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[163]

The story of the Arkansas.

By George W. Gift.

No. 3.

Our arrival at Vicksburg was hailed with delight by all the army. The officers came on board to see the marks of the struggle, whilst squads of eager privates collected on the bank to get a near view of the wonderful craft which had just stood so much hammering. This attracted a daring band of sharpshooters to the other bank, and we were forced to open with our heavy guns to disperse them, which was easily accomplished by half a dozen discharges. The enemy below showed decided signs of demoralization. A mortar-boat which had been allowed to get aground was hastily set on fire and blown up. A sea-going vessel (commanded by Craven), left to guard the transports, sprung her broadside athwart the stream to be ready for an attack. Everything got up steam and Porter's flag-boat opened with a hundred-pounder Parrott gun in a spiteful, angry fashion, throwing her shot over and beyond us. If we had had a smoke-stack, and proper boiler fronts, and good engines, and a new crew, and many other things, how we would have made a smash of those fellows! But as our smoke-stack was so riddled, the draft was destroyed, and as our engines were troublesome, faulty affairs, and our crew were nearly all killed, wounded, or used up, we had to bide where we were, and see this chance slip away from us. Read cast many longing glances down the river, and I think would have been perfectly willing to undertake the task, broken down as we were. But there is a limit to human endurance; we could do no more, and we rested. During the day the telegraph informed Captain Brown that he had been promoted to the rank of Commander, and we were thanked from Richmond for our brilliant achievement. Our dead were removed on shore for burial and our wounded were taken to an army hospital. As soon as we arrived at Vicksburg the detachment of soldiers left us to rejoin their command, which reduced our force to a very low ebb. As well as we could, we put the ship to rights, and the day wore away. As soon as dark began to set in it was evident that the enemy meant mischief.

Everything was under way, and soon the guns from the upper battery opened quick and sharp, to be replied to by the broadsides of the heavy ships coming down—the Richmond (Alden) leading. Our plucky men were again at their quarters, and steam was ready, should we be [164] compelled to cast off and take our chances in the stream against both fleets. About that time things looked prettty blue. It is true that we were under the batteries of Vicksburg, but practically we had as well have been a hundred miles from there. The guns were perched on the high hills; they were not provided with sights, and if ever they hit anything it was an accident or the work of one of Brooke's rifles.1 This we well knew, and stripped this time for what we supposed would be a death struggle. The sea-going fleet of Farragut was to pass down, drag out and literally mob us; whilst the iron-clad squadron of Davis was to keep the batteries engaged. Down they came, steaming slowly and steadily, and seemed to be on the lookout for us. But they had miscalculated their time. The darkness which partially shrouded them from the view of the army gunners completely shut us out from their sight, inasmuch as our sides were the color of rust and we lay under a red bank; consequently, the first notice they had of our whereabouts came from our guns as they crossed our line of fire, and then it was too late to attempt to check up and undertake to grapple with us. They came by singly, each to get punished, as our men were again feeling in excellent spirits. The Hartford stood close in to the bank, and as we spit out our broadside at her, she thundered back with an immense salvo. Our bad luck had not left us. An eleven-inch shot pierced our side a few inches above the water-line, and passed through the engine-room, killing two men outright (cutting them both in two) and wounding six or eight others. The medicines of the ship were dashed into the engine-room, and the debris from the bulkheads and splinters from the side enveloped the machinery. The shot bedded itself so far in the opposite side that its position could be told by the bulging protuberance outside. On account of my disabled arm I had turned over my division to Scales, and remained with Captain Brown on the platform. To be a spectator of such a scene was intensely interesting and exciting. The great ships with their towering spars came sweeping by, pouring out broadside after broadside, whilst the batteries from the hills, the mortars from above and below, and the ironclads, kept the air alive with hurtling missiles and the darkness lighted up by burning fuses and bursting shells. On our gun-deck every man and officer worked as though the fate of the nation hung on his individual efforts. Scales was very near, and I could hear his clear voice continually. He coaxed and bullied alternately, and [165] finally, when he saw his object in line, his voice rose as clear as a bell, and his ‘ready! fire!’ rang out like a bugle note. The last vessel which passed us was that commanded by Nichols (‘Bricktop’) and she got one of our shots in her out-board delivery. He pivoted his eleven inch gun to starboard, heeled his vessel to keep the leak above water, and drifted past the batteries without further damage.

We had more dead and wounded, another hole through our armor and heaps of splinters and rubbish. Three separate battles had been fought and we retired to anything but easy repose. One of our messmates in the ward-room (a pilot) had asserted at supper that he would not again pass through the ordeal of the morning for the whole world. His mangled body, collected in pieces was now on the gundeck; another had been sent away to the hospital with a mortal hurt. The steerage mess was short four or five members, whilst on the berth deck many poor fellows would never again range themselves about the mess-cloth. However, amidst all this blood and damage this thought would come up: If there had been two or three more of us—or even our consort, which was burned on the stocks-what a difference there would have been. As sure as the sun rose on that bright July morning we would have captured every vessel opposed to us. Why were there not more? We will explain that before we get through. Our next battle occurred a week later.

The enemy now had a fleet above and below us, and though foiled and angry he made no immediate active effort to do us more harm, other than to shell us incessantly by day, and once by night, with mortar shells. Half a dozen or more thirteen inch mortars kept missiles continually in the air, directed at us. We were twice struck by fragments—otherwise the business was very harmless. Some days after our arrival a package of letters were received at General Van Dorn's headquarters, which had been taken from a captured steamer. Those from navy officers were sent down to us, and a number were selected and sent to the Appeal, then being published at Grenada. As the files are yet preserved I am able to lay them before my readers. A very long letter from the paymaster of the Richmond to his wife, described the attack of the Arkansas, and was unsparing on Farragut and Davis, accusing them of incapacity and negligence, remarking that Porter was the only man present who had brains as well as courage. I recollect the following letters well and can vouch for their being genuine: [166]

U. S. Steamer, Richmond, Mississippi river, July 18, 1862.
My Dear Joe,—On the morning of the 15th of July, about 7 o'clock, we were suddenly aroused, and, in my case, awakened by the sharp clicks of the rattle. The first words I heard were, ‘the Rebel ram Arkansas is coming down upon us.’ Throwing on a few clothes I hastened on deck to ascertain the state of things. Around us lay the combined power of Farragut's and Davis's fleets. Frigates, gunboats, iron-plated boats, wooden rams and iron-cased rams were anchored along the banks for a mile and a-half. And slowly steaming along the hollow of the bend in the river, just above us, was a long, low, dull, red, floating object. She showed neither flag, [mistake], nor sign of life. A couple of gunboats were anchored ahead of us, but being the first of the large ships, we all supposed we would be the first object of attack. Her course also seemed to indicate it. Two (one) of our gunboats now fired. The Arkansas answered, taking off one man's head and wounding three others. I saw her pass the gunboats. I looked for some vessel moving to attack her. Not one stirred; only one man had steam up on his vessel. We believe he could have sunk her, (bosh!) yet he did not move a finger, because he ‘didn't receive orders.’ Slowly, steadily, gallantly, the Rebel ram kept on her way, as though she belonged to us and was quietly choosing an anchorage. She was now approaching us, and, as all the rest of the crew had been at their quarters some time, I was obliged to go to mine. I sat down and ‘coolly’ awaited the blow I knew must sink us. In a few minutes our guns were fired in quick succession. I waited, but no crash followed. I went on deck and saw the ram slowly floating below uninjured. Our solid wrought iron shot had been shattered to pieces against her sides. (He did not know as much about that as we did.) The Benton, Hartford and gunboats below poured a perfect shower of balls upon her. But she was adamant. (He was frightened.) It did not even hasten her speed, and proudly she turned a point, disappeared from sight and anchored under the batteries at Vicksburg. I doubt whether such a feat was ever before accomplished, and whoever commanded her should be known and honored. (This from the enemy.) The morning she came out, the Carondelet, a gunboat (Tyler) and a ram (Queen of the West) went up the river to reconnoiter. They suddenly met the Arkansas; one was driven ashore (what says Mr. Walke?) and the others forced to retreat down the river with heavy [167] loss; and it was with mingled curses and admiration we saw her come chasing them down the river.

Johnnie.


Another.

The great rebel iron-clad Arkansas came down the river on the morning of the 15th and passed the whole fleet, and is now under the batteries at Vicksburg. * * We were the head ship except the hospital boat and river steamers. One of Davis's rams came around our stern to give her a butt as she passed (she was called the Lancaster), but unfortunately a shot from the rebel entered the Lancaster's boiler, and such a sight I never saw before. Not ten yards from our ship the scalded wretches threw themselves into the water. Some of them never rose to the surface again. I turned around and there was the Arkansas coming down very leisurely, when we let fly a broadside of fourteen guns loaded with solid shot, each weighing 110 pounds. For an instant we could not see anything but smoke. The next instant I looked again, and she had passed as if nothing had fired at her. All the damage done, that I could see, was that part of her bow was knocked off. (The ram was broken.) Each vessel fired at her as she passed, not more than thirty yards distant. * * Steam was got up on all the fleet. Our ship was pickedout to run into the Arkansas and board her at all hazards. The mortars opened on the town instantly. The Richmond took the lead; then came the Iroquois, Oneida (lost in Yokohoma Bay in 1870), Hartford, Sumter, and two other gunboats which were to pass the city and fight the ram.

I have reproduced these letters to show that the account I have already given was not exaggerated. Let us now proceed with our narrative. We were dealing with a bold and confident enemy, determined to take some desperate chances to compass our destruction. As the reader already knows our crew was fearfully used up on the 15th. Daily we sent more men to the hospital, suffering with malarious diseases, until we had not in a week more than thirty seamen, ordinary seamen and landsmen, and I think but four or five firemen. Many of the younger officers had also succumbed; those of us who were left were used up also. We slept below, with our clothes on, in an atmosphere so heated by the steam of the engines as to keep one in a constant perspiration. No more men were to be had. It was disheartening enough to see a ship which but a week [168] before was the pride of the country now almost deserted. On the morning of the 22d of July, a week after our arrival, we were awakened early in the morning by the drum calling us to quarters. Great commotion was observed in the fleet above. Everything seemed under-way again, and it was evident that we were soon to have another brush. On our decks were not men enough to man two guns, and not firemen enough to keep steam up if we were forced into the stream! Rather a doleful outlook! We were moored to the bank, head up the river, as a matter of course. The fires under the boilers were hastened, and every possible preparation made for resistance. In a few minutes we observed the iron-clad steamer Essex (‘Dirty Bill Porter’ commanding) steaming around the point and steering for us. The upper battery opened, but she did not reply. Grimball unloosed his Columbiad, but she did not stop. I followed, hitting her fair, but still she persevered in sullen silence. Her plan was to run into and shove us aground, when her consort, the Queen of the West, was to follow and but a hole in us; and thus the dreaded ram was to be made way with. On she came like a mad bull, nothing daunted or overawed. As soon as Captain Brown got a fair view of her, followed at a distance by the Queen, he divined her intent, and seeing that she was as square across the bow as a flatboat or scow, and we were as sharp as a wedge, he determined at once to foil her tactics. Slacking off the hawser which held our head to the bank, he went ahead on the starboard screw, and thus our sharp prow was turned directly for her to hit against. This disconcerted the enemy and destroyed his plan. A collision would surely cut him down and leave us uninjured. All this time we had not been idle spectators. The two Columbiads had been ringing on his front and piercing him every shot; to which he did not reply until he found that the shoving game was out of the question. Then, and when not more than fifty yards distant, he triced up his three bow port-shutters and poured out his fire. A nine-inch shot struck our armor a few inches forward of the unlucky forward port, and crawling along the side entered. Seven men were killed outright and six wounded. Splinters flew in all directions. In an instant the enemy was alongside, and his momentum was so great that he ran aground a short distance astern of us. As he passed we poured out our port broadside, and as soon as the stern rifles could be cleared of the splinters and broken stanchions and woodwork, which had been driven the whole length of the gunbox, we went ahead on our port screw and turned our stern guns on him, and every man—we had but seventeen left—and officer went to [169] them. As he passed he did not fire, nor did he whilst we were riddling him close aboard. His only effort was to get away from us. He backed hard on his engines and finally got off; but getting a shot in his machinery just as he got afloat, he was compelled to float down stream and join the lower fleet, which he accomplished without damage from the batteries on the hills. He fired only the three shots mentioned. But our troubles were not over. We had scarcely shook this fellow off before we were called to the other end of the ship—we ran from one gun to another to get ready for a second attack. The Queen was now close to us, evidently determined to ram us. The guns had been fired and were now empty and inboard. Somehow we got them loaded and run out, and by the time she had commenced to round to. I am not sure, but I think we struck her with the Columbiads as she came down, but at all events the broadside was ready. Captain Brown adopted the plan of turning his head to her also, and thus received her blow glancing. She came into us going at an enormous speed, probably fifteen miles and hour, and I felt pretty sure that our hour had struck. I had hoped to blow her up with the thirtytwo-pounder as she passed, but the gun being an old one, with an enlarged vent, the primer drew out without igniting the charge. One of the men, we had no regular gun's crews then, every man was expected to do ten men's duty, replaced it and struck it with a compressor lever; but too late; his boilers were past, and the shot went through his cylinder timbers without disabling him. His blow, though glancing, was a heavy one. His prow, or beak, made a hole through our side and caused the ship to careen, and roll heavily; but we all knew in an instant that no serious damage had been done, and we redoubled our efforts to cripple him so that he could not again attempt the experiment. As did the Essex, so he ran into the bank astern of us, and got the contents of the stern battery; but being more nimble than she, was sooner off into deep water. Returning up stream he got our broadside guns again, and we saw that he had no disposition to engage us further. As he passed the line of fire of the bow guns he got it again, and I distinctly recollect the handsomest shot I ever made was the last at her. He was nearly a mile away, and I bowled at him with the gun lying level. It ricochetted four or five times before it dropped into his stern. But it dropped there. As I have before said, the Essex was drifting down stream unmanageable, and now would have been our time to have ended her in sight of both squadrons, but we had but seventeen men and they well-nigh exhausted. Beating off these two vessels, under the circumstances, was [170] the best achievement of the Arkansas. That we were under the batteries of Vicksburg did not amount to anything. I do not believe that either vessel was injured by an army gun that day. We were left to our fate, and if we had been lost it would have been no unusual or unexpected thing. The Essex used, in one of her guns that day, projectiles that were probably never used before, to-wit: Marbles that boys used for playing. We picked up a hundred unbroken ones on our forecastle. There were ‘white-allies,’ ‘chinas,’ and some glass marbles. I wish the naval reader to understand that the Essex did not return the fire as she lay alongside us, did not attempt to board, although he had a picked crew for that purpose, and fired but three guns in the fight, and thereafter kept her ports closed. Brown, no longer able to play the lion, assumed the role of the fox with consummate skill.

1 Not then in position at Vicksburg.

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