- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2006

The Confederate navy was never able to compete on equal terms with that of the United States, but despite its limitations, it often gave a good account of itself.

Certainly Southern armed vessels engaged in some savage duels on the Mississippi River. These may not have improved the chances of ultimate success for the Confederacy, but they compelled the enemy to respect its fighting ability.

One Confederate warship in particular gave Adm. David Glasgow Farragut’s formidable river Navy a very bad time in 1862. As unlovely an ironclad as ever went up and down the mighty river, she was named the Arkansas, and during her brief and violent existence, she earned herself a fearsome reputation.

The keel of the future Arkansas was laid down by contractor Prime Emmerson at the Fort Pickering shipyard about 12 miles from Memphis, Tenn. She was far from finished when it was decided to move her to a safer location. Accordingly, she was towed by the steamer Capitol to Greenwood, Miss., on the Yazoo River, where work was resumed under the inept supervision of Lt. Charles H. McBlair.

McBlair soon was replaced by the highly efficient and hard-driving Lt. Isaac N. Brown, son of a Presbyterian minister, who was a veteran of the Mexican War. He had her towed to Yazoo City, Miss., where she was completed. Despite his close attention to detail, the Arkansas turned out to be a poorly built ship, in every respect inferior to the famous Merrimac. The engines were totally unreliable. Even so, things went well for a time.

On May 26, 1862, Brown took command of the Arkansas, and she looked like what she was, a primitive but dangerous fighting machine. With her iron cladding already going red with rust, she must have put onlookers in mind of a great shed on a raft. Her dimensions were impressive: length 165 feet and beam 35 feet. Her iron ram, 16 feet long and 10 feet wide, could inflict appalling damage on any vessel it struck. In addition, the Arkansas was well-armed.

On July 12, she traveled the Mississippi River for a confrontation with Farragut’s vessels. It was to prove a salutatory lesson for the Northern admiral about what havoc a powerful ram could wreak, as the gunboat Carondolet, the ram Queen of the West, and the timber-clad Tyler were soon to learn.

Belching black smoke skyward from a tall stack, the Arkansas roared into the attack, letting fly with a broadside that holed the Carondolet below the waterline. She began to sink, but her commander managed to run her aground.

Queen of the West took one anguished look at the oncoming monster and fled back to the safety of the fleet; her commander later was accused angrily of cowardice. She would live to run another day. Tyler was not lacking in courage. She struck back hard, wounding Brown, killing his pilot and doing much structural damage to her adversary. Tyler, too, eventually left the scene, with her Confederate opponent in pursuit.

Brown knew he had to pass an assembled and aroused U.S. Navy fleet and that the risk was great. Fortune favored him, however, and in due course, he arrived safely at Vicksburg, Tenn. His unlovely ram had shown her teeth, and it had been a bad day for Farragut, whose ships had been humiliated.

An attempt was made to sink the Arkansas while she lay at anchor, but that failed. When she left her moorings, the river resounded to the thunder of gunfire as battle began, U.S. Navy rams being supported by three ironclad gunboats. Arkansas fought like a cornered wildcat. In this bloody confrontation, the Union ram Essex went aground. Queen of the West managed to ram Arkansas and then, perhaps aghast at her own temerity, made another hasty departure.

When at last the attack was called off, Arkansas was left without an enemy in sight. However, Brown’s wound had become a matter of concern, and he was compelled to hand over command of his ship to 1st Lt. Henry K. Stevens. The latter was a brave but unlucky officer, for by this time, Arkansas was in trouble, her engines constantly breaking down. Never again would the ram take on enemies with terrifying efficiency.

Confederate Gen. Earl Van Dorn ordered Gen. John C. Breckenridge to launch an assault on Baton Rouge, La., and the ailing Arkansas was detached to provide support. Time and again, her engines let her down. Under fire from Commodore William D. Porter’s Essex, Stevens managed to ram the other vessel, but on Aug. 6, the Arkansas ran aground, heavily shelled and unable to move. It was painfully clear that the giant ram was doomed.

Accepting the inevitable, Stevens set his ship afire before ordering his crew to abandon her. He was the last to swim ashore. The fire spread, and suddenly a tremendous explosion blew the stricken ship to fragments. Arkansas died as sensationally as she had begun. It was not the only setback for the Confederacy at that time. The attack on Baton Rouge had to be called off.

Isaac Brown was promoted to commander on Aug. 25, 1862, and given command of the ironclad Charleston, stationed in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. It was there when the city fell. The war over, Brown spent 20 years working on his Mississippi plantation, but he is known to have been living in Corsicana, Texas, in 1887.

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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