Into the Volcano with the Ironclad CSS Arkansas


Part I of this tale left the lonely Arkansas and Captain Isaac N. Brown on July 15, 1862, facing a gauntlet of Yankee deep-water warships, steam rams, river ironclads, gunboats, and bomb vessels as he ran down the Mississippi toward Vicksburg. It was the combined squadrons of Flag Officers David G. Farragut and Charles H. Davis assembled to reduce this last major Confederate stronghold on the river.

Brown was bringing his powerful vessel to the defense of the city. He had started that morning from his base up the Yazoo River and had been engaged in a running battle ever since with Union river ironclad Carondelet, wooden gunboat Tyler, and ram Queen of the West, which had been dispatched upriver on reconnaissance just as Brown was coming down.

Carondelet now lay crippled and helpless in the mud of the Yazoo while Tyler and Queen of the West fled badly wounded before the Rebel monster seeking the safety of their fleet. Arkansas herself had been bloodied and battered in the fight; her engines were faltering; her gun crews and engineers were fighting exhaustion, heat, and fumes from the riddled smokestack.

Isaac Brown
Captain Isaac Brown

Peering downriver from the top of the casemate, Brown recalled: “The genius of havoc could not have offered a finer view, the panoramic effect of which was intensified by the city of men spread out with innumerable [U.S. Army] tents opposite on the right bank.”[i]

They were not yet in sight of the city while in every direction except astern their eyes rested on foes. His only advantage was surprise; the Yankees were caught with their pants down and most of them could not get steam up and underway. But they could get off shots from many powerful guns as Arkansas blew by.

Several rams came at him. “Shrapnel shot were coming on our shield deck, twelve pounds at a time.” Brown climbed down the ladder to the gundeck to see how his Missouri backwoodsmen handled their 100-pounder Columbiads. “At this moment I had the most lively realization of having steamed into a real volcano, the Arkansas from its center firing rapidly to every point of the circumference, without the fear of hitting a friend or missing an enemy.”

He observed the two aft six-inch rifles “blow off the feeble attack of a ram on our stern.” Another ram crossed ahead. “Go through him!” Brown ordered the pilot. A shot from one of the bow guns pierced the enemy’s boiler. “His steam went into the air, and his crew into the river…. We passed by and through the brave fellows struggling in the water under a shower of missiles intended for us. It was a little hot this morning all around; the enemy’s shot frequently found weak places in our armor, and their shrapnel and minie-balls also came through our port-holes.” It was 120° in the casemate and hotter in the engine room.

Arkansas on MississippiMost Union shots bounced off, but one shell penetrated armor plus twenty inches of wood backing and exploded, obliterating four men and knocking another ten down.

Two other rounds burst near or came through gun ports, killing eight and wounding three in a single gun crew. Holes in the smokestack filled the gundeck with choking fumes, forcing the men to crowd around gun ports for air.

When the flag staff was shot away, Midshipman Dabney Scales (a Virginian and future officer on the CSS Shenandoah) scrambled up the ladder under ferocious fire and replaced the flag. He would have done it a second time but was ordered by Captain Brown not to expose himself again.

Brown himself sought cooler air back on top of the casemate. He saw a large ironclad dead ahead and broadside to. He ordered the pilot to strike her amidships, but the Yankee was too quick. Arkansas steamed by, delivering a broadside, “which probably went through him from rudder to prow.” That was the last volley delivered or received. They were passed, “the outer rim of the volcano.”

Brown called his officers topside to see what they had just come through and get some fresh air. “The little group of heroes closed around me with their friendly words of congratulation.” Just then a heavy rifle shot passed close over their heads as the “parting salutation.” Two feet lower and it would have been disastrous.

Arkansas continued downriver without further trouble. “We were received at Vicksburg with enthusiastic cheers,” wrote Brown, as the battered ironclad backed into the wharf below the city. Her smokestack was cut to pieces with sixty-eight shot holes; a section of plating was torn from the side. Exultant locals greeted a crew dazed, power-blackened, and streaked with blood and sweat.

“Blood and brains bespattered everything,” noted one observer, “whilst arms, legs, and several headless trunks were strewn about.”[ii] Citizens and soldiers crowded eagerly aboard, but a passing look was sufficient as they hastily retreated from the sickening spectacle.

Brown landed his dead and wounded—“terribly torn by cannon-shot”—and began immediate repairs, refueling, and recruitment. Half the crew was lost either as casualties or men who had volunteered only for the trip to the city. That night, Farragut ran his squadron back downstream concentrating all firepower on the stationary Arkansas—to no effect—while Vicksburg gunners concentrated on him.

Dabney Scales

A week later, Arkansas still lay secured to the bank with many officers and crewmen ashore sick and wounded when an enraged Farragut sent the ironclad USS Essex and ram Queen of the West to destroy her. At 4 o’clock in the morning, Midshipman Scales was awakened by call to quarters and hurried to his station.

The enemy bore down on them, smoke belching from stacks, propeller and paddle wheels thrashing brown water. The few weary Confederates aboard could not heave the anchor up or get underway. They could hardly man three guns, wrote Scales in a letter to his father, “So we had to lay in to the bank, and couldn’t meet him on anything like equal terms.”

Essex ranged alongside and poured in a broadside at twenty feet, “which crashed against our sides like nothing that I have ever heard before….”  His men were burnt by powder from the flashing muzzles. Then Queen of the West surged forward trying to ram a hole at Arkansas’s waterline. Just before Queen hit, the Confederates threw their helm over while engaging the starboard propeller, turning their ship just enough for the ram to glance off and run aground astern.[iii]

Arkansas continued to refit while sortieing occasionally to frighten her foes. Farragut made several attempts to hit her with mortars, again with no results. By the end of July, the Federal navy conceded that they could not take Vicksburg from the river no matter how many ships and guns they brought to bear. Farragut—never comfortable with his deep-water squadron in the middle of a continent regardless the size of the river—withdrew back to the Gulf of Mexico while Davis moved his river forces north to regroup.

essex and Arkansas
Destruction of CSS Arkansas

General Earl Van Dorn, commanding Confederate forces in the city, regarded Arkansas as a super weapon. Her repairs were incomplete, her officers not fully recovered, most of the crew untrained. Nevertheless, Van Dorn ordered the floating fortress downriver to support an attempt to recapture Baton Rouge from the Yankees. But as Arkansas came within sight of the town with her temperamental power plant failing and under murderous fire from Union gunboats, the tired ironclad had to be abandoned and blown up to prevent capture. It was August 6, 1862.

The CSS Arkansas leaves an underappreciated legacy in the shadow of her more famous sister, the CSS Virginia/Merrimack. The achievements of Captain Isaac Brown and his men in building, equipping, arming, and finally operating Arkansas under appalling conditions and against overwhelming odds are remarkable.

She was the only Confederate casemate ironclad to operate, much less win significant victory, on the Mississippi River; she generated panic among Northerners far and wide. A case can be made that Arkansas was the most formidable and most successful of all Rebel ironclads. After her loss, there would be no significant Confederate navy presence on Western waters.

[i] Isaac N. Brown, “The Confederate Gun-Boat ‘Arkansas’,” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Being for The Most Part Contributions by Union and Confederate Officers. Based Upon “The Century War Series.” Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, of the Editorial Staff of “The Century Magazine”, 4 vols. (New York, 1884-1888), vol. 3, 572-575. Ibid. for all Brown quotes in this article.

[ii] Chester G. Hearn, Naval Battles of the Civil War (San Diego, 2000), 130.

[iii] Civil War Naval Chronology 1861-1865 (Washington, 1971), 2:86.

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