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The story of the Arkansas.

by George W. Gift.


This is our last chapter, and most painful and difficult is it to write; for we have no longer to tell of gallant deeds and great achievements. Our task now is simply to relate the last adventures of the great ship, to tell how her engines broke down, and it became an act of duty to apply the torch to her. We will write her [206] obituary and be done. Shortly after the events related in the last chapter the enemy embarked his troops on board transports and gave up the bombardment of Vicksburg for 1862. He had never attempted a siege, inasmuch as his force of infantry was inferior to ours, and he did not occupy the same side of the river as that on which Vicksburg stands, but merely under cover and by virtue of his superior naval force, was able to occupy a position near Vicksburg, from which he could throw shells into the town. The same thing occurred at Charleston and several other places. And I think that it would be no difficult matter to show that the navy of the United States had more to do with destroying the Confederate States than the army—or rather that the operations of the army of the United States could have been easily checked, and it overwhelmed and beaten back across the border, and kept there, but for the powerful cooperation of the navy. Therefore the great error in policy of those who guided the destinies of the South was in not putting afloat at an early day a navy superior to that of the United States. There are those, probably, who being but slightly acquainted with such matters, will urge that it was an impossibility so to do. They are greatly in error. I hazard little when I say that if the great Mississippi had been completed at New Orleans a month before she was burned, the Confederate States would now be one of the nations of the earth, instead of conquered provinces.

Shortly after the enemy left the shore opposite Vicksburg an expedition was planned against Baton Rouge, General John C. Breckinridge to command. After the army had arrived at Tangipahoa it was determined to ask for the assistance of the Arkansas. Captain Brown was sick at Grenada, and telegraphed Stevens not to go down, as the machinery was not reliable. Application was made by General Van Dorn to Commodore Lynch, who gave the order to proceed down the river as soon as possible. The vessel was hurriedly coaled and provisioned, and men and officers hastened to join her. Captain Brown left his bed to regain his ship, but arrived too late. He subsequently followed down by rail and assumed command of the crew shortly after the destruction of the vessel. The reader must not construe any remark here to reflect on Stevens. Such is not my intention. He was a conscientious, Christian gentleman, a zealous and efficient officer. In the performance of his duty he was thorough, consistent and patriotic. His courage was of the truest and highest type; in the face of the enemy he knew nothing but his duty, and always did it. Under this officer we left Vicksburg thirty [207] hours before General Breckinridge had arranged to make his attacks. The short time allowed to arrive at the rendezvous made it imperative that the vessel should be driven up to her best speed. This resulted in the frequent disarrangements of the machinery and consequent stoppages to key up and make repairs. Every delay required more speed thereafter in order to meet our appointment. Another matter operated against us. We had been compelled to leave behind, in the hospital, our chief engineer, George W. City, who was worn out and broken down by excessive watching and anxiety. His care and nursing had kept the machinery in order up to the time of leaving. We soon began to feel his loss. The engineer in charge, a volunteer from the army, had recently joined us, and though a young man1 of pluck and gallantry, and possessed of great will and determination to make the engines work, yet he was unequal to the task. He had never had anything to do with a screw vessel or short-stroke engines, and, being zealous for the good repute of his department, drove the machinery beyond its powers of endurance.

The reader may wonder why the machinery of a vessel of so much importance should have been entrusted to a strange and inexperienced person, and ask for an explanation. Were there not other engineers than Mr. City in the navy, and, if so, where were they? There were dozens of engineers of long experience and high standing at that time in the navy, most of whom were idle at Richmond and other stations. At or near the mouth of Red river, the engines had grown so contrary and required to be hammered so much that Stevens deemed it his duty to call a council of war to determine whether it was proper to proceed or return. The engineer was summoned and gave it as his opinion that the machinery would hold out, and upon that statement we determined to go ahead. A few miles below Port Hudson he demanded a stoppage to key up and make all things secure before going into action. We landed at the right bank of the river, and I was dispatched with Bacot to a house near by to get information. After a deal of trouble we gained admittance and learned that the naval force of the enemy at Baton Rouge consisted of our particular enemy, the Essex, and one or two small sea-going wooden gunboats. This was very satisfactory. We learned, also, that Breckinridge was to attack at daylight; that his movements had been known for several days [208] on that side of the river; yet it will be borne in mind that this important secret could not be entrusted to high officers of the navy until a few hours before they were to co-operate in the movement. At daylight we heard our gallant troops commence the engagement. The long rattle of the volleys of musketry, mixed with the deep notes of artillery, informed us that we were behind, and soon came the unmistakable boom of heavy navy guns, which plainly told us that we were wanted—that our iron sides should be receiving those missiles which were now mowing down our ranks of infantry. In feverish haste our lines were cast off and hauled aboard, and once more the good ship was driving towards the enemy. Like a war-horse she seemed to scent the battle from afar, and in point of speed outdid anything we had ever before witnessed. There was a fatal error. Had she been nursed then by our young and over-zealous engineer she would have again made her mark in the day's fight. We were in sight of Baton Rouge. The battle had ceased; our troops had driven the enemy to the edge of the water, captured his camps and his positions, and had in turn retired before the heavy broadsides of the Essex, which lay moored abreast of the arsenal. Our officers and crew went to quarters in high spirits, for once there was a chance to make the army and country appreciate us. Baton Rouge is situated on a ‘reach’ or long, straight stretch of river, which extends three or four miles above the town. We were nearly to the turn and about to enter the ‘reach;’ the crew had been mustered at quarters, divisions reported, and all the minute preparations made for battle which have before been detailed, when Stevens came on deck with Brady, the pilot, to take a final look and determine upon what plan to adopt in his attack on the Essex. It was my watch and we three stood together. Brady proposed that we ram the Essex and sink her where she lay, then back out and put ourselves below the transports and wooden gunboats as soon as possible to cut off their retreat. Stevens assented to the proposal and had just remarked that we had better go to our stations, for we were in a hundred yards of the turn, when the starboard engine stopped suddenly, and, before the man at the wheel could meet her with the helm, the ship ran hard and fast aground, jamming herself on to some old cypress stumps that were submerged. We were in full view from the position General Breckinridge had taken up to await our attack. All day long he remained in line of battle prepared to move forward again, but in vain. On investigation it was found [209] that the engine was so badly out of order that several hours must be consumed before we could again expect to move. There lay the enemy in plain view, and we as helpless as a shear-hulk. Hundreds of people had assembled to witness the fight. In fact, many ladies in carriages had come to see our triumph. They waved us on with smiles and prayers, but we couldn't go. But Stevens was not the man to give up. A quantity of railroad iron, which had been laid on deck loose, was thrown overboard, and in a few hours we were afloat. The engineers had pulled the engine to pieces and with files and chisels were as busy as bees, though they had been up constantly then for the greater parts of the two preceding nights. At dark it was reported to the commanding officer that the vessel could be moved. In the meantime some coal had been secured (our supply was getting short), and it was determined to run up stream a few hundred yards and take it in during the night, and be ready for hot work in the morning. Therefore we started to move, but had not gone a hundred yards before the same engine broke down again; the crank pin (called a ‘wrist’ by Western engineers) of the rock-shaft broke in two. Fortunately one of the engineers was a blacksmith, so the forge was set up and another pin forged. But this with our improvised facilities used up the whole night. Meantime the enemy became aware of our crippled condition, and at daylight moved up to the attack. The Essex led, and came up very slowly, at a rate not to exceed two miles an hour. She had opened on us before the last touch had been given to the pin, but it was finished and the parts thrown together. As the ship again started ahead Stevens remarked that we were brought to bay by a superior force, and that he should fight it out as long as we would swim. The battle for the supremacy of the river was upon us, and we must meet the grave responsibility as men and patriots. His plan was to go up the river a few hundred yards and then turn on and dispatch the Essex, then give his attention to the numerous force of wooden vessels which had been assembled since the morning before. The pleasant sensation of again being afloat and in possession of the power of locomotion, was hardly experienced before our last and final disaster came. The port engine this time gave way, broke down and would not move. The engineer was now in despair, he could do nothing, and so reported. The Essex was coming up astern and firing upon us. We had run ashore and were a hopeless, immovable mass. Read was returning the fire, but the two ships [210] were scarcely near enough for the shots to tell. We were not struck by the Essex, nor do I think we struck her. An army force was reported by a mounted home guard to be coming up the river to cut off our retreat. Stevens did not call a council of war, but himself assumed the responsibility of burning the ship. I recollect the look of anguish he gave me, and the scalding tears were running down his cheeks when he announced his determination. Read kept firing at the Essex until Stevens had set fire to the wardroom and cabin, then all jumped on shore, and in a few moments the flames burst up the hatches. Loaded shells had been placed at all the guns, which commenced exploding as soon as the fire reached the gun deck. This was the last of the Arkansas.

I am aware that the same class of people who accused the Tifts of treason (the stay-at-home-guards), were sure that the engineer had caused the engines to break down. I am also aware that many lawyers, doctors, planters, and gentlemen of elegant leisure, who had then been soldiering a twelve month, were sure they could have managed the business much better than the gallant and experienced naval officer who had it in charge. I am also aware that several old, influential and wealthy sugar planters were witnesses of the disaster, and gave it as their solemn and well considered opinion (Jack Bunsby was in the habit of giving ‘opinions’ also), that the vessel was ‘unnecessarily sacrificed!’ I trust that whoever undertakes our naval history will give due weight to the opinions, suspicions and insinuations referred to, always referring to their source.

We have now told all about the career of our great ship. We have gone with her through fire and smoke, death and destruction; and if the reader is so minded we will go back and learn something more of her. As related in the first chapter, she was built a short distance below the city of Memphis by Captain John T. Shirley. It seems that Captain Shirley organized in the early months of 1861 what he called a river brigade; but owing to the lack of facilities for operations he was compelled to disband his force. Not being content, however, to remain idle, he conceived the plan of building a couple of powerful gunboats for river service. The plan was adopted at Richmond, and the sum of $125,000 appropriated for the purpose. This sum was found totally inadequate, and in order to raise funds, which were supplied tardily by the Government, Captain Shirley was compelled to sell his homestead. Nothing daunted, the enthusiastic projector pushed forward. Competent mechanics were scarce, and he sent to St. Louis for them—for the [211] army refused to allow the detail of men to work on gunboats. Thus cramped for want of money and mechanics, the work necessarily progressed slowly. One vessel, the Arkansas, was finally launched before the fall of New Orleans, and the other was burned on the stocks. Orders came from Richmond to tow the Arkansas up the Yazoo, and when the writer joined her she was at Greenwood. Captain Brown assumed command of her at that place, and fearing that the water would get too low to float her out after she was completed, he at once took her down the river to Yazoo City. Upon arriving at the latter place the outlook was certainly anything but encouraging. There was neither foundry or machine shop in the place. The ship was in a very incomplete condition. The iron of her armor extended only a foot, or a little more, above the water line, and there was not a sufficiency of iron on hand to finish the entire ship. Of guns, we had enough, but were short four carriages. In the matter of ammunition and outfit for the battery we were also very deficient. It was fearfully discouraging, but Brown was undismayed. He summoned the planters from the neighborhood and asked for laborers, and all the blacksmiths' tools they could furnish. In a few days we had several hundred laborers and their overseers. Numbers of forges were sent in, and the work commenced. The hoisting engine of the steamboat Capital was made to drive a number of steam drills, whilst some dozens of hands were doing similar work by hand. A temporary blacksmith shop was erected on the river bank, and the ringing of the hammer was incessant. Stevens went to Canton and got the four gun carriages. I have often been greatly amused when thinking of this latter achievement. He made no drawing before his departure, not knowing that he could find a party who would undertake the job. Being agreeably disappointed in this latter respect he wrote back for the dimensions of the guns. With two squares I made the measurement of the guns (all different patterns) and sent on the data. In a week or a little more Stevens appeared with four ox teams and the carriages. However it would take more space than is necessary to recite all that was done, and how it was done. It is sufficient to say that within five weeks from the day we arrived at Yazoo City we had a man-of-war (such as she was) from almost nothing—the credit for all of which belongs to Isaac Newton Brown, the commander of the vessel.

The following is a complete list of the officers who served in the Arkansas during her four great battles. Some others were attached to her but were not present at the time indicated: [212]

I. N. Brown, Mississippi, Commander. LieutenantsHenry K. Stevens, South Carolina; John Grimball, South Carolina; A. D: Wharton, Tennessee; Charles W. Read, Mississippi; Alphonse Barbot, Louisiana, and George W. Gift, Tennessee. Masters—Samuel Milliken, Kentucky, and John L. Phillips, Louisiana. MidshipmenDabney M. Scales, Mississippi; Richard H. Bacot, South Carolina, and Clarence W. Tyler, Virginia. Master's Mate, John A. Wilson, Maryland; Surgeon, H. W. M. Washington, Virginia; Assistant Surgeon, C. M. Morfit, Maryland; First Assistant (acting Chief) Engineer, George W. City, Virginia; Second Assistant Engineer, E. Covert, Louisiana; Third Assistant Engineers, W. H. Jackson, Maryland; J. T. Dolan, Virginia; C. H. Browne, Virginia; John S. Dupuy and James Gettis, Louisiana; Gunner, T. B. Travers, Virginia; Pilots—John Hodges, James Brady, William Gilmore and J. H. Shacklett.

Captain Brown is now a successful planter, on his place in Bolivar county, Mississippi; Stevens, poor fellow, was killed on the Bayou Teche, in Louisiana, during the war; Grimball is a lawyer in New York City; Read commands a fine steamer plying between New Orleans and Havana; Barbot is dead; Millikin and Phillips are both dead; Scales, no longer a big midshipman with a round jacket on, is a lawyer in Memphis. All the pilots except Shacklettt are dead. I do not know the whereabouts of the remainder.

1 I have forgotten his name.

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