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The story of the Arkansas.

By George W. Gift

No. 2.

We left the Carondelet sinking and pursued the Tyler and Queen of the West. Both were swifter vessels than the Arkansas, and in our efforts to overtake them we worked off steam too rapidly and the result was that when we entered the Mississippi river they had gained sufficiently on us to notify the fleets of Farragut and Davis of our approach, and that before we had come in sight around the point. The result was instant and rapid preparation by the squadrons for our reception. Steam was hurried up on all the river vessels, and they weighed or slipped, and took up such positions as would enable them to hit us and at the same time keep away from our powerful beak, if possible. On coming in sight of them the scene was one of intense interest. A dozen or more war vessels were steaming about in an uneasy, uncertain way, somewhat after the manner of a brood of chickens on the approach of a hawk. Tugs, transports and hospital vessels were smoking up or trying to hide. The heavy sloops-of-war and gunboats of Farragut's squadron were anchored in the middle of the stream with fires out, but with batteries manned and ready for battle. On the banks batteries of field artillery were run up and several thousands of soldiers prepared to shoot Minie balls into our ports. The ‘mustang’ rams—the same that beat our ‘mustang,’ Montgomery, in front of Memphis a short time before—were under way also, but they did not come to the front too close, with a chap carrying guns and men who knew how to handle them. I think I do not over-estimate the force of the enemy when I say he had twenty pennants flying; and we were about to attack him in an unfinished and untried vessel, with engines totally and entirely unreliable. As we stood down to them there was a decided and painful pause. We were in range, but preferred to save our strength and ammunition for a close grapple. One of my best men was a tall, athletic young Irishman who had greatly distinguished himself for zeal and courage half an hour before. Putting his eye to the gun he peeped out ahead and saw the immense force assembled to oppose us. In an instant he was overcome, and exclaimed: ‘Holy mother, have mercy on us; we'll never get through there.’ I had been watching the changing panorama ahead with many doubts and misgivings. A half dozen I [116] would not have minded, but two dozen were rather more than we had bargained for. But we had ventured too far to think of backing out; through we must go. The first vessel which stood out to engage us was ‘No. 6’ (Kineo), against which we had a particular grudge, inspired by Read, who desired us all to handle roughly any sea-going vessel we should see with ‘No. 6’ on her smoke stack, as that vessel was engaging the McRae, above Forts Jackson and St. Philip when Lieutenant Commander Huger was killed. Read, who was First Lieutenant under Captain Huger, and devotedly attached to him, saw the ‘No. 6’ by the flashes of the guns,1 and had ever since treasured the hope of getting alongside the fellow some day. This ‘No. 6’ came out like a game cock, steamed to the front to take the fire of a great monster from which ‘mustangs’ and river iron-clads were hiding and fleeing. I sent my powder boy to Read with a message to come forward, as his friend was in sight. He came leisurely and carelessly, swinging a primer lanyard, and I think I have never looked at a person displaying such remarkable coolness and self-possession. On observing the numbers ahead his eye was as bright and his smile as genuine as if he had been about to join a company of friends instead of enemies. We were now getting close aboard ‘No. 6,’ and he sheered with his port helm and unmuzzled his eleven-inch pivot gun charged with grape. It was hastily pointed, and the charge fell too low to enter our ports, for which it was intended. This broke the terrible quiet which hung over us like a spell. Every man's nerves were strung up again, and we were ready for the second battle. With a sharp touch of the starboard helm Brady showed me ‘No. 6’ straight ahead, and I gave him a shell through and through, and as we passed he got the port broadside. He did not follow us up. These two shots opened the engagement. Soon we were a target for a hundred or more guns, which poured in an unceasing and terrible fire. Generals Breckinridge, Van Dorn and others viewed the engagement from the top of the Courthouse in Vicksburg, and were appalled at the apparent rashness of attempting the passage. The fire of the enemy was almost unceasing, nor were we idle by any means. As we have said before, every gun was fully manned, and wherever we looked, in every direction, we saw gunboats. It was only necessary to load the guns and fire and we hit. The rams were taking up a position to come out and strike us as we passed. One of them, the Lancaster, was slowly moving across our path, and I [117] heard Brady ask Captain Brown if he should cut that boat in two. The Captain returned an affirmative answer, and the game pilot steadied our ship for the ram. I had in a five-second shell, which I wished to get rid of before we got to the iron-clads, and so set it in motion. It struck his mud-drum, emptying the hot steam and water into the small barricaded engine room, where the crew and a company of sharp-shooters were seeking protection, about a hundred of whom were killed. The poor fellows came pouring up the scuttles, tearing off their shirts and leaping overboard as soon as they reached the air. But that gave us no rest. The shot struck upon our sides as fast as sledge-hammer blows. Captain Brown was twice knocked off the platform stunned, his marine glass was broken in his hand, and he received a wound on his temple; but recovering himself, he gallantly—no, heroically—resumed his place, and continued to direct the movements of his ship from a position entirely exposed to the fire of not only great guns, but thousands of sharp-shooters, who were pattering the balls all around and about him. The man of steel never flinched, but carried us straight and clear through. I know that this great battle, and the great commander, have been ignored by the sect which ruled the navy, but when the history of our corps is written, Brown will rank first. Some one called out that the colors had been shot away. It reached the ear of Midshipman Dabney M. Scales, and in an instant the glorious fellow scrambled up the ladder past Captain Brown, and fearlessly treading the terrible path of death, which was being swept by a hurricane of shot and shell, deliberately bent on the colors again, knotted the halyards and hoisted them up, and when they were again knocked away would have replaced them had not he been forbidden by the Captain. Midshipman Clarence Tyler, aide to the Captain, was wounded at his post alongside the Captain. We were passing one of the large sloops-of-war when a heavy shot struck the side abreast of my bow-gun, the concussion knocking over a man who was engaged in taking a shot from the rack. He rubbed his hip, which had been hurt, and said they would ‘hardly strike twice in a place.’ He was mistaken, poor fellow, for immediately a shell entered the breach made by the shot, and bedding itself in the cotton-bale lining on the inside of the bulwark proper, exploded with terrible effect. I found myself standing in a dense, suffocating smoke, with my cap gone and hair and beard singed. The smoke soon cleared away, and I found but one man (Quartermaster Curtis) left. Sixteen were killed and wounded by that shell, and the ship set on fire. Stevens, ever cool and thoughtful, ran to the engine-room [118] hatch, seized the hose and dragged it to the aperture. In a few moments the fire was extinguished, without an alarm having been created.

The Columbiad was fired but once after its crew was disabled. By the aid of an Army Captain (whose name, I am sorry to say, I have forgotten), belonging to a Missouri battery, Curtis and myself succeeded in getting a shot down the gun, with which we struck the Benton. The ill luck which befell the crew of the bow gun was soon to be followed by a similar misfortune to the crew of my broad-side gun. An eleven-inch shot broke through immediately above the port, bringing with it a shower of iron and wooden splinters, which struck down every man at the gun. My Master's Mate, Mr. Wilson, was painfully wounded in the nose, and I had my left arm smashed. Curtis was the only sound man in the division when we mustered the crew at quarters, at Vicksburg. Nor did the mischief of the last shot end with my poor gun's crew. It passed across the deck, through the smoke-stack, and killed eight and wounded seven men at Scales's gun. Fortunately, he was untouched himself, and afterward did excellent service at Grimball's Columbiad. Stationed on the ladder leading to the berth-deck was a Quartermaster named Eaton. He was assigned the duty of passing shells from the forward shell-room, and also had a kind of superintendence over the boys who came for powder. Eaton was a character. He had thick, rough, red hair, an immense muscular frame, and a will and courage rarely encountered. Nothing daunted him, and the hotter the fight, the fiercer grew Eaton. From his one eye he glared furiously on all who seemed inclined to shirk, and his voice grew louder and more distinct as the shot rattled and crashed upon our mail.

At one instant you would hear him pass the word down the hatch: ‘Nine-inch shell, five-second fuse—here you are, my lad, with your rifle shell, take it and go back quick—what's the matter that you can't get that gun out?’ and, like a cat, he would spring from his place and throw his weight on the side tackle, and the gun was sure to go out. ‘What are you doing here, wounded? Where are you hurt? Go back to your gun, or I'll murder you on the spot—here's your nine-inch shell-mind, shipmate (to a wounded man), the ladder is bloody, don't slip, let me help you.’

I have thrown in this slight sketch to show that our men were beginning to straggle, so badly were we Cut up. But still the ship was not disabled; seven guns were yet hammering away, and the engines were intact. But steam was down to a terribly low ebb. The party who fitted up the boilers had neglected to line the fire front with nonconducting [119] material; the consequence was that when a heavy fire of coal was put in the whole mass of iron about the boilers became red-hot and nearly roasted the firemen, who had also got a tub of ice-water, of which they drank freely. The result was that we had to hoist them all out of the fire-room during the action, and Grimball headed a party to supply their place. But I will not detain the reader. We got through, hammered and battered though. Our smokestack resembled an immense nutmeg grater, so often had it been struck, and the sides of the ship were as spotted as if she had been peppered. A shot had broken our cast iron ram. Another had demolished a hawse-pipe. Our boats were shot away and dragging. But all this was to be expected and could be repaired. Not so on the inside. A great heap of mangled and ghastly slain lay on the gun deck, with rivulets of blood running away from them. There was a poor fellow torn asunder, another mashed flat, whilst in the ‘slaughter-house’ brains, hair and blood were all about. Down below fifty or sixty wounded were groaning and complaining, or courageously bearing their ills without a murmur. All the army stood on the hills to see us round the point. The flag had been set up on a temporary pole, and we went out to return the cheers the soldiers gave us as we passed. The Generals came on board to embrace our Captain, bloody, yet game. This ends our second battle. We must fight another before we go to sleep on that 15th of July.

1 The fight occurred about dawn.

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