As part of the same ambitious program that resulted in the building of the Louisiana and the Mississippi, the Confederate Congress, in an Act dated August 24, 1861, authorized the construction of two ironclads for defense of the Upper Mississippi.
Delivery was specified for December 24, 1861, and heavy financial penalties were to be imposed on the contractors for each day that completion was delayed beyond that date. Both of these ironclads were built more or less according to the standard plan, with a casemate amidships, low decks fore and aft, and a ram bow.
The two ships were laid down in October at Memphis, Tennessee, under the direction of a local boatbuilder, John T. Shirley. Although the building of the wooden hulls was the easiest part of the job, it was delayed by a lack of labor, particularly carpenters, because of the widespread conscription by the Confederate Army. By December, the seriousness of the labor situation prompted Secretary Mallory to write a desperate letter to General Leonidas Polk, pleading for men:
". . . The completion of the ironclad gunboats at Memphis by Mr. Shirley is regarded as highly important to the defense of the Mississippi," he wrote, and went on to try to educate the general to the importance of naval support: "One of them at Columbus would have enabled you to complete the annihilation of the enemy . . .
"Had I not supposed that every facility for obtaining carpenters from the Army near Memphis would have been extended to the enterprize, I would not have felt authorized to have commenced the construction of them, as it was evident that ruinous delays must ensue, if deprived of mechanics this way."
Ruinous the delays were. When the Eads ironclads attacked Memphis on June 5, 1862, both ships were still incomplete. The Arkansas had been launched and was partially plated; the Tennessee was still on the stocks, and her precious armor, salvaged from all over the state of Arkansas, was still across the river. The wooden-hulled Confederate River Defense Fleet had no chance against the armored Eads boats, and in the first and last fleet action of the war, the rebels were defeated completely. Memphis was lost; the Tennessee, like the ironclads at New Orleans, was burned to prevent capture.
The Arkansas fared better. Although in no condition to fight, she could float. As early as April 25, her commander decided to take her up the Yazoo River to safety and completion, for New Orleans was no longer a possible haven.
Three days later, Lieutenant Isaac N. Brown, late of the U.S. Navy, reported for duty as her commander. He found the ironclad at Greenwood, Mississippi, about 100 miles from the Mississippi River. He also found her anchored and ignored in the swamps, surrounded by ships which had fled the great river, and almost 4 miles from dry land.
Lieutenant Brown was precisely the type of man the South needed in order to create a navy. He was tough, energetic, and driving. Nothing discouraged him. There was no steam hammer at Greenwood; he built one; no gun carriages; he designed some and had them built; the barge bringing the iron from Memphis sank and had to be raised; he raised it; meanwhile recruiting and training a crew. He soon had 200 men working 2 shifts and 14 forges. Like virtually every other Confederate ironclad that ever went into action, the Arkansas was still incomplete, with many workmen aboard, when, on July 13, 1862, the falling waters of the river made it absolutely imperative that she head for the Mississippi.
A few days earlier she had been inspected by Captain William F. Lynch, newly appointed to the command of Confederate Naval Forces, Western Waters, who pronounced her "inferior to the Virginia." She was inferior in every respect (her engines were especially poor); but she happened to be superior to any Union ship on the river, for in addition to being completely armored, she carried two 8-inch columbiads forward, two 6.4-inch Brooke rifles aft, on the broadside two 6.4-inch rifles, two 32-pounder smoothbores, and two 9-inch Dahlgrens. Although the weight of metal she could throw was not much greater than that of a Cairo class gunboat, her four rifles had much greater penetrating power than the Cairo's smoothbores. The ram, of course, was unequaled in the Union squadron. The only rams the Northerners had on the river were those built by the Army's Colonel Eilet, and they were not armored at all.
Undoubtedly, one Confederate ironclad, no matter how powerful, could not have turned the tide. Considering what was at stake, the wonder of it is that the Confederates could not, or did not, build two or three. Despite all the arguments that they did not have the industrial capacity, railroads, etc., the fact remains that Isaac Brown got this one ironclad built. Later on, when they were desperate, they managed to build four of them in the North Carolina marshes, and the following year they had three under construction at Yazoo City.
[CSS Mobile, CSS Republic, and one unnamed monster 310 feet long with 4 1/2 -inch armor.] ( They were all burned to prevent capture in May, 1863.) By then it was too late.
Capable though he was, Lieutenant Brown was hounded by the usual Confederate bad luck. On the trip down the Yazoo, it was discovered that the powder in the magazine had been dampened by steam escaping from the wretched engines. It was necessary to tie up along the bank of the river one whole day and spread the powder out to dry in the sun.
By this time the only base available to the Confederates was Vicksburg, and it was Brown's intention to run to Vicksburg and, once having secured coal and ammunition, drive south, with the hope of relieving New Orleans.
The Union forces had received reports of her departure, and on July 15, the ironclad Carondelet, a Cairo class gunboat, accompanied by the Tyler, one of the wooden gunboats built by Captain John Rodgers at Cincinnati, and the Queen of the West, one of the Eilet rams, entered the mouth of the Yazoo. They met the Arkansas about six miles upstream.
The unarmored Tyler was leading, and she immediately turned around and headed downstream. The next in line was the Carondelet, and her captain swung her around and headed downstream. (This was one case of valor being the better part of discretion, since the Carondelet had no armor whatsoever on her stern and only two 32-pounder smoothbores firing aft.) The Queen of the West simply fled.
The Arkansas fired at the retreating Carondelet for an hour without doing much damage. During the exchange, the pilothouse of the Arkansas was hit; Brown and one pilot were wounded, and the other pilot was killed. This put the Confederate ship at a disadvantage, since she drew 13 feet, and a pilot was a necessity to avoid the numerous bars in the river. The intention of ramming the Carondelet, which was now hugging the shore, was abandoned, and the Arkansas passed her, exchanging a broadside and then swinging out into deep water. She continued to chase the Tyler right out into the Mississippi. Below the mouth of the Yazoo was the Union squadron: Farragut's ships up from New Orleans, and Flag Officer Davis' collection of Eads gunboats and Eilet rams from upriver. Only one ship had steam up at all. With her funnel shot full of holes, the Arkansas now was making a speed of only about one knot, but she proceeded right through the line of Union ships, firing as she went by, and being hit by each ship in turn. The damage on both sides was negligible. In a few minutes, the Arkansas had passed out of range, leaving two disgusted Union squadron commanders behind.
The Union squadron got steam up and headed for Vicksburg, where the Arkansas now was moored, arriving just after dark. Lieutenant Brown had anticipated this, and had taken the precaution of moving his ship as soon as it was dark, so that it was impossible to see her against the shore. Only one stray shot hit her, killing five of the crew.
A second attempt to get her was made by the Essex on July 22. Although the Arkansas' bow was penetrated, causing the deaths of seven men and the wounding of six more, she was able to leave Vicksburg on August 3, with orders to support a Confederate land attack on Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
This was to be her last voyage. Her decrepit engines kept breaking down, and, since she was equipped with twin engines driving twin screws, this tended to make her steer badly. Finally, after both engines had stopped, she was started, and one engine failed to respond. She curved into the bank and stuck fast. While she was in this predicament, her bow in a mudbank and her stern swung downstream by the current, the Essex appeared 'round the bend like a stage villain. Isaac Brown might have thought of something, but he had been wounded, and her new commander, Lieutenant Stevens, was a practical man. As soon as the Essex opened fire, he abandoned ship and so added her to the growing list of Confederate vessels "burned to prevent capture."
The Arkansas was the first and last fighting Confederate ironclad on the Mississippi. Three others were built and subsequently burned at Yazoo City, and a fourth, the Missouri, was built on the Red River and completed in time to be surrendered in June, 1865.
Confederate Ironclads Built in Europe
Had Mallory's plans for purchasing ironclads in England and France been successful, it is conceivable that the entire war would have taken an entirely different course. It is well to remember that powerful though the monitors were, they were primarily designed for use against forts, and would have been useless in protecting wooden ships of the blockading squadrons against even reasonably fast ironclad cruisers. While it is safe to assume that the appearance of such ships off the Southern coast would have evoked energetic measures by Union land and sea forces to close the ports from which the cruisers could operate, it is still possible that the blockade might have been broken beyond repair.
The Confederates' efforts to obtain these cruisers in Great Britain and France were in the hands of a very capable and energetic former U.S. Naval Officer, Captain James D. Bullock. With the assistance of Lieutenant James H. North, Bullock maneuvered unceasingly to get ironclads built and turned over to the Confederate Navy.
While much has been made over the fact that the British people were solidly behind the cause of the North, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation, it is reasonable to assume that this support in itself was not the decisive reason that the Confederates could not buy ironclads. The real reason, in the first half of the war at least, is contained in a coded message from Lieutenant North to Mallory dated September 18, 1861:
"Can do anything in the way of shipbuilding if I only had the money. Please let me hear from you. North"
That Mallory could send him no money was largely due to Jefferson Davis' policy of withholding cotton from the European market at the beginning of the war in the hope that it would cause the British and/or French to intervene in order to obtain their precious commodity. Had the cotton been safely sent to warehouses in Europe before the blockade was imposed, the acquisition of ironclads would have been possible, whether the Confederate States were recognized or not.
Bullock did manage to acquire commerce raiders in England, such as the Alabama and the Florida, as well as blockade-runners, regardless of British public opinion.
By the time the Confederates had the money necessary to purchase ironclads, the portents indicated a Northern victory, and the Lincoln government was not backward in letting the British and French governments know what would happen to them when the war was over. Great Britain could expect a fleet of American commerce raiders to destroy her commerce as the Alabama and the Florida had ruined that of the United States; and the French Emperor was given to understand that one day he might well see American shipyards building ironclads for Prussia!
In spite of these handicaps, Bullock had a near success. In March, 1862, he contracted for two ironclad turret rams with Laird of Birkenhead, said rams to be 230 feet long with a beam of 42 feet and a 15-foot draft. They were to carry four Armstrong rifles in two turrets. In January, 1863, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Russell, informed Bullock that unless Her Majesty's government was satisfied that the rams were legally owned by a foreign government ( not the Confederate States of America), they would not be permitted to depart. At that time the rams were only half finished, giving Bullock time to think of some subterfuge. He opened negotiations with the French banking firm of Messrs. Bravay, with the plan of having them act as dummy purchasers of the vessels for the Khedive of Egypt. Adams, the American Minister to Great Britain, got wind of this and bluntly informed Lord Russell that if those rams were allowed to sail, it meant war with the United States. Eventually the ships were sold to the Royal Navy as HMS Scorpion and HMS Wyvern.
Bullock was somewhat more successful in France. In June, 1863, he contracted with Arman, one of the largest shipbuilders in France, for the construction of two ironclad rams similar to those being built by Laird. At the same time, he ordered four "corvettes," apparently not armored, from M. Voruz, a wealthy iron founder who was agent for several shipbuilders in Nantes. Authorization for the construction of these ships was obtained from the Minister of Marine and Colonies, Compte de Chasseloup-Loubat. In his request for authorization, M. Arman described his ships as vessels intended for commerce in Pacific waters, and eventually for sale to China and Japan. The Minister not only authorized their construction, but consented to their being armed as warships.
The United States Government, as Bullock complained later, had developed a very efficient secret service in Europe and kept close watch on his activities. Before long the U.S. Minister had come into possession of a set of letters between Bullock and Arman, revealing plans for the ironclads. Retaining one of the foremost lawyers in France, M. AntoinePierre Berryer, he prepared to challenge the legality of M. Arman's contract in terms of an Edict of the French
Emperor forbidding French citizens from taking sides in the war. The suit could not fail to show the connivance of the French Minister of Marine and Colonies, and most likely that of the Minister of Foreign Affairs as well, so the threat was enough to force the Imperial Government to forbid Arman to release the ships to the Confederates.
Having a considerable investment to protect, Arman sought to sell the ships to dummy buyers for Bullock. He was only partially successful in this effort to assist Bullock, although he did manage to sell the ships elsewhere. Two corvettes were sold to Chile, one corvette and one of the rams to Prussia. The other ram, at this time known as the Sphinx, was sold through a Swedish banker to Denmark, then at war with Prussia. Whether or not M. Arman arranged this sale for the Confederates' benefit is not known; most probably he didn't care who bought it by that time. In any case, the terms of the contract with the Danish Government called for delivery on or before June 14, 1864. The date was important because Denmark was still at war with Prussia and needed the ship. Delivery was not made, however, until October of that year. The Danes had made peace by then and so refused delivery. In January, 1865, the Sphinx, having left Bordeaux the previous October as the Stoerkodder, with a Danish crew, was discovered at Quiberon Bay in Brittany under the name of Olinde, with a French captain and crew. Alongside her was a British steamer, the City of Richmond, commanded by a lieutenant in the Confederate Navy. The City of Richmond was transferring heavy guns, ammunition, and a British crew to the Olinde.
The American consul at Nantes immediately notified the American Minister in Paris, who informed the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Marine and Colonies. These gentlemen told him of the sale to Denmark, and washed their hands of the matter. Inquiries to the Danish Minister in Paris revealed the story of Denmark's refusal to accept delivery of the ironclad.
While this was going on, the Sphinx-Stoerkodder-Olinde had acquired still another name: CSS Stonewall. Under the command of Captain T. J. Page, she had departed from Quiberon Bay. Once under Confederate colors, the inevitable Confederate bad luck came into play. The ram sprung a leak and was forced to put into Ferrol, Spain, for repairs. While the American Minister in Madrid was trying to have her detained, she moved on to Lisbon. Two United States ships had been watching her, the Niagara, a frigate carrying ten 150-pound Parrott rifles, and the sloop Sacramento, carrying two 11-inch and two 9-inch rifles. Both ships were unarmored and slow, so refrained from attacking her. The senior captain, Craven, eventually was court-martialed and acquitted, in view of the manifest superiority of the Stonewall.
Late in March, 1865, the Stonewall left Lisbon and, after stopping at Nassau on May 6, proceeded to Havana. Here she was surrendered to the Captain General of Cuba for $16,000, the amount of wages due the crew.
In July she was turned over to the United States and eventually sold to Japan, where she received her last name: Mikasa.
Was this article helpful?