July 15, 1862 (Wednesday)
By June of 1862, the Confederates had lost all of their major strongholds on the Mississippi River except Vicksburg, Mississippi and Port Hudson, Louisiana. New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Natchez had fallen downstream of the city, while Island No. 10, Fort Pillow and Memphis had been taken to the north. Though Vicksburg refused to surrender to Union Naval Commodore David Glasgow Farragut, he had been able to steam his ships past the city’s fortifications in late June.
Most of the Confederate ships had been destroyed during the battles for New Orleans and Memphis. But before Memphis fell, the Confederates floated a new ironclad south, past the city’s scant defenses, to Yazoo City, sixty miles up the Yazoo River, north of Vicksburg. There, the ironclad CSS Arkansas was brought to completion as General Earl Van Dorn grew more and more nervous about two Federals fleets converging on the Vicksburg, the city he commanded.
The CSS Arkansas, lovingly called “an hermaphrodite ironclad,” was a 165 foot long ram, armed with six smoothbores and two 6-inch rifled guns. Though she was more or less ready and willing to travel under her own steam, she was hardly what one would call complete. But with the Yankees controlling the Mississippi and the river levels falling, there was little choice but to launch her or scuttle her. On July 12, she began her journey to face the gathering Union fleet.1
Just north of Vicksburg, were two Union fleets under Commodore Farragut and Flag Officer C.H. Davis. Word from a deserter or spy had alerted Farragut that up the Yazoo was the Rebel ironclad Arkansas. Wishing to find out for himself, Farragut ordered the USS Tyler, Carondelet, and Queen of the West to steam up the tributary and, if found, destroy her.
On the morning of this date, the three ships – a wooden gunboat, an ironclad, and a ram – began their ascent toward the Rebel ship. It was not long before they found her. The Arkansas was not sixty miles upstream as suspected, but steaming towards them, her black smoke etched unmistakably against the morning sky.
Captain Henry Walke, commanding the Tyler and the small Union flotilla panicked and began to steam away from the Rebel ship. Sensing an opportunity to give his new ship a thorough trial, Lt. Isaac Brown, the Arkansas’ commander, gave chase.
Brown and the Arkansas first caught up with the slow-moving Carondelet, grounding her along the shallow bank. Both the Tyler and the Queen of the West were wooden-clad, and the Arkansas lobbed round after round into their vulnerable hulls. The closest to the Rebel craft was the Tyler, and Brown ordered his gunners to fire grapeshot into her rear. Swinging around, Captain Walke fired upon the Arkansas with each of his guns, also calling up a squad of sharpshooters to ply their craft. This firing, however, did little damage to the ironclad, apart from knocking off her smokestack.
The loss of the stack, however, caused her fires to cool and her speed to slacken. This allowed the Tyler to make for it. The Queen of the West had already entered the Mississippi River proper, alerting the two large Union fleets of the coming Rebel ironclad.2
The Tyler followed shortly with the Arkansas much too close behind. As they rounded the bend, the Rebel ship found herself in the thick of the Federal fleets, surrounded and wildly out-gunned. To steam south to Vicksburg and the safety of the city’s batteries, the Rebel ship would have to run the gauntlet. Union ships lined both sides of the river and each would have a turn in trying to stop this new foe.
Most of the Federal ships did not yet have their steam up enough to move out, but fired a continuous rain of shells upon the Rebels. The Arkansas replied with all of her guns, blazing fire in all directions. The temperature inside the ship reached over 120 degrees, and yet the crews worked their pieces without fail. Brown spied Commodore Farragut’s flagship and ordered a broadside to be poured into her. This was the last shots they fired. The brush with Farragut brought the Arkansas to the end of the Union gauntlet. She was able to steam south towards the city, covered by the river batteries.3
Farragut wanted to chase her down and destroy her with his entire fleet. Flag Officer Davis, commanding the other Federal fleet refused, thinking it a bad idea to go up against Vicksburg’s defenses. And so Farragut went it alone. He waited until the sun was setting, hoping to blind the Rebels who would have to peer into it to defend their positions. General Van Dorn, however, figured Farragut would try this and was ready.
As the fleet passed, it was took dark to see the Arkansas. The sun had set and every gun in and around Vicksburg was shelling the Federal ships. Farragut was able to steam past the Rebel defenses, but the new ironclad remained afloat.4
- Thunder Along the Mississippi by Jack D. Coombe, Castle Books, 2005. [↩]
- “A Morning with the Rebel Ram ‘Arkansas'” by S.B. Coleman, as appearing in War Papers Read Before the Michigan Commandery of the Military printed by Winn & Hammond, 1898. [↩]
- “The Confederate Gunboat ‘Arkansas'” by Isaac Brown, as printed in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. 3, The Century co., 1888. [↩]
- Vicksburg is the Key by William L. Shea & Terrence J. Winschel, University of Nebraska, 2003. [↩]