Ironclad Surprise.

by Daniel Russ on October 13, 2010

July 15, 1862. Confederate ironclad Arkansas stoked its furnaces, coal heavers fed black bricks into wrought into red hot fires. Thick acrid smoke inundated the poorly ventilated below decks of the old river warrior. The Arkansas was a big, clumsy warship that drew 14 feet, and had a gun deck that barely cleared the waterline and a boxy command tower where Second Lieutenant Charles W. Read barked orders to engineers in the steam pressure engines through a tin speaking tube. This was a war horse, inelegant and bristling with cannons. On the river banks thick briers, thistle, and vines created an imposing if not impassable obstacle – water born or other wise. Helmsmen had to make sure that shoals created by flash rains, and overhanging vegetation didn’t catch and entrap the Arkansas and create an easy target for Union canons.

It was 2 AM and the Arkansas was underway. On the gun deck, surgeons placed bandages and tourniquets and bone saws in strategically located areas. Buckets of water sat by each gun, and a deck hand swabbed a wet rag down the barrel after each shot to make sure that a still viable spark didn’t inadvertently ignite a round. Buckets of sand sit ready to absorb slippery blood from the floor in the case that enemy shots find their target amidships. Twin six-inch cannons also face aft to stop ships in hot pursuit.

Artillery crews swabbed down barrels and poured in cartridge bags where picks were then forced down the barrels to slice the bags open and allow the loose gunpowder to spill out into the firing chambers. Below deck the ship was redolent of the unwashed smell of 200 seamen, coal smoke, steam, freshly opened bags of gunpowder and the musty wet aroma of the Mississippi River lowlands. Otherwise, the night would normally feature only the sounds of a meandering river and the lamentations of night birds and frogs. But the twin steam pressure engines and the rush of water was a cacophony below deck.

Second Lieutenant Charles W. Read On The Ironclad Arkansas

Confederate States of America Major General Earl Van Dorn had cooked up a plan to launch a surprise attack on the Union river forces trying to wrest control of Vicksburg from the Confederates. A sizeable fleet lay to the north of the of town of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Forces stationed there enjoyed high hills and overlooks all festooned with ornate wrought iron and brick, and of course with loaded cannons that had easy shots at targets on the river.

Just before sun up, Read and the crew of the Arkansas came upon the Union naval flotilla all docked two miles north of Vicksburg. He reconnoitered from behind shoals with a pair of binoculars and counted over 30 large warships and support vessels. The plan according to General Van Dorn was to have the Arkansas head down the river between the Union ships, guns blazing and cause as much damage as possible before racing to the relative safety of Vicksburg. The element of surprise would catch Union river forces off guard and disrupt operations.

Ironclads battle It Out In The Mississippi

With a column of dark coal smoke pouring from the stacks of the Arkansas, it was only a matter of time before the Union naval forces saw the stack and sent two ships, a reconnaissance in force, against the rebels. Before long the USS Carondelet, and the USS Tyler steamed up to challenge the brash interloper. Cannons began firing. The Arkansas scored early, sending blazing explosive shells into the Tyler that killed 30 men and wounded dozens more, and rounds landed through the armor of the Tyler as well.  A heated exchange sent metal shards and wood whizzing through the air cutting men down in fast desperate moments. By 7 AM the weapon exchanges were fast and as furious as a crew of blooded artillery crews could  get shots off. Just when it seemed that Read would prevail without  scratch, a shell ripped through the armor on the Arkansas, sending a shiver through the entire vessel, and slaughtering sixteen men.

“A great heap of mangled ghastly maimed lay on the gundeck, with rivulets of blood running away from them. There was a poor fellow torn asunder, anither smashed flat, brains, hair, blood all about,” Read wrote.

A continuous stream of mortar and cannon shells found their marks after Union gun crews got their bearing. The Arkansas’ armored coverings creaked and groaned tenuously with each deafening round. The Union Navy was caught unawares and five ships received significant damage, the USS Tyler was taken out of the war for months. Two days later the Arkansas made it into Vicksburg, and it was received with cheers. The story of its bold dash through the Union gauntlet reached the townsfolk before it reached the town. Later, the Arkansas was run aground and scuttled by its own crew.

Source: Sea Wolf Of The Confederacy; The Daring Civil War Raids of Naval Lt. Charles W. Read.  David Shaw


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