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DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND
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Arkansas

 

(Iron-clad Ram: length 165 feet; beam 35 feet; draft 11 feet 6 inches; speed 8 knots; complement 200; armament: two 9-inch smoothbore cannon, two 9-inch 64-pounders, two 9-inch shell guns, two 6-inch rifled cannon, two 32-pounder smoothbore cannon; type Arkansas)

 

CSS Arkansas, a twin-screw ram, was laid down at Memphis, Tenn., in 1861 by J. T. Shirley. When the Union fleet imperiled that city in May 1862 she was taken up the Yazoo River for completion.

 

On 26 May 1862 Lt. Isaac Newton Brown, CSN, took command; displaying great energy he finished plating the "long and rakish" ram with utmost speed; for example: "Without waiting for the apparatus to bend the railway iron to the curve of our quarter and stern, and to the angles of the pilot house ... we tacked boilerplate iron over it (the stern) and very imperfectly covered the pilot-house shield with a double thickness of bar iron ... "

 

Brown further noted Arkansas "now appeared as if a small seagoing vessel had been cut down to the water's edge at both ends, leaving a box for guns amidships. The straight sides of the box, a foot in thickness, were covered with one layer of railway iron; the ends closed by timber one foot square, planked across by 6" strips of oak, were then covered by one course of railway iron laid up and down at an angle of 35 degrees ... shield flat on top, covered with plank half-inch iron ... large smoke-stack came through top of shield ... pilothouse raised about one foot above shield level. Through the latter led a small tin tube by which to convey orders to the pilot."

 

One of Arkansas' junior officers, George W. Gift, wrote candidly of her "very incomplete condition. The iron of her armor extended only a foot or a little more above the water line, and there was not a sufficiency of iron on hand to finish the entire ship ... gotten up under ... haste and incompetency ... I imagine that she was designed for a powerful iron-clad gunboat, with an iron beak ... and several heavy guns ... before she had arrived at anything like a state of completion, the plan was altered and she was made into an hermaphrodite iron-clad ... instead of finishing the ship with an ordinary rail and bulwark all round, her sides were 'built on' amidships for 50 or 60 feet in length, so as to give an apology for protection for 3 guns in each broad side ... The sides, it must be understood, were perpendicular. ... The ends of this 'castle' or 'gun-box' were sloping or inclined from which were thrust 4 more guns, 2 at each end ... battery of 10 guns ... 4 of the carriages on railroad iron chassis."

 

Opportunely a number of Confederate Army artillerists volunteered to act as gunners on board Arkansas. On 15 July, Carondelet, Tyler, and Queen of the West, carrying Army sharpshooters on a reconnaissance of the Yazoo River, encountered the ram and a spirited engagement took place. Queen of the West got away but Carondelet, Comdr. Henry Walke, USN, exposed his unprotected stern to Arkansas' efficient fire long enough to be put out of command and went aground; Arkansas, of deeper draft, could not ram her there but was already too close aboard to use her guns to finish off Carondelet ("could train our guns laterally very little"). Furthermore, Brown maintained afterward that Walke had struck his colors, which the latter hotly denied. Arkansas, under the circumstances, properly pursued Tyler instead, inflicting heavy casualties.

 

Entering the Mississippi, Arkansas ran through the Union fleet to take refuge under the Vicksburg batteries, but she was heavily damaged and sustained many casualties.

 

Gift noted that since her boilers were "not lined on the fire-front with non-conducting material ... the whole mass of iron about the boilers became red hot." Brown further explained, "The connections between the furnace and smoke-stack (technically called the breechings) were shot away, destroying the draught and letting the flames come out into the shield, raising the temperature to 120 degrees, while it had already risen to 130 degrees in the fire-room ... We went into action with 120 pounds of steam ... came out with 20 pounds."

 

Admiral Farragut reported, "it was so dark by the time we reached the town that nothing could be seen except the flashes of the guns." In the heavy cannonade as Farragut's ships continued down the river below Vicksburg, Winona and Sumter were substantially damaged—probably as much by Arkansas' guns as by the shore batteries.

 

Confederate Secretary of the Navy Mallory said of the event: "Naval history records few deeds of greater heroism or higher professional ability than this achievement of the Arkansas."

 

Arkansas evoked amazement and praise, however grudging, from her adversaries also: Walke wrote, "Strange to say, the Arkansas, in spite of her strength and weight, is quite fast—nearly as much so as the Tyler. ... Her bow is made sharp ... and her stern tapers so as to permit the water to close readily behind her. In the center of her hull she is broad and of great capacity, and for nearly 80 feet along the middle she is almost flat-bottomed, like an ordinary freight or passenger boat on the Western waters.

 

"The engines of the Arkansas are low pressure and of 900 H.P., all placed below the water-line, and well protected from injury by hostile missiles. Her cylinders are said to be 24" diameter and 7-foot stroke. She is provided with two propellers, working in the stern and acting independently. ... 7 feet in diameter and are each provided with 4 wings or flanges, and are capable of making 90 revolutions to the minute. In consequence of the independent action of the engines, one propeller can be revolved forward while the other is reversed, thus permitting the boat to be turned in little more than her own length.

 

"Forward she carries an enormous beak of cast iron, which is so made that the entire bow of the boat fits into it like a wedge into a piece of timber. ... A sharp cast-iron beak, about 3 feet deep on her stem, projecting 4 feet therefrom, and clasping the bow 6 feet on either side, and bolted through solid timber about 10 feet. Her cut-water was heavily iron-shod. ... The supporting sides of this beak are perforated in numerous places, to admit huge bolts that pass completely through the bow and are riveted at either end. The entire beak weighs 18,000 pounds, and is of sufficient strength to penetrate the hull of any war vessel on the river. The sides of the boat are of 18 inches solid timber, and, with their mail covering of railroad and plate iron, are proof against any but the heaviest projectiles. ... Thoroughly covered with T-rail iron upon heavy timber bulwarks, and cotton pressed casementing, almost impervious to shot. Her port-holes were small, with heavy iron shutters."

 

Another of her officers, Actg. Master's Mate John A. Wilson, CSN, preserved for posterity that Arkansas, "being painted a dull brown color could not be seen at a distance." Her protective coloration attracted Admiral Farragut's attention also: "The ram is chocolate color, very low." Gift said, "Our sides were the color of rust."

 

On 22 July Essex and Queen of the West ran down past Vicksburg and unsuccessfully attacked Arkansas. Again on 6 August 1862 she was engaged by Essex about 5 miles above Baton Rouge, La. Plagued by engine trouble, she was unable to fight or flee and drifted ashore. There she was abandoned and fired to prevent capture.

 

CSS Arkansas (Ironclad Ram) running the Union Fleet at Vicksburg, Miss., 15 July 1862


CSS Arkansas (Ironclad Ram); artist's interpretation.