Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Smith, Jr. : "THE CSS ARKANSAS: A Confederate Ironclad on the Western Waters"

[ The CSS Arkansas: A Confederate Ironclad on the Western Waters by Myron J. Smith, Jr. (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2011).  7 x 10 Softcover, 101 photos, 2 maps, notes, bibliography, index. Page main/total:306/360. ISBN:978-0-7864-4726-8  $45 ]

The Confederate navy built and operated a large number of formidable ironclads during the Civil War. Unfortunately for them, these expensive fleets were typically bottled up in obstructed bays and waterways surrounding key cities and ports, forcing the ships to be destroyed by their own crews when Union armies approached. A single exception to this intractable CSN problem of free range ability for ironclads was the CSS Arkansas, which for three weeks in June and July 1862 was a terror to the US Navy on the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers. With a number of impressive 'Civil War on the western waterways' titles to his credit, librarian and professor Myron Smith has now turns his attention to this remarkable vessel with his study The CSS Arkansas: A Confederate Ironclad on the Western Waters, an incredibly detailed chronicling of the river gunboat's career from construction to self-destruction.

One of the enduring mysteries surrounding the Arkansas is what exactly it looked like. No final blueprints or photograph's survive (and artist drawings vary on details), but Smith's book diligently sifts through the available evidence, arriving at the most likely scenarios for architectural design, propulsion system, and armament. A few modern schematic drawings based on outside research are reproduced in the text to help readers visualize the vessel. Unlike the other Confederate ironclads built as some variation of the Virginia design, the broadsides of the Arkansas's casemate were flat (perpendicular to the water) as opposed to sloped. It is posited in the book, but not explained thoroughly, that this improved stability. With rolled plates unavailable, railroad iron was used to armor the vessel. With so many other features described in minute fashion in the text, a full explanation of how this rail iron was applied would have been helpful (along with a drawing). A final note of interest on the appearance of the Arkansas pertains to its color. Painted a chocolate brown, the ship blended well into the western rivers' muddy waters, bluffs, and banks.

Although Smith's end notes, which often collect dozens of sources under a single citation, require a great deal of work on the part of the reader to deconstruct, the author's books utilize an exhaustive depth and range of primary and secondary source materials. Helped significantly by the writings of four key officers from the Arkansas, the ship's 23-day operational career is meticulously recounted. The narrative begins with the ironclad's scattering of an enemy recon flotilla on the Yazoo River and its celebrated Mississippi River run past the entire US naval force arrayed against the Vicksburg defenses, both events occurring on July 15, 1862. Anchored under the Hill City's guns at the end of that exciting day, the Arkansas survived a night bombardment and ram attack ordered by Admiral Farragut. Over the next few days, other attempts were made to cut the ironclad out from under Vicksburg's protection, but these failed and the US Navy's upper and lower Mississippi fleets retreated in opposite directions. Sensing an opportunity, General Earl Van Dorn ordered the Arkansas to assist Breckenridge's land assault on Baton Rouge. The situation resulted in disaster on both counts.  On August 6, the Arkansas, its always balky engines then beyond redemption, met its end at the hands of its own crew when immobilized above the Louisiana capital.

Several attempts have been made over the years to explain the original cause of the chronic mechanical problems suffered by the Arkansas's engines. Smith does a good job of describing in some detail the nature of repairs needed [although, once again, some mechanical drawings would have been enormously helpful for landlubber readers unfamiliar with 19th century steam engines], but it has always been strongly suspected that these efforts were only band-aid attempts to ameliorate a larger problem which has remained a mystery. The book's suggestion that lingering damage from an earlier ramming by the Queen of the West is as reasonable an explanation as any.

Smith's study does have problems of its own, mainly in the arena of editing. Typographical errors and repetitive passages abound. Also, the citing of internet postings as source material without offering more information about the writer's degree of authority on the subject strikes one as inadvisable. However, these flaws should not deter readers from appreciating The CSS Arkansas as the most thorough, and best by far, treatment of the vessel's history, surpassing the previous standard work on the subject by Tom Z. Parrish.

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