The Arkansas was the only Confederate ironclad to see service in Mississippi waters during the Civil War. The vessel was one of two identical ironclads laid down in Memphis, Tennessee, by contractor John T. Shirley in October 1861. Though Shirley was to deliver both ships by 24 December, they remained incomplete when Union forces threatened the area in April 1862. Confederate authorities towed the Arkansas up the Yazoo River to Greenwood, where they hoped to finish the vessel. The second Shirley boat, the Tennessee, was destroyed on the stocks at Memphis to prevent its capture.
The saga of the Arkansas’s completion reflected the myriad difficulties inherent in ship construction in the Confederacy and particularly in the Mississippi Delta, where industrial resources were scarce. The lack of facilities at Greenwood necessitated the vessel’s removal to Yazoo City, where conditions were slightly better. Because experienced shipbuilders were unavailable, local blacksmiths, detailed soldiers, and hired slaves were pressed into service. The lack of rolled armor plate forced builders to substitute raw railroad rails. Ordnance and ordnance stores arrived piecemeal from Memphis, Vicksburg, Jackson, and Atlanta. Largely through the determined efforts of commanding officer Isaac N. Brown, work concluded in roughly five weeks, and by July the vessel was ready for a crew.
The completed Arkansas retained a makeshift appearance, and conditions aboard were at best primitive. Measuring 165 feet in length and 35 feet abeam, the ship featured a boxlike armored casemate housing a ten-gun battery. The gunboat’s woodwork was crude, and the machinery was notoriously unreliable. Quarters were cramped and ventilation was inadequate. Heat from the engines and boilers was nearly unbearable: temperatures belowdecks held steady at 100 degrees even when the fires were banked and soared to 130 when the ship was under steam. Firemen and engineers worked in short shifts, and some even volunteered for duty on the gun deck to escape the heat.
Despite its humble origins the Arkansas proved formidable in its brief but eventful career. Union observers doubted that the ironclad would ever become operational, and the vessel’s appearance on the Mississippi River on 15 July 1862 caught the US Navy by surprise. In a running battle the Arkansas fought the entire Union fleet as it ran the gauntlet between the mouth of the Yazoo and Vicksburg. The ironclad both sustained and inflicted heavy damage in the lopsided contest. Nearly crippled, the Arkansas reached Vicksburg, where its presence threatened Union naval superiority on the Mississippi. Moored under the city’s high bluff, the ship survived two Union attempts to destroy it. It was subsequently placed under the command of the Confederate Army and ordered downriver on 2 August to support an attack against Baton Rouge. Repairs remained incomplete and mechanical problems plagued the Arkansas during the journey. The ship’s engines broke down on 6 August, just as it encountered Union gunboats defending Baton Rouge. With the battle already joined, the vessel drifted powerless to the riverbank, where crew members set it on fire to prevent its capture. Adrift and in flames, the Arkansas finally exploded and sank.
The Arkansas illustrated the potential and the limitations of the Confederacy’s home-built ironclads. Its existence altered the strategic balance on the Mississippi and forced the Union Navy to retreat downriver to New Orleans. Yet the South’s limited capacity for manufacturing doomed the ironclad to destruction. Unsupported and equipped with inferior machinery, the Arkansas faced long odds. By the time of its destruction, the Confederacy possessed no suitable facilities in the region to replace the ironclad.
- A. Robert Holcombe Jr., “The Evolution of Confederate Ironclad Design” (master’s thesis, East Carolina University, 1993)
- William N. Still Jr., Confederate Shipbuilding (1969)
- William N. Still Jr., Iron Afloat: The Story of Confederate Armorclads (1971)