Mysteries and Controversies

A number of questions remain to be answered about the ships, navies, and naval personnel of the Civil War. Here are a few of the ones that are currently puzzling me...

The color of the Arkansas

Secondary sources appear to be about evenly divided over the question of whether the CSS Arkansas was painted or not. Some insist she was intentionally painted a shade of brown, the better to blend in against the muddy banks of the Mississippi River. Others maintain that the coloring was accidental, the result of rust on her iron armor due to its being immersed in the Yazoo River before being mounted on the ironclad's casemate.

Frustratingly, primary sources (at least the ones I've managed to locate) are not particularly helpful. In the Official Records, Farragut reports at one point that "The ram is a chocolate color..." (I:19, p. 3) and S. Ledyard Phelps states that it "...is painted an earth color..." (I:19 p. 57). One could argue that these Union officers weren't close enough to tell whether the Arkansas was painted or not, and that they may have assumed she was (after all, all Federal warships were always painted).

The article written for the Southern Historical Society Papers (Vol. XII) by one of the Arkansas' crewmen, George W. Gift, states "...our sides were the color of rust...", hardly a definitive remark. Most frustrating of all, Isaac Newton Brown, the commander and builder of the ironclad, makes absolutely no reference to color or paint in any way in his article for Century Magazine (later reprinted in Battles and Leaders). One could maintain that if it had been painted, Brown would have mentioned it... but a lack of proof is not proof of a lack.

Secondary sources are equally unhelpful. Fletcher Pratt states in Civil War on Western Waters, "...[the Arkansas] was intended to be chocolate brown, but the paint was bad, and mostly she was red with rust" (p. 113), but his book is not annotated, so there's no indication of where this datum came from. Tony Gibbons' Warships and Naval Battles of the Civil War positively states "...a coat of brown paint was applied..." (p. 55) but gives no citation either; besides, his book contains a number of known factual errors and cannot be considered definitive. Chester G. Hearn's biography of Farragut describes the Arkansas as resembling "an emormous barge neatly stacked with a load of rusty iron," (p. 155) but this is hardly a definite statement.

If anyone's come across specific proof in a primary source that would settle this question, I'd be obliged if you could write me and give the the source and citation.

The St. Louis or the Carondelet?

While selecting photographs for this website, I've come across the following two photos:
USS Carondelet USS Baron de Kalb (ex-St. Louis)

Apart from the differences in shading and lighting (possibly artifacts of reproduction or scanning), these two images almost certainly derive from the same photograph. The trees in the background, reflections in the water, visible wires and ropes, and crewmen standing on deck match exactly. Yet the decorations on the spreader bars between the smokestacks don't match... for the "Carondelet" it appears to be a five-pointed star, and for the "Baron" it appears to be a Masonic square-and-compass. Also, the "Baron" bears a mast that is missing from the "Carondelet."

Plainly, the two images attempt to portray two different vessels... but one (or maybe both?) has been retouched. I've gone back and forth on this. On even-numbered days, I'm sure it's a photo of the Carondelet that was retouched to resemble the Baron de Kalb, and on odd-numbered days, I'm equally positive of the reverse.

Again, if anyone's come across specific proof in a primary source that would settle this question, I'd be obliged if you could write me and give the the source and citation. Opinions are nice, but I'm looking for something decisive.


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