In most respects, the American Civil War was a conventional 19th century conflict: Armies organized into infantry, cavalry and artillery maneuvered to gain advantages and fought to control territory or destroy the enemy. No fleets engaged on the high seas, but Confederate raiders attacked Union merchant ships and the U.S. Navy blockaded Confederate ports.
But there was also a new kind of war going on, one for control of the western rivers. The Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers provided highways into the heart of the Confederacy and armies following those routes could be supplied and reinforced with ease.
But the rivers presented unique problems. They were often shallow, with shifting sandbars making navigation difficult. Enemy troops and artillery could wait, concealed, on shore and ambush passing craft.
But the river craft could also bring heavy cannon to bear on enemy positions, supporting troops who may otherwise be overrun. They could also help reduce key points.
To fight this war, designers came up with new designs for vessels, including shallow-draft gunboats to get past and over the sandbars and snags. They built rams that were unarmed, but fast, with reinforced prows for ramming enemy vessels. They built mortar boats to carry massive shell-throwers within range of shore fortifications. There were river monitors, newer versions of the USS Monitor, with its low, flat deck and rotating gun turret.
The Confederates had a huge disadvantage, with few ship-building facilities, but they were ambitious, and sought to build iron-clad vessels that could overcome the long odds against them on the rivers. Which brings us to the short career of the CSS Arkansas.
The story of the Arkansas can be found in mutiple sources, but here is essentially what happened, and a story Mount Vernon readers saw at the time.
Construction of the Arkansas, and a sister ship, Tennessee, began in Memphis in 1861. When Union forces took that city in April 1862, the Arkansas was moved to the Yazoo River to be completed. The Tennessee was not far enough along to be moved, and was burned.
When Capt. Isaac Brown arrived to take command in May, he found an unfinished ship, the engines in pieces, guns without carriages and railroad iron intended for use as armor, on the bottom of the river. He had the armor pulled out of the mud and the hull towed to Yazoo City, where, with the assistance of 200 soldiers, the ship was outfitted over the next five weeks, when she had to leave due to falling river levels. Some of the armor around her stern and pilot house had not been completed.
Gen. Earl Van Dorn, the commander at Vicksburg, ordered the Arkansas to Vicksburg, her crew filled out with 100 sailors from river vessels and about 60 Missouri soldiers. They had stopped to dry gunpowder soaked by leaking boilers when ships from the Union fleet bombarding Vicksburg showed up.
(Flag Officer David Farragut had come up from New Orleans and met a fleet of gunboats under Flag Officer Charles H. Davis, although it would soon become obvious they could not force the surrender of the city without army support.)
On July 29, the Democratic Banner published a report, dated July 21, of the Arkansas’s escape from the Yazoo River to the Mississippi on July 15. On the basis of reports the Arkansas was about to move, “the gunboats Carondolet and Tyler and the ram Lancaster started up the Yazoo to reconnoiter. Eight miles from the mouth they came suddenly upon the Arkansas lying under the bank. As our boats rounded the bend she opened upon them with 68-pounders. Our gunboats returned the fire for a short while and a fierce engagement ensued. Finding the channel of the river prevented successful maneuvering, they gradually dropped down toward the mouth, the Arkansas following closely. Just as the latter was passing over the bar the Carondolet closed with her, intending to board her. She succeeded in throwing a grapple aboard and getting out the plank, when the Arkansas opened a steam-pipe throwing hot water across the plank. The Carondolet replied in the same manner.
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