July 15, 1862 – A new Confederate ironclad blasted through Federal ships and threatened to turn the tide of the war on the Mississippi River.
During the first half of July, the freshwater Federal Western Flotilla under Commodore Charles H. Davis joined forces with Admiral David G. Farragut’s saltwater Federal squadron on the Mississippi River above Vicksburg, Mississippi. The combined fleet now totaled 37 ships. Reuniting with Davis, Farragut wrote:
“The iron-clads are curious looking things to us salt-water gentlemen; but no doubt they are better calculated for this river than our ships… They look like great turtles. Davis came on board… We have made the circuit (since we met at Port Royal) around half the United States and met on the Mississippi.”
Farragut contacted Major General Henry W. Halleck, stationed at the time at Corinth, Mississippi, and requested army troops to launch a joint land-water attack on Vicksburg. But Halleck refused: “The scattered and weakened condition of my forces renders it impossible for me to detach any troops to cooperate with you at Vicksburg.” For the next week, the Federals pondered their next move while sporadically bombarding Vicksburg. Diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, and malaria continued afflicting the men.
Meanwhile, Confederates launched a makeshift ironclad ram called the C.S.S. Arkansas to wreak havoc on enemy ships. The Arkansas was commanded by Lieutenant Isaac N. Brown, who had overseen the ship’s construction. Workers had rescued the partially built vessel before the fall of Memphis and completed her at Yazoo City, on the Yazoo River north of Vicksburg.
This “hermaphrodite ironclad” was 165 feet long and armed with 10 guns. The crew consisted of artillerists and Missouri infantry. The Arkansas was not quite ready for combat, but the water levels on the Yazoo were falling so she had to be launched or destroyed. The ram started down the river on the 12th.
Farragut learned that the Arkansas was being built on the Yazoo and dispatched the timber-clad U.S.S. Tyler, the ironclad U.S.S. Carondelet, and the ram U.S.S. Queen of the West to move up that river and confirm the rumor. Expecting to find a half-built ship in dry dock, the Federal commanders were surprised to see the ram approaching them on the 15th.
The Federal ships quickly turned and fled with the Arkansas in pursuit. The Carondelet, the slowest of the three Federal vessels, was forced aground. Brown reported:
“The Benton, or whatever ironclad we disabled, was left with colors down, evidently aground to prevent sinking, about one mile and a half above the mouth of the Yazoo, on the right-hand bank, or bank across from Vicksburg. I wish it to be remembered that we whipped this vessel, made it run out of the fight and haul down colors, with two less guns than they had; and at the same time fought two rams, which were firing at us with great guns and small-arms; this, too, with our miscellaneous crew, who had never, for the most part, been on board a ship, or at big guns.”
The Arkansas then fired into the wooden hulls of the Tyler and Queen. The Tyler turned back and returned fire, knocking off the Arkansas’s smokestack, which reduced her speed. The Queen escaped into the Mississippi, with the Tyler hurrying behind. The Federals of the Tyler and Carondelet sustained 60 casualties (16 killed, 36 wounded, and eight missing and presumed drowned).
As the ships entered the Mississippi, the Arkansas found her way to Vicksburg blocked by both Farragut’s and Davis’s squadrons. Fortunately for the Arkansas, the Federals were conserving coal and did not have their steam up to give chase. The Arkansas steamed past them, taking broadsides from each ship that cracked her armor in some places but did no substantial damage.
Despite enduring temperatures exceeding 120 degrees inside the ironclad, Brown reported that his crew returned fire “to every point of the circumference, without the fear of hitting a friend or missing an enemy.” The ship ultimately made it to the bluffs below Vicksburg, under the cover of the city’s batteries.
The Confederates lost 53 men (25 killed and 28 wounded). A master’s mate wrote, “The scene around the gun deck upon our arrival was ghastly in the extreme. Blood and brains bespattered everything, whilst arms, legs, and several headless trunks were strewn about.” Nevertheless, Major General Earl Van Dorn, commanding Confederates at Vicksburg, boasted that the Arkansas’s achievement was “the most brilliant ever recorded in naval annals.” Brown later received the thanks of both President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress, along with a promotion to naval commander.
The Arkansas’s escape embarrassed the Federals and left them, as the fleet surgeon aboard the U.S.S. Hartford wrote, “Caught with our breeches down!” Farragut delivered the bad news to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles with “deep mortification,” adding, “I shall leave no stone unturned to destroy her.” Welles responded, “It is an absolute necessity that the neglect or apparent neglect of the squadron should be wiped out by the destruction of the Arkansas.” Farragut called the Arkansas’s run past 37 Federal ships “Damnable neglect, or worse!”
One Federal ship had been disabled, and every wooden ship in the Federal fleet sustained at least one hit. The presence of an enemy ironclad on the Mississippi threatened to allow Confederates to regain momentum after a long string of defeats on the river.
At dusk, Farragut prepared his squadron for a night attack on the Arkansas below the Vicksburg bluffs. Charles Davis refused to commit his vessels, fearing the operation was too dangerous. Farragut’s ships advanced and managed to hit the Arkansas a few times before the Confederate batteries drove them off; the Arkansas was not destroyed as Farragut hoped.
Farragut vowed to “try to destroy her until my squadron is destroyed or she is… There is no rest for the wicked until she is destroyed.” Charles Davis was later replaced by Admiral David D. Porter due to his role in this incident.
A week later, the U.S.S. Essex and the Queen of the West again tried attacking the Arkansas, hitting the ship with glancing blows and one broadside while taking heavy punishment from the Vicksburg batteries. Most of the Arkansas’s crew was on shore, but the remaining Confederates fought back as best they could. Dabney M. Scales, a crewman aboard the Arkansas, wrote his father:
“At 4 o’clock on the morning of the 22nd, I was awakened by the call to quarters. Hurrying to our stations, with not even a full complement of men for 3 guns, our soldiers having left just the night before, we discovered the enemy coming right down on us… We did not have men enough to heave the anchor up and get underway, before the enemy got to us, even if we had steam ready…”
The Essex eventually disengaged and moved downriver to join Farragut’s fleet. The Queen returned upriver in desperate need of repairs. Brown steamed the Arkansas back and forth in front of the bluffs, defying the Federals to attack again while the Vicksburg batteries covered him.
The attack seemed to cause minimal damage to the Arkansas at first, but it was later discovered that a shot had cracked the connecting rods, making the ship’s already deficient engines potentially even more so. Meanwhile, President Davis called on Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus for help in getting more crewmen for the ironclad:
“Captain Brown of the Arkansas requires boatmen, and reports himself doomed to inactivity by the inability to get them. We have a large class of river boatmen and some ordinary seamen on our Gulf Coast who must now be unemployed. Can you help Captain Brown to get an adequate crew?”
Two days later, Farragut led his Federal naval squadron back down the Mississippi River to New Orleans due to falling waters and rampant illness among his men. The remaining gunboats patrolled the area between Vicksburg and Helena, Arkansas. This gave the Confederates control of the Mississippi from Vicksburg 200 river miles down to Port Hudson, Louisiana. Farragut firmly believed that naval forces alone could not capture the mighty stronghold of Vicksburg. Welles later wrote:
“The most disreputable naval affair of the war was the descent of the steam ram Arkansas through both squadrons, until she hauled into the batteries of Vicksburg, and there the two Flag Officers abandoned the place and the ironclad ram, Farragut and his force going down to New Orleans, and Davis proceeding with his flotilla up the river.”
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