Clearing the Mississippi with the U.S.S. Arizona

By June of 1863, George H. Brooks had seen a lot of sea and a lot of service. The Buckeye sailor served in the pre-war Navy and was stationed in Italy when the Civil War began in April 1861. Brought home and placed on blockade duty off the east coast where “for 13 months I had the insane pleasure of snuffing heavy gales, roasting alive with heat, being eaten up with various insects and bugs, living on poor rations, drinking foul water, and deprived of all society,” Brooks was dismissed from the service when he overstayed his leave in New Orleans in the summer of 1862. The blue water sailor elected to re-enlist and try his luck with the brown water Navy “not wishing to lay idle during the war or turn a cold shoulder to my country,” and by the spring of 1863 found himself assigned to the side-wheel steamer U.S.S. Arizona.
Unidentified sailor of the U.S. Navy
Library of Congress

The name U.S.S. Arizona has an altogether more sacred connotation in the 21st century than it did at the time that Brooks sailed upon the side-wheel steamer in 1863. Brooks’ vessel was launched in Wilmington, Delaware in 1858 as the S.S. Arizona, a 200 foot long steam packet displacing 959 tons running between New Orleans and the Brazos River in Texas. The Confederates scooped her up in early 1861 and set her to blockade running between Havana and various Southern ports, rechristening her the Caroline. The ship was seized by the U.S.S. Montgomery in October 1862 when she was making a run for Mobile; the master of the Caroline claimed he was heading for Matamoros, Mexico, but the skipper of the Montgomery growled that “I do not take you for running the blockade but for your damned poor navigation. Any man bound for Matamoros from Havana and coming within twelve miles of Mobile light has no business to have a steamer.” The Navy converted her into a gunboat, adding four 32-pdr cannon, and 30-pdr Parrott rifle, and a 12-pdr rifle, and manning her with a crew of 82 officers and men.  

In March 1863, George Brooks and the Arizona under the command of Lieutenant Daniel P. Upton set out upon a series of maneuvers on the Red and Mississippi Rivers aiming to allow the Father of Waters to “flow unvexed to the sea.” Writing under the pen name “Young Neptune,” Brooks wrote the following account on June 17, 1863 as his vessel was traveling along the Mississippi River between the besieged towns of Vicksburg, Mississippi and Port Hudson, Louisiana. Within a few weeks, both Confederate bastions would surrender and Union control of the Mississippi Valley became reality. Brooks’ account was published in the July 4, 1863 edition of the Toledo Commercial, published the very day that Vicksburg was surrendered to General Grant and his army.

U.S.S. Arizona, 15 miles above Port Hudson on the Mississippi River
June 17, 1863

          If memory serves me well, I think that it was on the day of our defeat up Red River [May 3, 1863] that I penned my last letter to you. The warm weather down in this Southern clime had made me feel as indolent as a Dominican friar after a string of prayers as long as the main bowline of a Yankee frigate, and to this feeling may be traced the cause of my not having written to you before this date.
Admiral David D. Porter

          On the day after our repulse up the Red River, we were strongly reinforced by Admiral [David D.] Porter’s Mississippi River fleet, and with more cheerful spirits we again stemmed the tide to try again which iron was the hardest and could fly quickest, the Rebels or our own. We were two days getting up to the raft where we had the fight and much to our disappointment, we found not a single trace of a foe on whom we would have so well liked to have had our revenge. All had vanished; they had two days’ time and were not hurried. We cut the raft away that blockade the river and proceeded up to the forts which were one mile above. Not a gun had been taken away. We dismounted them all and spiked them so that it would puzzle some who are well-versed in naval gunnery to have rendered them fit for use again in a hurry. [Fort DeRussy, Louisiana]

          From here, we started for Alexandria [Louisiana] and the Arizona took possession and raised the American flag twelve hours in advance of Porter’s fleet and 24 hours in advance of General [Nathaniel P.] Banks, for which affair we never received any credit; in fact, we have not received credit for all that we have done on these rivers. Admiral Porter claims Alexandria. The Estrella and Calhoun (gunboats) claim Butte de la Rose [Louisiana] and our ship, which is the fastest among them [the Arizona could run at 15 knots] and acted most prominently in all the actions and work which had been done in this part of the country gets what? Nothing! If there is a dangerous spot to guard, a fort to tackle, a quick dispatch to run, or in fact anything that a ship or crew can do, why send the Arizona. That’s the admiral’s cry. And yet, in the official reports, we are left out in the cold.
Sailors aboard a vessel at New Orleans

          At Alexandria we lay two or three days and we were ordered up Black River to attack Fort Beauregard, which is considered a second Port Hudson. [Fort Beauregard was located at Harrisonburg, Louisiana] We fought this place two days and we were beaten off each day. We gave up the attack and again proceeded up Red River to Alexandria. Here we received on board General [William] Dwight and one of his aides and were ordered to Grand Gulf on the Mississippi and from that time up to this date we have been constantly cruising between Grand Gulf and Port Hudson.  We have taken and destroyed all of the flat boats and skiffs that were capable of transportation on the river. We have been in range of Vicksburg and past Port Hudson both, but had not shots with them. General Banks and his army are steadily at it night and day. We can plainly see the shells explode at night over the rebel batteries. Kirby Smith and 11,000 cavalry are trying to cross the river to get at Banks’ rear and ‘tis said General Beauregard is within a two or three day’s march of Port Hudson. We are keeping a sharp watch night and day on the river.
          Secesh is at the highest pitch here at present. On our last trip we stopped at Natchez, Mississippi and while we were there a white man and a black one tried to get out of the city and come to us but they failed to succeeded, and after we had left, the citizens hung them both. On our passage down, we ran aground and were obliged to throw overboard two guns and 200 solid shot and some other articles to lighten us off.
          Yesterday a squad of cavalry came within sight of us and Captain Upton, First Lieutenant Ward and 50 men went on shore to have a brush. The Rebels decoyed them into a wood and then came down on them to the number of 500. Our men fought like tigers but were badly beaten and obliged to run for their lives, leaving their arms and everything else behind. We lost 18 men and one officer. On the same night I, in charge of five men, scouted the beach and woods within a half mile of the enemy’s camp but could not find our dead or any of our men. For all that they did to worst us, we made many an empty saddle and a few less that wished to dissolve the Union. We are on the lookout for a fight at any moment and if these knights of the horse trust themselves within reach of our guns, I for one should recommend them to begin to pray as soon as they do it.
U.S.S. Hartford

          Thousands of contrabands are running away and followed the armies and anybody can have as many servants as they please. The flagship Hartford and steamer Albatross lie above Port Hudson three miles while Admiral Farragut is at New Orleans. The weather is extremely warm but at my time of writing it is blowing a perfect gale up the river and the rain is pouring down in torrents. The health of the fleet is poor with fever being prevalent. We are in hopes that Banks will soon let us down to New Orleans and then we can snuff salt water again and we shall be quite happy. As regards my own health, I am as hearty as ever and enjoy myself accordingly as circumstances will permit. Flour is worth $190 a barrel in Natchez, shoes $60, calico at $2-3 a yard, whiskey is $3 a pint!

The name U.S.S. Arizona today evokes the “day of infamy” and the vessel rests where she died on that fateful December 7th in the waters of Pearl Harbor. The U.S.S. Arizona of the Civil War-era also met her fate in a tower of flames, but its demise was due to a boiler explosion which sank the vessel in the waters of the Mississippi River in February 1865.


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