USS Arkansas (Civil War)

Not to be confused with the like-named Confederate ship the CSS Arkansas, the USS Arkansas served the U.S. Navy during the Civil War as a supply and tender vessel, helping to maintain communications and supply with the blockade fleet along the Texas gulf coast.

Constructed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1863 as a commercial barkentine-rigged, wooden-hulled, screw steamer originally named Tonawanda, this vessel measured 191 feet in length and thirty feet at the beam. It weighed 752 tons and drafted nineteen feet of water. It carried a crew of eighty-eight enlisted sailors and officers. Propelled by one vertical condensing engine capable of operation at high or low pressure, with a cylinder diameter of forty inches and a thirty-inch stroke, it averaged eight knots and could produce a maximum speed of fifteen knots.

Acquired on June 27, 1863, for $98,000 from S. & J. M. Flanagan for the navy by Commodore Cornelius Kinchiloe Stribling, commander of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the ship was commissioned as the USS Arkansas on September 5 and sent into service with the Western Gulf Squadron under command of Acting Volunteer Lieutenant William H. West. (The naming of a Union naval vessel after a state that was still, at that time, controlled by the Confederate government perhaps reflects the fact that the federal government did not recognize the secession as legitimate.)

The ship’s armament varied in size and type throughout its service. On September 4, 1863, the USS Arkansas reported a battery of four thirty-two-pounders and one rifled twelve-pounder. On October 9, 1863, it reported a battery of one rifled twenty-pounder, four thirty-two-pounders, and one rifled twelve-pounder. On June 21, 1865, the USS Arkansas reported an additional twenty-pound rifled Parrott gun.

Serving alongside the USS Augusta Dinsmore, the USS Arkansas frequently patrolled the waters off the southern-most tip of Texas. The ship’s most dramatic moment occurred during a seemingly routine patrol mission in the Gulf of Mexico. On September 27, 1864, sailing under the command of Acting Volunteer Lieutenant David Gate, the USS Arkansas overtook the civilian schooner the Watchful. The captain of the Watchful claimed that, while in route from New York City to Matamoras, Mexico, he diverted to New Orleans, Louisiana, to repair leaks in his vessel. Lieutenant Gate, however, discovered a cache of arms and seized the Watchful as a prize. The Federal District Court in New Orleans dismissed Gate’s justification for seizure on the grounds that the arms in question were owned by a U.S. citizen and meant for Juarista revolutionaries in Mexico. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld this decision.

Soon after the war, the USS Arkansas sailed from New Orleans to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. On June 30, 1865, the U.S. Navy decommissioned the USS Arkansas and sold it for $40,100 to George S. Leach of Portsmouth on July 30.By August 1, 1865, the vessel’s new owner had registered it once again under its original name, Tonawanda, operating it as a merchant vessel along the Atlantic coast. On March 28, 1866, it sank after becoming stranded on a reef near Key Largo, Florida.

No photographs or illustrations of the USS Arkansas are known to exist.

For additional information:
Gaines, W. Craig. Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.

Konstam, Augus. Mississippi River Gunboats of the American Civil War, 1861–1865. New York: Osprey Publishing Company, 2002.

McPherson, James M. War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861–1865. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

United States Naval War Records Office. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Series 2, Volume 1, Part 1. Statistical Data of Union and Confederate Ships. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1921.

Robert Patrick Bender
Eastern New Mexico University–Roswell


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