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The story of the Arkansas.

By George W. Gift.

No. 1.

[We are glad to be able to put in our records the interesting ‘story of the Arkansas’ as told by the gallant and lamented Gift, who did so much to ‘make the history’ which he so admirably ‘tells as it was.’]

The 15th day of July, 1862, was a warm day, literally and figuratively, for some two hundred persons cooped up in the famous Confederate steamer Arkansas.

Our good ship had been gotten up under the peculiar circumstances [49] of haste and incompetency, which so frequently characterized our Confederate navy. What she was designed for no man probably knows. I imagine that she was intended for a powerful iron-clad gun boat, with an iron beak for poking, and several heavy guns for shooting. But, before she had arrived at anything like a state of completion, the plan was altered, and she was made into an hermaphrodite-iron-clad. That is to say (I am speaking for the benefit of those learned in naval matters), instead of finishing the ship with an ordinary rail and bulwark all round, her sides were ‘built on’ amidships for fifty or sixty feet in length, so as to give an apology for protection to three guns in each broadside. The sides, it must be understood, were perpendicular. The ends of this ‘castle,’ or ‘gunbox,’ as Captain Brown dubbed it, were sloping or inclined, from which were thrust four more guns, two at each end. This gave us a battery of ten guns, which, by the way, were of all sizes and descriptions —to-wit: two eight-inch Columbiads; one eight-inch shell gun; two nine-inch shell guns; one smooth bore, 32 pounder, (63 cwt.,) and four rifle-guns, formerly 32-pounders, but now altered, three banded and one unbanded. Four of the carriages were mounted on railroad iron chassis; the six broadside guns were on carriages constructed at Canton, Miss., by parties who never saw or heard of such things before. The timber had not left the stump ten days when we received the carriages on board. But we are getting ahead too fast. The ship was built at Fort Pickering, a short distance below Memphis, by Captain John T. Shirley, as contractor, and Prime Emmerson, constructor. Her engines were built (or botched, rather,) at a foundry on Adams street, and the timber of which she was composed grew in our vicinity. The Confederate Congress, in the plenitude of their wisdom, appropriated $125,000 to build two rams to defend the upper Mississippi. The Arkansas was the first constructed under the act, and was towed up the Yazoo after the fall of New Orleans. I will not take the reader through all the disappointments and crosses during the six or eight weeks preceding the fifteenth of July we started out with. It is sufficient that we had the craft, incomplete and rough as she was, with railroad bars on her hull and sides and ends of the ‘gun-box.’ We have a crew and an officer for every gun, and on the aforesaid morning we are steaming down the Yazoo river, bound to Mobile. Our orders were to pass Vicksburg shortly after dawn; proceed from thence down the river, destroying any stray vessels of the enemy in the road; coal-ship at New Orleans; pass Forts Jackson and St. Philip at night, and proceed to Mobile Bay [50] and raise the blockade! A programme as easy of accomplishment as it was superb and glorious, had not the pilot miscalculated his distance, and sunrise found us in the Yazoo river, with more than twenty ships barring our way to the goal of our hopes and ambition, instead of our being twenty miles below Vicksburg, with the batteries there driving back any foolish fellows who might think of chasing us. However, we were in for it—yes, in for one of the most desperate fights any one ship ever sustained since ships were first made.

Some time after midnight we lifted our anchor from in front of Haynes's Bluff, on the Yazoo, and steamed down the river. Just before daylight we stopped the ship and sent a boat on shore to obtain information from a plantation. Lieutenant Charles W. Read was dispatched in charge of the boat. The expedition was fruitless, as the people had taken alarm and fled on hearing a steamer in the river and a boat approaching their landing. An old negro woman alone remained to guard the house. Read made inquiry concerning the whereabouts of the people. She could not tell. ‘They have but just left,’ he insisted, ‘for the beds are yet warm.’ ‘Dunno 'bout dat,’ said the aunty, ‘an‘ if I did, I wouldn't tell.’ ‘Do you take me for a Yankee? Don't you see I wear a gray coat,’ said the Lieutenant. ‘Sartin you's a Yankee. Our folks ain't got none dem gun boats.’

Getting no satisfaction, we proceeded; and when the sun rose we were still in the Yazoo.

As it is now daylight, let me describe the scene on a man — of war's deck, cleared for action, or at least that man-of-war, on that occasion. Many of the men had stripped off their shirts and were bare to the waists, with handkerchiefs bound round their heads, and some of the officers had removed their coats and stood in their undershirts. The decks had been thoroughly sanded to prevent slipping after the blood should become plentiful. Tourniquets were served out to division officers by the surgeons, with directions for use. The division tubs were filled with water to drink; fire buckets were in place; cutlasses and pistols strapped on; rifles loaded and bayonets fixed; spare breechings for the guns, and other implements made ready. The magazines and shell-rooms forward and aft were open, and the men inspected in their places. Before getting underway, coffee (or an apology therefor) had been served to the crew, and daylight found us a grim, determined set of fellows, grouped about our guns, anxiously waiting to get sight of the enemy.

Shortly after sunrise, the smoke from several steamers was discovered [51] by Captain Brown, who, with the First Lieutenant, Henry K. Stevens,1stood on a platform entirely exposed to the enemy's fire. This was the signal for fresh girding up, last inspections and final arrangements for battle. Lieutenant John Grimball and myself divided the honor of commanding the eight-inch Columbiads. He fought the starboard and I the port gun. Midshipman Dabney M. Scales was his Lieutenant, and a youngster named John Wilson, of Baltimore, was mine. Lieutenant A. D. Wharton, of Nashville, came next on the starboard broadside, with Midshipman R. H. Bacot for his assistant. Lieutenant Charles W. Read, of Mississippi, had the two stern chasers, both rifles, to himself, and the remaining two guns on the port side were under command of Lieutenant Alphonse Barbot (recently died in New York). Each Lieutenant had two guns. Grimball and myself had each a bow-chaser and a broadside gun. The two Masters, John L. Phillips and Samuel Milliken, were in charge of the two powder divisions. Stephens busied himself passing about the ship, cool and smiling, giving advice here and encouragement there. Our commander, Lieutenant Isaac Newton Brown, passed around the ship, and after making one of his sharp, pithy speeches, returned to his post with glass in hand to get the first sight of the approaching enemy. In a few moments we see three gunboats round a point in full view, steaming towards us gallantly and saucily, with colors streaming in the wind. The iron-clad Carondelet, of twelve guns, commanded by Lieutenant Walke (a renegade Virginian), was on the right. The A. O. Tyler, the vessel which annoyed our troops at Shiloh, commanded by Lieutenant Gwin,2my classmate, was in the centre, and the unlucky river-ram, Queen of the West, commanded by an army ‘mustang’ named Hunter, was on the left. It is quite probable that they imagined we would take to our heels when we saw the odds which were against us. They were mistaken. Owing to the fact that our bow-ports were quite small, we could train our guns laterally very little; and as our head was looking to the right of the enemy's line, we were compelled to allow them to begin the action, which was quite agreeable, as we had levelled all our guns with a spirit-level the day before, marked the trunnions, and agreed that we would not fire until we were sure of hitting an enemy direct, without elevation. The gunnery of the enemy was excellent, and his rifle bolts soon began to ring on our iron front, [52] digging into and warping up the bars, but not penetrating. Twice he struck near my port, and still we could not ‘see’ him. The first blood was drawn from my division. An Irishman, with more curiosity than prudence, stuck his head out the broadside port, and was killed by a heavy rifle bolt which had missed the ship. Stevens was with me at the time; and, fearing that the sight of the mangled corpse and blood might demoralize the guns' crew, sprang forward to throw the body out of the port, and called upon the man nearest him to assist. ‘Oh! I can't do it, sir,’ the poor fellow replied, ‘it's my brother.’ The body was thrown overboard. This incident of the brother was related to me by Stevens afterwards, for by that time I had enough to do ahead. As soon as we could point straight for the enemy, with safety from grounding, the pilot steered direct for the Tyler, and I got the first shot, with an eight-inch shell with five second fuse. It struck him fair and square, killing a pilot in its flight and bursting in the engine-room. She reported seventeen killed and fourteen wounded, and I think this shell did the better part of the day's work on her. Unfortunately the gun recoiled off its chassis, and I was out of the action for five or ten minutes. However, Grimball made up for it. He had the best gun CaptainRobert McCalla— in the ship, and a superb crew, and his gun seemed to be continually going out and recoiling in again. The broadside guns thus far were not engaged; but they were not to remain entirely idle. The ‘mustang,’ summoning courage, shot up as though he would poke us gently in our starboard ribs. Captain Brown divined his intent, and gave notice in time. The starboard battery was trained sharp forward, and as the Queen ranged up, Scales gave her the first shell, followed quick by Wharton and Bacot. This settled the account on that side. The Lieutenant-Colonel had business down the river, and straightway went to attend to it; that is to say, to quote Gwin, he ‘fled ingloriously.’ This left us with the Tyler, now getting pretty sick, and the Carondelet to deal with.

It was, I think, somewhere about this stage of the fight that a bolt entered the pilot-house and mortally wounded John Hodges, Mississippi pilot, and disabled Mr. Shacklett, Yazoo river pilot, and broke the forward rim of the wheel. James Brady, the remaining Mississippi pilot, took charge, however, and by his admirable judgment and coolness kept the vessel in deep water until she got into the Mississippi, where he knew what he was about. The fight had been an advance on our part; we had never slowed the engines, but stood forward as though we held such small fry in contempt. Gwin handled [53] and fought the Tyler with skill as long as there was any hope; but he finally took to his heels, badly crippled, and went after the ‘mustang.’ What Walke did in the Carondelet, in the first part of the engagement, I am not competent to say, as I was mounting my gun, but I think he was ‘hacked’ quite early, and did but little. At any rate, when I came on the scene again (not more than ten minutes had elapsed from the first gun), and ran out my gun, the Carondelet was right ahead of us, distant about one hundred yards, and paddling down stream for dear life. Her armor had been pierced four times by Grimball, and we were running after her to use our ram, having the advantage of speed. Opposite to me a man was standing outside on the port-sill loading the stern chaser. He was so near that I could readily have recognized him had he been an acquaintance. I pointed the Columbiad for that port and pulled the lock-string. I have seen nothing of the man or gun since. We were now using fifteen-pound charges of powder and solid shot, which latter were hastily made in Canton, and had very little windage; so that I think we bored the fellow through and through from end to end. It was an exceedingly good thing we had. If his stern guns were not dismounted the crews had deserted them, for they were not used after my gun came into action the second time. I think I had hit four times, and our beak was nearly up to him, when Brady discovered that he was taking to shoal water with the hope of our grounding—we drew four feet more water than she. Therefore, we sheered off, and passed so close that it would have been easy to have jumped on board. Stevens passed rapidly along the port broadside, and saw the guns depressed to their utmost, and bid us wait for a good chance and fire down through his bottom. As we lapped up alongside, and almost touching, we poured in our broadside, which went crashing and plunging through his timbers and bottom. Although his four broadside guns—one more than we had—were run out and ready, he did not fire them. We were running near the left or Vicksburg side of the river (we are now in what is called Old River), and, as soon as passed, we headed for the middle of the stream, which gave Read his first opportunity—and right well did he use it. His rifles ‘spoke’ to the purpose, for the enemy hauled down his colors. In an instant Captain Brown announced the fact from the deck, and ordered the firing to cease; but the ship still swinging, gave Wharton and the others a chance at her with the starboard guns before it was known that he had surrendered. White flags now appeared at her ports, and the news of our victory was known all over the ship in a moment.

Talk about yelling and cheering; you should have heard it at the [54] moment on the deck of the Arkansas to have appreciated it. In fifteen minutes, without being checked in our progress, we had thrashed three of the enemy's vessels—one carrying arms as good as ours and two more guns than we, and one of the others was a famous ram, whilst the third, though of but little account, gave moral support to the others. It was glorious. For it was the first and only square, fair, equal stand — up and knock-down fight between the two navies in which the Confederates came out first best. From the beginning our ship was handled with more pluck, decision, and judgment than theirs (the Tyler excepted); our guns were better fought and better served. Not an officer or man doubted the result from the beginning. We went in to win, and we won. We now had no time to stop to secure our prize, as the enemy would be apprised of our coming and swarm in the river like bees if we did not hurry. These fellows we had beaten were but skirmishers of a main army. Consequently, we pushed down the river, and the Carondelet sank on a sand-bar on the right side.

I have been very explicit in regard to this battle with the Caronde-let, inasmuch as her commander afterwards stated to Lieutenant John W. Dunnington, of the Confederate navy, that he was not pierced by a single shot from the Arkansas that day; that he had no men killed or wounded, and did not strike his colors. I challenge him to print his official report of the day's proceedings from the files of the Navy Department It was carefully suppressed during the, war. And as for striking his colors, that will be sworn to by a dozen men; and that he did sink can be proven by hundreds who saw steamers at work raising the vessel.

1 Afterward killed on board steamer Cotton, in Bayou Teche, La.

2 Killed at Haynes's Bluff the succeeding year.

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