Fleeing the Arkansas at Vicksburg

     The Union fleet above Vicksburg, Mississippi was sitting quietly at anchor when at around 8:30 on the morning of July 15, 1862, the U.S. ram Queen of the West sailed into view from the Yazoo River belching an enormous quantity of smoke. To be sure, the ram was running for her life and the confused sailors soon saw why: the much-rumored Confederate ironclad Arkansas was hot on her trail.

          “Such an excitement as there was among the fleet here would be hard to describe,” one observer noted. “Broadside after broadside was dealt out to this Rebel ram without the least apparent effect, the shot even of the 11-inch guns bounding off her casemates like hailstones on a stone pavement. She ran by twelve or fifteen ships and gunboats, mounting from 12 to 30 guns each, and seemed to laugh at the whole fleet.”

The 1,200-ton Arkansas blew through the U.S. fleet and later that morning lay anchored beneath the protecting guns of Vicksburg much to the jubilation of the residents. The vessel’s brave run through the fleet was heralded throughout the South, but the barrage of Yankee shells had killed or wounded 30 of the vessel’s crew.

The author of the following letter who signed his missives as “Ram” was serving aboard the U.S.S. Samson, one of the vessels lying at anchor in the Mississippi River when the Arkansas made her appearance. The 230-ton Samson was one of Colonel Charles Ellet’s rams, and “Ram” was overly not impressed with his posting aboard this lightly armored vessel. “The butting propensity of these rams is all right, but the resisting ability is very poor,” he confessed. “Colonel Ellet played Secretary Stanton and the Southern Confederacy a Yankee trick by getting up some shells of steamboats (that six-lb. cannon balls would sink) to run batteries and attack gunboats carrying heavy guns. Still, they have accomplished a great deal and assisted very materially in the destruction of the Rebel fleet which made a stand at Memphis. But the success of these rams was thought to be more accident than anything else.”

Ram’s account of the action near Vicksburg was originally published in the August 7, 1862, issue of the Gallipolis Journal.

 

This Harper's Weekly image shows six of Ellet's rams on the Mississippi River; the Monarch, Queen of the West, and Lioness are in front while the Switzerland, Samson, and Lancaster are in the background. "The butting propensity of these rams is all right but the resisting ability is very poor," one sailor stated. 

U.S. Steam Ram Fleet, off Vicksburg, Mississippi

July 18, 1862

 

          I suppose the telegraph has ere this announced to you the fact that the great Rebel ram and gunboat Arkansas has run the blockade above Vicksburg and now lies safely moored under the Rebel fortifications. It was a bold adventure and well done, even if the Rebels did it.

          On the morning of the 15th, the Federal gunboats Carondelet and Tyler, the former an iron clad and the latter a timberclad, accompanied by the ram Queen of the West went up the Yazoo River to attack said Rebel boat and if we do not fear to speak the truth, found her before they wanted to. Seven miles above the mouth of the Yazoo, she attacked the Tyler and few moments afterward the Carondelet came into the engagement and a warm time they had of it- mostly a running fight, but they came so close together during the engagement that several times they collided. The Federal boats got the worst of the fight, and had not the Rebel boat left them with impunity, I doubt not that she would have destroyed both of our gunboats.

The Tyler had somewhat the advantage as she could run faster than the Rebel boat. The Queen of the West skedaddled and did not attempt to get into the fight. As she came in sight fleet followed closely by the Tyler, fighting beautifully, then the Rebel ram, and afterwards the Carondelet. Such an excitement as there was among the fleet here would be hard to describe. The rams looked out for number one, except the Lancaster which received two broadsides from the Rebel ram, cutting away her mud drum and scalding from eight to ten persons, four of whom are dead but the rest I think will get well.

Confederate accounts of the July 15th engagement claim that only one Federal shell entered the Arkansas through an open gun port, but it killed ten sailors and wounded 13 more. "Several shots passed through the smokestack which is the only damage of any consequence sustained by her," reported the Memphis Daily Appeal. "A few repairs will again put the Arkansas in trim and in two or three days at farthest, she will be once more ready for other fields of service." Within a month, the Arkansas would be scuttled by its crew following the Battle of Baton Rouge.


Broadside after broadside was dealt out to this Rebel ram without the least apparent effect, the shot even of the 11-inch guns bounding off her casemates like hailstones on a stone pavement. She ran by twelve or fifteen ships and gunboats, mounting from 12 to 30 guns each, and seemed to laugh at the whole fleet. All kinds of excuses are made by the different vessels of the fleet, but the truth should be known that our chief officers were unprepared for what they positively informed would take place, and I cannot but feel that something is “rotten in Denmark.”

About 60 men were killed and wounded in this fight, mostly on the Carondelet and Tyler both of which were badly cut up by shot and are now being repaired. Commodore Farragut has again run by the Rebel batteries with eight ships and gunboats and is now below with his whole fleet. The ram Samson was attacked about 75 miles above here near Lake Providence by a band of Rebel cavalry while lying at shore during a very severe storm. After driving the Rebels behind the levy with her sharpshooters, she put into the stream as the force was too large for her to contend with. But want of time will not allow me to write more as I am going out on picket duty to watch the actions of this Rebel ram and as my ram is fleet of foot, she won’t catch us without some fun.

 

Yours & etc.,

Ram

 

Sources:

Letter from Ram, U.S.S. Samson, Gallipolis Journal (Ohio), August 7, 1862, pg. 1

Letter from Ram, U.S.S. Samson, Gallipolis Journal (Ohio), July 3, 1862, pg. 4

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