals
left, he and others had explored DeSoto Island and near the Federal
camps 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 this 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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and these men.
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