C.S.S. Arkansas

CCS Arkansas attacking the Union Fleet.

By the middle of April 1861, the Seceding States had begun to plan for their mutual defense from outside interference. It was decided in a conference held April 1862 in Virginia to plan for the design and construction of several classes of vessels including Ironclads, expressly for operating along rivers, internal and coastal waterways of the Southern States. Members of the newly formed Confederate States Navy were in attendance including Commander Maury, Lieutenant John Brooke and Constructor Porter who were invited due to their shipbuilding and armament background.

In August of 1861, two vessels of the newly developed Ironclad class had been ordered from the Memphis TN Shipyard of John Shirley. The keels for both vessels were laid in early October of 1861 on the riverbank alongside Fort Pickering, just below Memphis, with delivery promised by Dec. 24th 1861. It very soon became apparent however, due to a shortage of skilled help and material, the builders would have to concentrate all efforts on building one ship at a time. The first of these was to be named the C.S.S. Arkansas. Work progressed very slowly with the construction dogged by constant shortages of men and material. Finally, General Beauregard offered use of some of his soldiers to speed things along. When the offer of help was refused, news of the fall of New Orleans arrived shortly after at Army HQ. This was enough to spur the Army into action. They wanted the vessel moved downstream and away from Memphis in case the Union Army decided to attack City of Memphis next. Orders to tow the Ironclad down to the Yazoo River were issued and under the command of Lt Charles MacBlair, the vessel was moved to the Yazoo River on April 26th, then inland as far as the small town of Greenwood.

Lack of qualified manpower and equipment continued dogging the project and increasing messages of complaint filtered through to higher command about Lt MacBlair. Finally these requested a more competent commander take over to speed up the work as it had become obvious the schedule was slipping badly. In May, Lt Isaac Brown arrived to relieve a surprised Lt MacBlair. Not surprisingly an argument ensued - and rumors of a gun being waved were rife before the unfortunate MacBlair departed. Lt Brown stated later that he would have had no compunction using force to settle the dispute.
Brown was horrified to discover that while the 'Arkansas' was complete as far as her wooden structure was concerned. The ironwork was barely started with considerable amounts of that iron and other stores being lost at the bottom of the river. The cannon still needed carriages and other items of ironwork required assembly and mounting. Brown immediately ran into labour difficulties and was faced with threats of work stoppages and strikes! Faced with an almost impossible situation, he had the ship moved to the Navy Yard at Yazoo City, probably something he would have suggested on day one, had he been in charge. The priority now was to assemble and mount the engines. To speed up work he used a local ship as quarters for the work crew, with another steamer the 'Capitol' being moored alongside the 'Arkansas' to provide steam power. Finally, a system of twemty-four hour shifts was implemented and any protests voiced could lead the offender spending some time in the cells. No unions here!

Since the specially ordered Curved Armored plate had not arrived in time, it was decided to substitute Boilerplate instead. Straight lengths of 36-foot lengths of railroad iron was carefully dovetailed then attached to the flat surfaces of the now familiar looking upper deck's superstructure, itself based on a 'cupola' design. Compared to many Ironclads, the casement of the Arkansas had almost perpendicular sides. A small raised cover was installed to provide shelter for both the Helmsman and Pilot at the forward end of the Cupola roof. Ten guns were also mounted on four sides of the superstructure, allowing almost a full 360-degree field of fire. It was widely reported the ship was left a natural rust cover but in fact she was painted a dull muddy brown to match the colour of the Mississippi River , a feature that would prove a blessing later on.
After five weeks of hard work and drilling the crew, now including some fifty locally enlisted or possibly 'pressed' volunteers referred to as 'Missouri volunteers', by mid July 1862, the 232 total officers and men had begun to meld into something resembling a trained unit, so when orders came to move down to Vicksburg to support the Army a sense of excitement prevailed. Getting underway for the first time however, it was discovered that a steam leak had penetrated the forward magazine and repairs here caused a delay in the vessel's sailing. It took a very nervous crew, two full days to complete the drying-out process, rebag and stow the gunpowder. When finally she got underway, the 'Arkansas' sailed down the Yazoo River into the Mississippi to be confronted by three Union Gunboats already searching for her! Following an initial exchange of fire which damaged two of the enemy ships and caused the third to run, the 'Arkansas' continued downriver towards Vicksburg. Ahead, Lt Brown could see the twenty-two ship fleet of Admiral David Farragut stretched out before him and firing upon the besieged city.

Despite the heavy odds, the C.S.S. Arkansas unhesitatingly broke through the Union fleet, firing at every ship in range until she reached the Port of Vicksburg. Although damaged, it could have been much worse. The Union fleet had shown poor tactics, interfering and hampering with each other’s efforts to hit the 'Arkansas' throughout the engagement. Unhappily, Lt Brown was wounded at this time. That evening an effort by the Union fleet to reach the 'Arkansas' failed completely. Gunsmoke and the difficulty in picking out the ship from a darkened background, notwithstanding the Confederate Artillery keeping up a constant barrage, ensured no further heavy damage to the vessel was inflicted. Only when this action was over was Lt Brown moved to a local hospital for treatment. Brown was also awarded the Confederate Medal of Honor in recognition of his bravery. Back on the river, a horrified crowd of spectators was allowed on board and for the very first time, civilians could see and listen to the crew literally describe in real time what it was like to be under fire and sustain casualties. 

The 'Arkansas' came under the command of First Lieutenant Henry K Stevens and received orders to sail for Baton Rouge. Stevens proceeded downriver to provide support to the Land Forces but en-route his vessel suffered a massive engine failure, causing her to lose propulsion and drift close to the shore. Stevens ordered his crew to abandon ship; but not before all guns had been double shotted and the vessel set on fire. The Arkansas was then allowed to drifted down past the lines and into Union territory where she eventually exploded and sank. Today, her pennant hangs proudly in the Naval Museum of the Confederacy in Columbus G.A.
Submitted by Dennis Brindle, Green Valley, Arizona.