Thursday, May 29, 2014

Prattville Dragoons Camp Meeting for May 2014 Part 2 - Vicksburg Naval Blockade and the CSS Arkansas

Dr. Brandon Beck was the guest speaker at the Prattville Dragoons May 2014 camp meeting on May 8, presenting "Defending Old Man River, General Earl Van Dorn, Lt. Isaac Newton Brown, and the CSS Arkansas". General Van Dorn saved Vicksburg twice. Christmas of 1862 he rode into Mississippi with his cavalry and destroyed Grant's supply depot and previously in the summer of 1862 he saw the CSS Arkansas finished.  On July 15th the Arkansas confronted two Union fleets representing the greatest assemblage of naval force in the Western hemisphere, fighting her way through 45-50 ships to bust the blockade of Vicksburg. 

The CSS Arkansas was constructed in Yazoo City north of Vicksburg on the Yazoo River, a tributary of the Mississippi.  Vicksburg was on a bluff and her gun emplacements commanded the river below.  At the time of the War Between the States, there was a sharp bend in the Mississippi just north of Vicksburg which formed the De Soto Peninsula.  That bend is no longer there but at the time, it required ships to slow to navigate which allowed the guns above to shower down on them.  Vicksburg was often called the Gibraltar and it was also key as a transportation hub with a Southern Railroad terminus there leading to the east. 

Washington looked at the Mississippi River north-south, as a thoroughfare for getting midwest grain to the Gulf of Mexico and as a geographical feature to divide Texas from the rest of the Confederacy, anchored by the blockade of the city and port of New Orleans. The Confederacy looked at the Mississippi in an east-west orientation as they were concerned about using the seven points along the river most accessible to move men, medicine, arms, horses and cattle, sugar and salt from Texas to points east of the River in the Confederate states. New Orleans, Memphis and Vicksburg were the three best such places along the river as they also provided railroad transportation hubs eastward from these port cities. 

General Van Dorn was appointed Departmental Command of the defense of Vicksburg on June 20, 2862.  He immediately grasped the strategic significance of Vicksburg and knew it must not fall and placed the city under martial law.  He knew the Yankee blockade of Vicksburg by Farragut's fleet must be broken.  Van Dorn sent Lt. Brown to Greenville MS to finish the CSS Arkansas.  At that point, the ship was just a hull in a cotton field.  The armor was sunk in the Yazoo River and parts were strewn about.  Brown brought the hull and parts to Yazoo City to finish construction because it had better shipyard facilities.  He had five weeks to ready the ship.  He needed skilled labor, more iron besides the armor raised from the bottom of the Yazoo River, apparatus for bending iron, fifteen iron forges, drill presses, someone to design gun/cannon carriages and a crew.

The Arkansas had three sister ships, the CSS Louisiana, CSS Mississippi, and the CSS Tennessee.  The Louisiana and Mississippi were under construction in New Orleans and were destroyed by the Confederates with the fall of New Orleans.  The Tennessee was under construction in Memphis and was also scuttled during construction. Only the Arkansas survived to see combat.  The Arkansas was 165 ft long, 35 ft at the widest with a draft of 13 ft. It was constructed of 1 ft thick oak and railroad iron.  It had ten guns, two 8" 64lb guns at the bow, two rifled 32 lb guns at the stern and two 100 pounders and one 6" naval gun on each broadside.  Her engines developed 400hp operating off 120 psi steam.  Her crew consisted if thirteen officers and 230 men.  Her Achilles heels was her immense smoke stack and weak engine.  Her strengths were her armor, guns and carriages and her crew. 
Dr.Beck Presents the History of the CSS Arkansas

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