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The Ram Arkansas

       SOON after the secession of Tennessee, efforts were made to construct vessels for war purposes, and at Memphis were commenced two ironclad rams, the Arkansas and the Tennessee. Upon the fall of Memphis the latter vessel was burned, but the Arkansas was carried by her commander, Capt. Charles H. McBlair, to the Yazoo river. Captain McBlair was relieved of command by Lieut. Isaac N. Brown, who by extraordinary and unparalleled exertions got her ready for service by July, 1862. She was indifferently armored, but had a formidable battery, viz., two 8-inch columbiads, two 9-inch Dahlgren guns, four 6-inch rifles and two smoothbore 32-pounders. She drew 14 feet of water, and had a maximum speed of six knots. She was admirably officered with Lieuts. H. K. Stevens, J. Grimball, A.D. Wharton, C. W. Read, A. Barbot and George W. Gift; Surg. H. Washington, Asst. Surg. C. M. Morfit, Asst. Paymaster Richard Taylor; Engineers City, Covert, Jackson, Brown, Doland, Dupuy and Gettis; Acting Masters Phillips and Milliken; Midshipmen Bacot, Scales and Tyler; Gunner Travers and Master's Mate Wilson, with Messrs. Shacklette, Gilmore, Brady and Hodges as pilots, and a crew of 200 men, principally soldiers and rivermen.
       Upon consultation with General Van Dorn, commanding at Vicksburg in the summer of 1862, Captain Brown determined to proceed in the Arkansas to that city, distant by water about fifty miles. To do this he had to pass the vessels of Admiral Farragut and Flag-Officer Davis, and the rams of Colonel Ellet. These vessels were at anchor in the Mississippi, three miles below the mouth of the Yazoo, and among them were six ironclads, seven rams and ten large ships of war. On the morning of July 15, 1862, Captain Brown started in the Arkansas for Vicksburg. About six miles from the mouth of the Yazoo river he was met by the United States ironclad Carondelet, Captain Walker; the gunboat Tyler, Lieutenant Commanding Gwinn, and the ram Queen of the West. All three of these vessels turned, and a running fight ensued. The ram made a straight wake, but the other two fought well. The Tyler was too weak to encounter the Arkansas, though her commander, Gwinn, did all that could be expected of him. The Arkansas bestowed most of her attention to the ironclad Carondelet, killing and wounding many of her men, and finally driving her into shoal water. Captain Brown asserted that she lowered her colors; this Captain Walker denied, but there is no doubt that the Arkansas would have made a prize of her could she have spared the time to stop, which she could not. In the encounter with the Carondelet, Captain Brown was badly wounded and two of his pilots were killed. One was the Yazoo river pilot who, as they were carrying him below, had the courage and devotion to exclaim with his dying breath, "Keep in the middle of the river!" The Arkansas' smokestack was so riddled that she could hardly make more than one knot per hour when she entered the Mississippi; but this, with the current of the river, enabled her to run the gauntlet of Farragut's fleet.
       Capt. A. T. Mahan says:

       The ram [Arkansas] now followed the Tyler, which had kept up her fire and remained within range, losing many of her people, killed and wounded. The enemy was seen to be pumping a heavy stream of water both in the Yazoo and the Mississippi, and her smokestack had been so pierced by shot as to reduce her speed to a little over a knot an hour, at which rate, aided by a favoring current, she passed through the two fleets. Having no faith in her coming down, the vessels were found wholly unprepared to attack; only one, the ram General Bragg, had steam, and her commander unfortunately waited for orders to act in such an emergency .... She [the Arkansas] fought her way boldly through, passing between the vessels of war and the transports, firing and receiving the fire of each as she went by, most of the projectiles bounding harmlessly from her sides; but two 11-inch shells came [went] through, killing many and setting on fire the cotton backing. On the other hand the Lancaster, of the ram fleet, which made a move toward her, got a shot in the mud receiver which disabled her, scalding many of her people, two of them fatally. The whole affair with the fleets lasted but a few minutes, and the Arkansas, having passed out of range, found refuge under the Vicksburg batteries. The two flag-officers [Farragut and Davis] were much mortified at the success of this daring act, due as it was to the unprepared state of the fleets; and Farragut instantly determined to follow her down and attempt to destroy her as he ran by.

       Colonel Scharf says in his history: "The Federal line was now forced, and the Arkansas emerged from the volcano of flame and smoke, from an hour's horizontal iron hail of every description, from 32 to 200 pounders, hurled by a fleet of about forty formidable war vessels--shattered, bleeding, triumphant! ... They were welcomed by the patriotic shouts of the army at Vicksburg, and the siege of that city was virtually raised." This last assertion may be disputed.
       The loss in the Federal fleet on this occasion was, according to Captain Mahan, 13 killed, 34 wounded and 10 missing. Captain Brown reported his loss as 10 killed and 15 badly wounded. The New York Herald made the loss in the Federal fleet 42 killed and 69 wounded.
       On July 22d the United States ironclad Essex and ram Queen of the West made an attack on the Arkansas as she lay at the wharf at Vicksburg. They were driven off with loss. The Arkansas at the time had but 41 men on board. On the 3d of August the Arkansas, under the command of Lieut. H. K. Stevens, Captain Brown being on shore sick, left Vicksburg to co-operate with General Breckinridge in an attack upon Baton Rouge. On the way her machinery occasioned trouble, and finally broke down altogether. Lieutenant Stevens then burned her to prevent her falling into the hands of the enemy, the officers and crew escaping, And so ended the Arkansas.
Source: The Confederate Military History, Volume 12, Chapter VIII

This Page last updated 01/26/02

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