Saturday, May 31, 2014

Prattville Dragoons Camp Meeting for May 2014 Part 3 – 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".

A related chronology of 1862 highlighted the fall of New Orleans on April 28th of that year followed by the fall of Baton Rouge on May 9th and the fall of Natchez on May 12th. Union Commander Farragut sailed his fleet north from Baton Rouge to Vicksburg and on May 18th demanded the surrender of Vicksburg. A Confederate lieutenant responded, "Mississipians do not know how to surrender."  May 20th saw the fall of Memphis where a Yankee fleet under Admiral Charles Davis sailed south to Vicksburg. On June 28th Farragut arrived at and passed the batteries at Vicksburg. The Yankee ships had to stay out of reach of the Confederate cannon works high above the river on the bluffs of Vicksburg. 

On July 13th, the CSS Arkansas initially sailed under her own power but encountered a leak causing all the gun powder all board to get wet.  On July 15th, starting at 3:30am, the Arkansas, commanded by Isaac Newton Brown set sail from Yazoo City for Vicksburg. Before long Brown saw smoke above the trees and assumed these were federal ships steaming north.  This ruined the element of surprise that Brown hoped to have against the main fleet.  The three ships were an ironclad, a ran and a wooden gunboat (which saw service at Shiloh). The USS Tyler fought a running battle with the Arkansas down the river at such close quarters that handguns were actually used to fire upon the ships in combat resulting in the injury of 25 sailors aboard the Arkansas. By 6:30am, as the ships approached Farragut's fleet and the alarm was sounded, it was said the Tyler's decks were running with blood.  The Arkansas caught Farragut's fleet napping.  The Arkansas' boiler pressure was failing and flames were heating the engine room but aided by the current, the Arkansas sailed headlong into a forest of ships and smokestacks.  There were ships on both sides of the Arkansas and if the ship had been a ram and been able to develop more steam, the federal ships would have been easy targets. But, the Arkansas still had the element of surprise and also had the advantage of being absolutely surrounded to the point where all the Arkansas guns had to do was fire and they would hit a federal ship.  No solid shot ever penetrated the Arkansas' armored sides but, the ship was pounded and there were casualties and the decks of the ship became slick with blood.  But, Brown had won and sailed clear of the blockade and docked at Vicksburg.  The Arkansas victory convinced Van Dorn that the next Yankee advance would be by land and that they had to fortify land approaches to Vicksburg. 

Van Dorn sought to secure and seal a twenty mile long fortified section of the river between Vicksburg and Port Hudson to the south to provide east-west access for the Confederate transportation and commerce.  Confederate General Breckenridge approached Baton Rouge and said he could take the Yankee garrison there but requested the CSS Arkansas to run off the five Union gunships blockading the river there.  The Arkansas attempted to sail south from Vicksburg but experienced five engine failures and was finally scuttled on August 16th near Baton Rouge, her sailors setting her afire and casting her off akin to a  Viking funeral ship rather than to have the vessel fall into Yankee hands.   So ended the brief extraordinary service of the CSS Arkansas.  Van Dorn was correct, the Union forces next attacked Vicksburg by land but the fortifications were so impenetrable that Grant was forced to lay siege to the city and after almost two months of bombardment and starvation of the garrison and civilians in the city, Vicksburg surrendered on July 4, 1863.  

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