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The Battle


Charles, St. Charles, Arkansas
17 June, 1862

Harvey Hanna 2010


bout 10:30 A.M. on the morning of the 17th of June, 1862 what has been called “the most destructive single shot” (Bearss 1962) of the War for Southern Independence was fired by Confederate gunners in St. Charles, Arkansas against

the ironclad gunboat U.S.S. Mound City. A 64 pound solid shot punched through the sloped

armour of the port fore-quarter of the gun deck, killing three gunners before striking the steam drum1 and filling the ship with high pressure vapour, instantly scalding all but 26 of the 175 man crew. Of these 105 were either killed outright or were unlucky enough to survive the incident, only to die in agony days and weeks later. (Stewart 1910) In 1860’s eastern Arkansas the rivers were usually the best, or only, means of transportation of goods. Only one railroad, the Memphis & Little Rock, was in operation, but in two sections. One stretch ran from Hopefield on the Mississippi, near present day West Memphis, to Madison on the St. Francis, about 38 miles.2 The next section ran from De Valls

Bluff to Huntersville on the Arkansas River, now North Little Rock, about 40 miles. Between was a 36 mile wide gap, much of which was swamp. Because of this breach in the direct line, and the rough stagecoach ride between the two rail heads, many travelers elected to travel by steamboat from Memphis down the Mississippi, up the White to De Valls Bluff, then take the train for the remainder of the journey. (Fair 1998) St. Charles is located on the west bank of the White River about 30 miles north of its terminus at the Arkansas River. Founded in 1851 by Colonel Charles Belknap on a portion of Spanish Grant 2424, it had been the site of the St. Charles fur trading post opened by Pedro Pedturis in 1797. (Henderson 1957) The town is located on a bluff just south of where the White, after flowing from the east, makes a hard bend south. This would prove of strategic importance during the War Between the States. Here a relatively small garrison with artillery could easily interdict steamboat traffic on the river. In March of 1862, after defeating General Earl Van Dorn at the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern (Pea Ridge)3,Arkansas, General Samuel Ryan Curtis led his 10,000 man strong Army of the Southwest across southern Missouri to West Plains to prevent Confederate forces in Arkansas from liberating Missouri from Union control. Following Elkhorn Tavern, Van Dorn led his army across the Mississippi to link up with General Albert Sidney Johnston’s forces at Corinth, Mississippi in order to stop General Ulysses S. Grant’s invasion of the middle South. On receipt of this intelligence, General Henry Halleck, commander of the Union Western Theatre of Operations, ordered Curtis to invade the now nearly defenseless State of Arkansas and take Little Rock. (Bearss 1962) Curtis moved into Arkansas on the 29th of April and occupied Batesville on the 2nd of May, then on to Jacksonport on the White River in Jackson County. Here his plan began to fall


apart. General Thomas Hindman had assembled a scratch force of Texas cavalry and newly raised Arkansas regiments that, with a combination of guerilla warfare and cavalry raiding, frustrated the Army of the Southwest in the offensive against Little Rock. (Sutherland 1993) To add to their woes, the Yankee army had quickly stripped the area surrounding Jacksonport of foodstuffs, and with a supply
Colonel Graham N. Fitch, 46th Indiana, USV

line stretching all the way to St. Louis, a distance of 250 miles, Curtis and his men found themselves in trouble. (Bearss 1962) A plan was then made to march from Batesville to Clarendon, rendezvous with supplies and reenforcements sent up the White River from Memphis, and move on Little Rock with a strenghtened army. (Stewart 1910) On the 13th of June a flotilla of gunboats and transports left Memphis under the direction of Commander Augustus H. Kilty. The City class
Commander Augustus H. Kilty, USN

ironclad4 gunboats Mound City5 and St. Louis, the

wooden gunboats Lexington and Conestoga and the armed tug Tiger, were detailed as escorts for 3 transports, the New National, Jacob Musselman and White Cloud. Aboard these were loaded supplies for Curtis’ army and the nearly 1000 man strong 46th Indiana Infantry under the command of Colonel Graham N. Fitch. (Stewart 1910)






downriver from Memphis to the mouth of the White River was uneventful except for the capture of the Steamboat Clara Dobson by the Tiger on the Arkansas River. The little fleet then began to make its way single file up the much narrower channel of the White River. By dusk on the 16th of June the Union flotilla had come within five miles of St. Charles. Tiger was sent on a reconnaisance mission upstream in an attempt to locate any Confederate forces. (Stewart 1910) The Confederate Navy had been very busy at St. Charles. Low water on the Arkansas River had focused the attention of General Hindman on the White River in the knowledge that any resupply for Curtis’ Army would have to come up the smaller river to Clarendon. (Hindman 1885) Around the 1st of June Lieutenant John W. Dunnington and his command, the gunboat C.S.S Ponchartrain, had steamed from Little Rock with orders to emplace two rifled 32-pounder naval guns6 on the bluffs at St. Charles. Ponchartrain returned to Little Rock, Lieutenant Dunnington remained to supervise the fortification of St. Charles. (Dunnington 1885) Arriving on the 16th was Captain Joseph Fry, formerly of the U.S. Navy, with the gunboat Maurepas. As ranking officer he then took command of Confederate forces at St. Charles. Pilings had been driven part way across the river as an obstruction, but with the Yankee gunboats so close it was decided by Captain Fry to scuttle Maurepas and the transports Eliza G. and Mary Patterson in the channel to block the stream. These ships made a poor obstruction as they had not been filled with ballast for extra mass, but it was hoped that they would force the


Union gunboats to stop under the fortifications at St. Charles and give an edge to the heavy shore barreries in the coming duel. (Dunnington 1885) By dawn of the 17th the gunboat and transports had been scuttled and the Gunners and infantry were at their post. The heavy guns had been left aboard Maurepas, but a 12-pounder howitzer had been brought ashore and placed 400 yards downstream with three 2.9-inch Parrott rifles crewed by sailors from Maurepas under the command of Midshipman F.M. Roby. On the morning of the 17th Captain Fry took command of the battery as the Union gunboats raised steam and started upriver. (Stewart 1910) 79 sailors from Maurepas and 100 men from Company G, Arkansas
Captain Joseph Fry, CSN

Pleasants garrisoned

29th St.


Charles, but as there were only 35 rifles,

the unarmed soldiers were sent upriver. Leaving a total force of 114 soldiers and sailors. The sailors manning the artillery had only single shot pistols for personal defense, leaving them nearly helpless if attacked by infantry. (Dunnington 1885) The Federal plan was for the 46th Indiana to be landed about 2 ½ miles below St. Charles and move by land on the town, while the gunboats would move forward to engage the batteries


and provide covering fire for the infantry. At 9:00 A.M. this plan was put into effect. (Fitch 1885) Skirmishers from the 46th Indiana quickly drove the Confederate picketts back toward toward St. Charles as the bulk of the regiment formed up and began to move toward the town. (Bringhurst 1888) While the infantry picked its way forward, the Mound City and St. Louis slowly moved up river single file probing the Confederate position with fire from the six 8-inch smoothbores7 in the bows of the two ironclads. (Stewart 1910) The light guns under the direction of Captain Fry engaged the gunboats, but the 8 and 12 pound shells from the field guns made no impression on the armoured sides of the ships. The 42 and 32-pounder broadside guns of Mound City and St. Louis returned the fire
One of the rifled 32 pounders emplaced at St. Charles by the Confederate Navy.

with canister and shells, but

did little damage to the entrenched sailors. (Dunnington 1885) Continuing past the lower battery, Captain Kilty directed the gunners to concentrate their fire on the first of the rifled 32-pounders mounted at St. Charles. The second 32-pounder, mounted further upriver at a higher elevation, began firing on Mound City and at about half past ten a 64 pound solid shot from the upper battery penetrated the 2 ½ inch thick rolled iron armour plate above the port bow gunport, killed three gunners in flight, then ruptured the steam drum of the ironclad. High pressure steam literally cooked the Mound City crew. Men on the St. Louis


were horrified to see clouds of vapour boil out of the gunports and hatches of the stricken ship. (Stewart 1910) At least 80 men were killed instantly, some with the flesh scalded from their bodies, others rolled in agony, while all who could tried to get out of the ship and away from the scalding water spewing from the pressurized boiler. Losing power, Mound City began to drift downstream toward Captain Fry’s battery as sailors took to boats or jumped over the side to escape the death trap the gunboat had become. Captain Fry called out on the remaining crew to lower the flag and surrender the ship, but no one heeded his command and what happened next became a stain on his reputation that would not be removed. Some of the Confederate infantry began firing on the Yankee sailors in the water, killing several. Captain Fry was accused of ordering the soldiers to fire on the helpless men, but an examination the Appendix to the Official Records show that Captain A. M. Williams ordered the shooting in order to prevent the sailors from escaping capture. (Williams 1885) Acoording to the Laws of War this order was justified because the flag on Mound City had not been struck and the ship surrendered. It was legal, but not right, to order the shootings and Captain Fry, who was at that point still 400 yards downstream, was blamed and tarred a murderer. (Walker 1874) While the tragedy of the Mound City was being played out, the 46th Indiana had moved close to the town and forced the abandonment of the lower battery. As the right flank of the Union infantry moved into town, the left flank curved around and began to surround the upper battery. (Fitch 1885) The poorly armed Confederate gunners under Lieutenant Dunnington fled into the woods while Captain Fry, who had been severely wounded in the shoulder while retreating from the lower battery, was captured before he could make it to the woods, along with some 20 others.


Confederate losses were about 6 killed and 20 captured. Union losses were 107 killed and mortally wounded and about 70 wounded, including Captain Kilty. Almost all of the Union losses were aboard the Mound City, the infantry suffered only a few losses in the engagement. (Bringhurst 1888) After the action, the depleted Union flotilla continued upriver to Clarendon in its quest to link up with the Army of the West. This never happened. The falling water level in the White River, threatening to strand the steamers far from resupply, forced the convoy back downriver. The slowness of Curtis’ army in its march, and the loss of at least a full day after the battle at Cotton Plant, found the exhausted Yankee foot sloggers stumbling into Clarendon on the 9th of July. One day after the departure of the fleet. (Bearss 1962) A monument commemorating both sides was erected in the early 20th Century by the son of the Irish born master of the Mound City, William Hickman Harte. The names of the dead are engraved on the granite shaft, which stands in the middle of Main Street. Also in St. Charles are both of the 32 pounder rifles brought in by Lieutenant Dunnington. After the battle the Federal troops pushed both guns into the river, they were retrieved just after the First World War.

(Henderson 1957) Both the Monument and the Battery sites are on the National Register. A museum located in the City Hall tells the story of the battle and the history of St. Charles.



High pressure cylinder located above tube boilers. Super heated water and live steam is stored here

until separated. From here live steam flowed through intake tubes at pressures up to 180 pounds per square inch into the cylinders of the reciprocating engines. Lower temperature, but still boiling, liquid water would be recycled through the boiler tubes. (Thurston 1878)

Madison stands on the west side of the St. Francis River and a railroad bridge was completed 30

September, 1861, allowing the locomotive and trains to enter the city. The bridge was equipped with a centre pivot turntable to allow steamboats to pass; the locomotive was rotated on this drawbridge for the return trip to Hopefield. (Huff 1964)

From the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission website- “On the night of March 6, Maj. Gen. Earl Van

Dorn set out to outflank the Union position near Pea Ridge, dividing his army into two columns. Learning of Van Dorn’s approach, the Federals marched north to meet his advance on March 7. This movement— compounded by the killing of two generals, Brig. Gen. Ben McCulloch and Brig. Gen. James McQueen McIntosh, and the capture of their ranking colonel—halted the Rebel attack. Van Dorn led a second column to meet the Federals in the Elkhorn Tavern and Tanyard area. By nightfall, the Confederates controlled Elkhorn Tavern and Telegraph Road. The next day, Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis, having regrouped and consolidated his army, counterattacked near the tavern and, by successfully employing his artillery, slowly forced the Rebels back. Running short of ammunition, Van Dorn abandoned the battlefield. The Union controlled Missouri for the next two years.” (National Parks Service 2009)

Excerpt from Federal Warships in Tennessee- "City" Class Ironclads The powerful vessels within this

highly successful class of ironclads were named for cities along Northern rivers. First launched in 1861 and eventually completed in early 1862, they were constructed under a contract with James Eads, an engineer from St. Louis. The hulls were built at Mound City (Illinois) and Carondelet (Missouri), while the engines came from St. Louis (Missouri) and Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), and the armour was provided by firms at Portsmouth (Ohio) and Newport (Kentucky). These heavily armoured - and heavily armed ironclads formed the backbone of the Federal river forces. (Johnson 2001)

Excerpt from Naval Historical Centre- “USS Mound City, a 512-ton Cairo class ironclad river gunboat,

built at Mound City, Illinois, for the U.S. Army's Western Gunboat Flotilla. was commissioned in January 1862. She was actively engaged in combat operations during the later winter and spring of 1862, participating in the action at Columbus, Kentucky, in February, the capture of the Island Number Ten fortress in March and April, and operations against Fort Pillow in May. She was twice rammed by Confederate steamers off Fort Pillow on 10-11 May, requiring her withdrawal for repairs.


Mound City returned to action in June and was badly damaged by enemy cannon fire during a bombardment at St. Charles, Arkansas. Repaired again, she was involved in operations in the Yazoo River, Vicksburg and Grand Gulf campaigns during 1862-63. In March-May 1864, Mound City participated in the Red River expedition. Her activities during the remainder of the Civil War involved guard and patrol duties and excursions up Mississippi River tributaries. Decommissioned after the end of the conflict, USS Mound City was sold in November 1865 and broken up in 1866. (Naval Historical Centre 2000)

These two guns are still at St. Charles. They are both of the same design, what has been called the

Model of 1821. This is a bit of a misnomer as one of the guns bears the date of 1820 on its right trunnion. This gun is also marked WPF, West Point Foundry for its maker and the weight in hundredweights of 60-1-5. The hundredweight was of 112 pounds, so it is 60X112=6720. The 1 is for ¼ hundredweight= 28 pounds and the 5 is for 5 pounds. So 6720+28+5= 6,753 pounds. The other gun is painted and markings are illegible. These originally smoothed bore guns were rifled with what is called the hook-slant system perfected by Lieutenant John M. Brooke of the Confederate Navy from an English Armstrong pattern. 32 pounder refers to the weight of solid shot fired from the 6.4 inch bore of the guns. After rifling the weapons fired a cylindro-conical shot double the weight of a ball. These 64 pound shot and the lighter 58 pound explosive shell were effective against both the ironclad and wooden gunboats. (Ripley 1970)

Armament of the two ironclads consisted of three 8-inch smooth bores in the bow; four 42-pounders

and six 32-pounders in mixed batteries broadside and astern. (Bearss 1966)


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