The CSS Arkansas is Lost; Garnett Thrashes Jackson with His Own Words

August 6, 1862 (Wednesday)

The crew of the CSS Arkansas had done their best to limp their vessel from Vicksburg to Baton Rouge. There, they had hoped to aid General John Breckinridge in recapturing Louisiana’s state capital. Just as they pulled in sight of the city, one of her engines died, while the other pushed her into a bank, grounding her. There she simmered until finally lightened enough to move. The battle, however, had been lost and General Breckinridge’s whipped Rebel force was in retreat.

Shortly after Breckinridge gave up hope, the Arkansas‘s engine was repaired. Through the night, she steamed down in hopes of launching an attack against the Union gunboats under by Commander William Porter, who was planning his own attack against the Arkansas

Before dawn, the Confederate ironclad’s engine failed again and Lt. Henry K. Stevens, realizing that Porter would soon be upon him, ordered the ship to be drawn to the bank of the Mississippi and the crew to prepare her defense. Pointing the bow upstream, she presented any attacker with her most dangerous side. Stevens hoped to buy enough time for the engines to be repaired so they could make their escape.

Before too long, the Federal gunboat Essex steamed into view lobbing solid shots at the stranded Rebel ship. Suddenly, word from below brought the good news that the engine was fixed. Stevens quickly devised a plan of attack, leveling his sights upon the Essex. The engines built up their steam as a huge column of black smoke rolled from the stack. When she was ready, Stevens signaled for the lines to be cut and the Arkansas slipped out into the river.

USS Essex at Baton Rouge, July 1862.

But then the last of her misfortune arrived. Not only did the engine that had troubled them for days quit, sending the ship chuffing back towards the riverbank, the other engine failed as well. Instead of grounding her, she was sent adrift, floating precariously towards the waiting Essex and the rest of the Federal flotilla. Between her and the foe was a patch of cypress trees and soon the Arkansas was tangled, her thinly protected stern exposed to the Union ships.

USS Essex firing upon the ghostship Arkansas

The Rebel ship again grounded, but this time her guns were rendered useless by her position. It was only a matter of time before she would be taken. Stevens asked his fellow officers what they thought should be done, but took it upon himself to order the Arkansas to be burned rather than captured. The ship was first abandoned by the crew, who threw up a skirmish line on the shore, while Stevens and some others placed charges in the ship’s engine. Anything that could burn was set afire and soon the ironclad terror of the Mississippi was engulfed. The flames somehow freed the ship from the cypress and she drifted downriver towards the Federals, portholes brimming with flames and the banner of the Confederacy still flying from her mast.

As she drift towards them, the Union gunboats opened upon her. The Arkansas returned fire, as the heat and flames touched off her loaded, but unmanned, guns. Thinking that there were somehow still Rebels aboard, the Essex, Sumter and Cayuga all took their shots. Slowly she floated, and three hours passed before the fire reached her magazines and she exploded, sending debris high into the air and scattering it all across the river. Her Rebel flag, flying to the end, floated down to land on the Essex‘s bow. And the CSS Arkansas was no more.1


Jackson Takes the Stand and Garnett Attacks

The court martial between Stonewall Jackson and General Richard Garnett had begun the previous day. Jackson had leveled charges against Garnett, culminating in the accusation that his second-in-command had ordered too hasty a retreat at the Battle of Kernstown on March 23. Jackson made seven points stating where and how he believed that Garnett had failed and was derelict in his duty. On this day, Jackson took the stand and Garnett opened a succinct and efficient fusillade against him.

The first five of Jackson’s accusations were flimsy at best, and Garnett dispatched them with ease, as one statement negated another, while yet another made little sense. It was the sixth and seventh charges that were the crux of Jackson’s attack, stating that Garnett had retreated before he should have.

Against this, Garnett presented statements from other officers expressing notions that the retreat wasn’t called too early, but too late. He also presented the official reports submitted by high ranking officers in Jackson’s army that supported his views.2

Over all of this, however, Garnett wanted to make clear two very important details. First, Jackson, in his own initial report to General Joe Johnston, admitted that the Union forces “were so superior to mine that he repulsed me with the loss of valuable officers and men killed and wounded.” Johnston, upon forwarding the report to Richmond, summed it up: “He [Jackson] evidently attacked the enemy under a misapprehension as to his force.”3

Second, Garnett surmised that this whole thing could have been avoided if Jackson would have told him (his second-in-command) the plans for the coming battle. Jackson notoriously kept his own council, Garnett argued, and this was the result.

Hero of Bull Run, but perhaps not of Kernstown.

Throughout the questioning by Garnett, Jackson did his best, but was clearly in over his head. Garnett, of course, knew how Jackson would answer each question. In fact, he only asked questions to which Jackson’s answer would support his (Garnett’s) case. Jackson’s appearance on the stand, though a necessity, seemed to doom the already flimsy case against Garnett.4

Sometime after the trial, Garnett had the opportunity to read the handwritten transcription of Jackson’s answers, which was written on blue US Army issued stationary, complete with watermarked eagles. In the margins, and in very small print, Garnett scribbled the word “Lie” and placed other symbols signifying places where he thought Jackson to be less than honest throughout the twenty-four pages of testimony.5

The court martial would continue the following day.

  1. The CSS Arkansas: A Confederate Ironclad on Western Waters by Myron J. Smith, Jr., McFarland, 2011. []
  2. “The Army of Northern Virginia’s Most Notorious Court-Martial: Jackson vs. Garnett” by Robert Krick, as appearing in his book The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy, Louisiana State University Press, 2004. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p379. []
  4. “The Army of Northern Virginia’s Most Notorious Court-Martial: Jackson vs. Garnett” by Robert Krick, as appearing in his book The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy, Louisiana State University Press, 2004. Krick, who is often a Confederate apologist (especially when it comes to Gen. Lee) is rather terse in his conclusions against Jackson. But then, the evidence is pretty damning. []
  5. The originals have survived and seem to be part of the Museum of the Confederacy’s collection. They are sort of available online, but are scanned at so low a resolution that it renders them basically unreadable. This is a huge shame. You can, however, make out some of it, including the word “Lie.” []
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7 thoughts on “The CSS Arkansas is Lost; Garnett Thrashes Jackson with His Own Words

  1. When this cruel Sesquicentennial is over, let’s team up on a book about what a jerk Jackson was. He is such a Confederate saint, but—maybe not so much?? If he isn’t killing his men on the march, he is ruining their reputations in the courtroom.

    I am no fan of the South, but I find it heart-wrenching how Garnett died. At least he wasn’t shot by his own men!

    1. Even after writing this about Jackson, my vote is still out on him. He’s quite an enigma. I’m not really qualified to suggest that he was somewhat autistic, but he was most certainly in WAY over his head socially. He certainly didn’t play well with others (aside from Stuart, and Lee, to an extent). I don’t see him as vindictive or purposely trying to make himself look better, especially in this case. I just don’t think he could wrap his head around things like failure and mistakes, especially his own.

      Jackson seemed to praise “Divide Providence” whenever things went right, and put under arrest his underlings whenever things went wrong. Can’t really have it both ways.

      1. Thomas Jackson was a scholarly, rather ethereal man, who didn’t really have much time to get in shape for his war. Living life at a breakneck pace, he half-expected to meet misadventure at Chancellorsville (if not earlier). I have to go with Lee’s judgment of him as a brilliant and intuitive strategist who was capable both of on-the-spot decisions and rallying his men in the right direction.

  2. Well, Jackson was a rare bird by any measure. He certainly *was* a ‘Jerk’ and many of his men said so. This Garnett episode illustrates better than any other one of Jackson’s greatest weaknesses; his inability to communicate and work effectively with subordinates (see: A P Hill). Jackson’s insistence on blind obedience to orders makes especially interesting his telegram to Lee on the eve of Front Royal, basically requesting permission to disobey orders, and his subsequent instructions suspending Johnston’s order to Ewell to abandon the Valley.

    He was a stern disciplinarian, fond of ‘bucking’ the men and other such degrading punishments, but his men gained their reputation as ‘Foot Cavalry’ only after Jackson instituted standard orders that called for 10 mins rest every hour when on the march. Strictly enforced, of course. 😉

    I think ‘autistic’ is probably a stretch, but he was certainly socially backward. ‘Weird’, in fact. He had a pretty bleak & dismal childhood in the mountains of West Virginia. Both parents died when he was young. I don’t imagine he had much opportunity to acquire social skills, and he certainly did acquire some of the mountain folk superstitions.

    None of this detracts from his combat record or his skill at operational-level warfighting, nor his demonstrated ability to function effectively in detached, independent command. Few of our heroes are perfect, one must take the bad with the good. 🙂

    Garnett was later a pall-bearer at Jackson’s funeral, btw…

  3. Perhaps Asperger’s Syndrome? I dunno. Thanks for the info about Garnett’s funeral duties.

    I’m not a hater, so I look for good about the Confederacy. It is painful to hate them.

    That’s a personal issue, I know. 🙂

  4. It seems like every support I hear of Jackson boils down to “well, he was a great warrior.” I’m just not really convinced. He was certainly good at his job, but only in an independent command. He completely wizzed the Seven Days Battles down his leg. His crowning achievement was in the Valley, but couldn’t it be argued that his opponents did him just as many (or more) favors as he did himself?

    Maybe if he wasn’t so socially inept, he would have been able to fully utilize his abilities. Who knows.

    That said, I think I genuinely like the guy. It’s just a shame that the only compliments he usually receives come down to “he was good at killing people.” I think there was more to him than that, but due to his shyness in social situations, he wasn’t able to express it. But read about how he was with his wife, and how he was around children. There’s simultaneously more and less to the man than we typically think.

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