Tag Archives: C.S.S. Arkansas

The Battle of Baton Rouge

August 5, 1862 – Confederate forces tried to retake the Louisiana capital while waiting for help from the ironclad C.S.S. Arkansas.

By this month, Major General John C. Breckinridge’s 4,000-man Confederate force had dwindled to 3,400 due to illness and fatigue in the extreme summer heat. Although he opposed Major General Earl Van Dorn’s quest to regain Baton Rouge, Breckinridge complied with orders and led his men from Camp Moore toward the Louisiana capital.

On the way, Breckinridge learned that 5,000 Federals and three gunboats were at Baton Rouge awaiting him. He therefore requested the services of the Confederate ironclad, the C.S.S. Arkansas, to offset the Federals’ advantage. The Arkansas’s damage from combat the previous month had been repaired, but she still had chronic engine trouble.

Captain Isaac N. Brown, commanding the Arkansas, had gone to Grenada, Mississippi, on sick leave. Before leaving, Brown gave strict orders to his replacement, Lieutenant Henry K. Stevens, to keep the ship at Vicksburg. However, Van Dorn overrode Brown and directed Stevens to take the ship to Baton Rouge in support of Breckinridge.When Stevens informed Brown of this change, Brown left his sickbed and appealed to Flag Officer William F. Lynch at Jackson, Mississippi, to have his order reinstated. Brown argued that the ship could not make the 300-mile trip because her engines had never been fully functional. But Lynch sided with Van Dorn and allowed the Arkansas to try going to Baton Rouge.

The Arkansas headed out on the 4th but stopped soon after due to the engine issues. When Breckinridge received assurances that the ironclad would be ready to support him before dawn, he planned to attack the next morning. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Thomas Williams, commanding the Federal garrison at Baton Rouge, learned of the Confederate approach and prepared his defenses. Both sides had about the same number of men, but Breckinridge’s Confederates were more tired after marching 60 miles from Camp Moore.

The Confederates charged through heavy fog at dawn on the 5th. They pushed east toward the Mississippi and hoped to see the Arkansas coming up in the Federal rear. The Confederates on the left, led by General Charles Clark, quickly pushed the enemy back and captured two cannon, but Federal reinforcements came up and the Confederate momentum stalled. Federals captured Clark, who was also severely wounded.

Fighting soon intensified. When all the officers of an Indiana regiment were killed or wounded, Williams announced to the troops, “Boys, your field officers are all gone; I will lead you.” But then Williams was mortally wounded; he died on the field.

The Federals pulled back toward the river as their gunboats (U.S.S. Cayuga, Katahdin, Kineo, and Sumter) poured enfilade fire into the Confederate right. The Arkansas was nowhere to be seen. Neither side gave ground in the center, but the Federal right slowly fell back. A counterattack pushed the Confederates back, but Breckinridge ordered a bayonet charge that drove the Federals into town.

Despite driving the Federals from the field, Breckinridge could advance no further because Federal guns commanded all the approaches, and the Federal gunboats covered the troops. Moreover, Confederates were dropping out from exhaustion, casualties were extreme, and the Arkansas never showed. Fighting stopped around 10 a.m.

Breckinridge held his ground until 4 p.m., when he learned that the Arkansas’s starboard engine had given out four miles from Baton Rouge, causing her to run aground. Apparently the Federal broadsides that the Arkansas had sustained last month cracked the engine connecting rods, which broke under full steam.

Colonel Thomas Cahill, succeeding Williams as the Federal commander, ordered the gunboats to stay at Baton Rouge in case Breckinridge renewed the attack. This saved the Arkansas from destruction. Breckinridge left a small force to observe the Federals and withdrew the rest of his men to their camps on the Comite River, 10 miles away. The Federals did not pursue.

Image Credit: Flickr.com

The Federals sustained 383 casualties (84 killed, 266 wounded, and 33 missing or captured), including the loss of their commander. The Confederates lost 456 (84 killed, 315 wounded, and 57 missing or captured), including a brother-in-law of President Abraham Lincoln.

Breckinridge issued a proclamation to his men, commending them for their valor in the fight. He blamed the withdrawal on the absence of the Arkansas and declared, “You have given the enemy a severe and salutary lesson, and now those who so lately were ravaging and plundering this region do not care to extend their pickets beyond the sight of their fleet.”

Meanwhile, the crew of the Arkansas finally lightened her enough to free her from grounding. By that time, the Federal gunboats, commanded by Flag Officer William D. Porter and led by Porter’s ironclad U.S.S. Essex, headed out to confront the Confederate vessel.

Confederates repaired the Arkansas’s starboard engine the next day and continued downriver to take on the Federals. But then her port engine gave out as the Federal gunboats approached. Lieutenant Stevens directed his crew to bring the Arkansas close to shore for defense. The Essex came within range and began firing on her. The Arkansas’s engines started up again, but when her lines were cut, the engines failed again, sending her drifting toward the Federals.

The ship grounded in a patch of cypress trees, making her an easy target. Stevens finally ordered his men to destroy the vessel to prevent capture. The crew set up a skirmish line on shore, and Federals fired on the ship for three hours until she finally exploded. Stevens later reported, “It was beautiful to see her, when abandoned by Commander and crew, and dedicated to sacrifice, fighting the battle on her own hook.”

This ended the Arkansas’s legendary 23-day career, and it was the last time the Confederacy tried putting such an intimidating ironclad on the Mississippi. It was also the last time the Confederates threatened Baton Rouge. They eventually found a new stronghold on the Mississippi that they could fortify: Port Hudson.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15922-31; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 635; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 200; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 580-81; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 188-89; Hattaway, Herman, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 171; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 35; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 248; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 94; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 515; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 829; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 23

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The Baton Rouge Campaign

July 26, 1862 – Major General Earl Van Dorn, commanding Confederates in the area of Vicksburg, Mississippi, detached a portion of his force to try regaining the Louisiana capital of Baton Rouge.

Major General John C. Breckinridge | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Van Dorn, learning that the Federal Mississippi River fleet had split in two and moved off in opposite directions, issued orders to Major General John C. Breckinridge, former U.S. vice president, to lead 4,000 Confederates southward out of Jackson, Tennessee. Their mission was to surprise the Federal occupation forces at Baton Rouge.

Breckinridge did not think the town was worth the effort because even if regained, it could not be held against Federal gunboats. But Van Dorn coveted Baton Rouge because it was the state capital, and as such he ordered Breckinridge to proceed. Breckinridge’s men boarded trains in Vicksburg the next day and arrived at Camp Moore near Kentwood, Louisiana, on the afternoon of the 28th. From there they were to march overland about 60 miles southwest to the state capital.

Breckinridge split his force into two divisions and began the advance at dawn on the 30th. However, he suspended the march the next day when he learned “that the effective force of the enemy was not less than 5,000 and that the ground was commanded by three gunboats lying in the river.” Breckinridge, whose force had dwindled to 3,400 due to illness, telegraphed Van Dorn that he would still “undertake to capture the (Baton Rouge) garrison if Arkansas could be sent down to clear the river or divert the fire of the gunboats.”

The C.S.S. Arkansas was the Confederacy’s most formidable ram on the Mississippi, currently stationed at Vicksburg. Breckinridge planned to resume his approach after receiving Van Dorn’s response that the Arkansas would be at Baton Rouge by the morning of August 5.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 578

The C.S.S. Arkansas on the Mississippi

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.

The C.S.S. Arkansas | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15899-907; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 635; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 188, 193-94, 196-98; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 556; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 178, 182, 184-85; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 607, 784; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 26-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 240; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 421; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 89, 92-94; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 22; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q362