Warships of the Confederate Navy: Battleship Arkansas

(To Francesco Sisto)

I have had a strong interest in the history of the United States of America for several years now; in particular, I became more and more passionate about the dynamics and questions of a strategic-military nature of the American nation. I had the opportunity to deepen certain issues thanks to the reading of historical-military essays and magazines. One part of the history of the United States that particularly fascinates me is that relating to Civil war - lasted four years from 1861 to 1865 - especially the naval aspect of the war (a part that in my opinion is not very thorough).

With this article of mine I try to recall some naval aspects of that conflict which saw northerners pitted against southerners, or as the Americans would say Yankees versus dixies.

Specifically, in this brief intervention of mine, I write about the "famous" battleship CSS Arkansas of the Confederate Navy.

The battleship Arkansas it was very short-lived; in fact, she survived just over three weeks (from 15 July to 6 August 1862) but this did not prevent her from becoming "famous".

It was designed, together with its sister ship Tennessee, by shipbuilder John L. Porter; later, it was “Ordered at Shirley Yard, Memphis August 24, 1861 and laid down two months later”.1

In the late spring of 1862, the Union fleet was sailing up the Mississippi River and at one point approached Memphis, Tennessee; then the confederates decided to burn the hull not yet launched of the Tennessee to avoid being captured (it was June 5, 1862). The battleship Arkansashowever, it had been towed downriver to be completed.

The command of theArkansas was entrusted to Lieutenant Isaac Newton Brown, who had the arduous task of completing and equipping the ship. He had the hull towed up the Yazoo River, and in just over four weeks he was able to complete the fitting out.

In mid-July, the baptism of fire began (on July 15, 1862 to be exact): in fact, on the night of the 15th, three Union warships – the Carondelet, Tyler and Queen of the West - went up the Yazoo River and passed the battleship Arkansas which was heading for Vicksburg (Mississippi).

The three Union vessels attempted to escape, but two of them – the Carondelet and Tyler – were hit and damaged by the Confederate vessel.

Later, theArkansas arrived in the Mississippi River and found there a squadron of ships - between twenty and thirty units - under the command of the Union admiral David Farragut blocking the access to the port Vicksburg.2

The Confederate battleship, as it approached, became the target of the guns of the Union ships; despite this theArkansas she advanced decisively, returning enemy fire. In addition, he managed to inflict serious damage on opposing ships. Eventually he managed to break through the Union blockade and arrived at the port of Vicksburg although with numerous damages suffered; eventually the Union naval squadron decided to withdraw from Vicksburg.

Undoubtedly for the Confederate Navy it was a major tactical success against the Union Navy. For his actions, Lieutenant Brown was promoted to captain and was awarded the Confederate Medal of Honor.

Later, theArkansas was sent near Baton Rouge in Louisiana to support the ground forces; on August 6, 1862, the Confederate battleship engaged the Union battleship Essex. Damage sustained in previous engagements doomed the Confederate vessel; in fact the engine and machinery gave way and the hull ran aground.

The battleship Arkansas had a displacement of about 1200 tons, a length of 50 meters and had a crew of at least 200 men.

Some final considerations

The American Civil War, which saw the Confederate states collide against those of the Union, clearly divides the history of the United States of America into two eras.

As Raimondo Luraghi writes: the caesura between the modern and contemporary ages (unlike Europe, where it is conventionally given by the French Revolution) is, in the United States, pushed forward by almost a century and placed in 1865, the date of the surrender of the South (or, at most , in 1877, the year in which the so-called reconstruction that followed the civil war ended).3

Therefore, taking up Raimondo Luraghi's analysis, one could state that the United States of America (as we know them today) only began to exist after 1865. Furthermore, it should be emphasized that with the war two different conceptions of America collided: on the one hand a pre-capitalist South still founded on slavery and plantations, on the other hand a capitalist North projected towards industry.

We can assert that the American Civil War was the first industrial war of the so-called "contemporary age".

In this regard Sir Rupert Smith writes: This clash represented a milestone in the evolution of industrial warfare between states, both for its subsequent influence on the way of waging war in the USA, and because many European observers made it known overseas: the conclusions they drew from the strong impressions matured on the American battles were perhaps not always correct, but they nonetheless had a huge impact on the evolution of total warfare in Europe.4

1 A. Fraccaroli, The armored Arkansas, in Illustrated History, n°210, 1975, p.131


3 R. Luraghi, The United States in the Age of Civil War, Le Monnier, Florence, 1978, p.1

4 R. Smith, The art of war in the contemporary world, il Mulino, Bologna, 2009, p.138

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