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Flame & Smoke: The Ironclad C.S.S. “ Arkansas ”

By Jay Brent Tipton


In 1862, the situation for the Confederate States of America is at a crossroads. Confederate political and military leaders are scrambling to find an answer, something to give the Confederacy hope, and something to strike fear into the hearts of the Union . They are building a nation, and Army and a Navy from scratch. They hoped to break the U.S. Navy blockade on the Mississippi Rive and on the coasts, by utilizing two ironclads being built as Rams.

The plans were to build and name them the “Arkansas” and the “ Tennessee ”.

The two ships were constructed at Memphis , Tennessee . Before these two ships could be completely armed and outfitted to enter into action, Memphis is attacked, falls to Union forces and the “ Tennessee ” is burned.

The “ Arkansas ” is saved and she is carried by her commander Captain Charles H. Blair, under tow to Yazoo City , Mississippi on the Yazoo River .

Shortly after arriving on the Yazoo River , Lieutenant Isaac N. Brown assumes command.

Lt. Brown, oversees the outfitting of the ‘ Arkansas ”, and goes to great lengths to find the cannon and equipment needed to make the “ Arkansas ” a combat ship. She is indifferently armored, but is formidable in her armament.  The “ Arkansas ” boasts of two 8-inch Columbiads, two 9-inch Dahlgrens, four 6-inch Rifles and two 32-Pounder Smoothbores.

She drew only 14 ft of water and had maximum speed of 6 knots.

Her officers at the start of her combat run were:

Lt. Isaac N. Brown (Commanding), Lt HK Stevens
      Lt.  J. Grimball, Lt. AD Wharton, Lt. CW Read, Lt. A Barbot, Lt. George W. Gift (Ship’s officers).

Surgeon H. Washington, Assistant Surgeon, C.M. Morfitt
   Assistant Paymaster Richard Taylor.
   Engineers: City, Covert, Jackson, Brown, Doland, Dupuy, and Gettis.
   Pilots were: Shacklette, Gilmer, Brady, and Hodges.
   Gunners Mate: Travers
   Master’s Mate: Wilson

The Arkansas had a crew of approximately 200 men, mainly soldiers and river men.

Lt. Brown received orders to proceed to Vicksburg , and on July 15, 1862 , the “ Arkansas ” built up steam and proceeded to the mouth of the Yazoo River . The “ Arkansas ” met the Union ships “Carondelet”, “Tyler” and Ram “Queen of the West”.  A running fight ensued. The “Carondelet” and the “Tyler” both turned to bring maximum firepower, while the Ram “Queen of the West” made straight for the “Arkansas.” In spite of the danger from the Ram, from shore batteries and taking on two gun ships, the crew of the “Arkansas” entered into combat with great confidence, skill and courage.

They poured a galling fire into the “Carondelet” and did much damage forcing her upon a shallow shoal.

They turned their fire upon the “Tyler” and the “Queen of the West”.

The “Arkansas” was in pursuit of the “Tyler” when her smokestack became so riddled she could barely make 1 knot per hour.

She sailed past the remaining 38 ships of Admiral Farragut’s fleet blockading Vicksburg. In the process, the “Arkansas” fires upon and damages the fleet flagship “Hartford”.

An eyewitness (a Colonel Scharf) (Confederate Military History) stated that the “Arkansas”  “emerged from a volcano of flame and smoke, an hour’s of horizontal hail of every description, from 32 to 200 pounders…..”

The gallant “Arkansas” steamed into the Vicksburg, with its commander seriously wounded, two pilots killed.

On July 22, 1862, while being docked for repairs, the Ironclad “Essex” and the Ram “Queen of the West” attacked the dock in an effort to finish off the “Arkansas  The “Arkansas” only had 41 men aboard at the time of the attack, but they still managed to drive off the two attacking Union Navy ships, after the “Arkansas” punished them with a raking fire.

The abrupt end for this promising ship occurred on 3 August 1862, when the “Arkansas” experienced mechanical failure of her engine, breaking down dead in the water.  The breakdown occurs while the ship is in a fight with the Union Ironclad “Essex”.  Rather than see his ship captured and used against the Confederacy, Lt. H.K. Stevens,   who assumed command of the “Arkansas” in the absence of the wounded Commander, Isaac N. Brown and is commanding the ship. The “Arkansas” had been steaming, in cooperation with General Breckenridge, to begin operations at Baton Rouge, when it was engaged by the “Essex”. 

Lt. Stevens, realizing his ship is about to be captured orders her abandoned burned and scuttled.

The orders were carried out and the officers and crew of the once formidable ship escaped.  However, a part of the “C.S.S. Arkansas” remains today. The Ensign (Naval flag) is on display at the National War Museum located in Columbus Georgia.

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