Oklahoma Civil War Naval Battle: Recovering the J.R. Williams
Oklahoma's Civil War Naval Battle
Oklahoma's only Civil War naval battle was either a great success, or a tremendous failure.
In 1862, the Union Navy confiscated the J.R. Williams under the premise that the steamboat was being used to carry military contraband into the Confederate ports. After the Union Navy took possession of the J. R. Williams, the steam-wheeler was sent to Cairo, Illinois for outfitting as a supply boat for the Unions Anaconda operation.
The Anaconda Plan was a strategy that the Union’s General-in-Chief Winfield Scott devised. The plan called for a blockade of the Southern ports, and proposed an advance down the Mississippi River to cut the Confederate Military in two.
The J.R. Williams was used to resupply gunboats during the fierce battles along the Mississippi, including the siege of Vicksburg. While the battles were intense, the steamboat emerged unscathed. After the fall of Vicksburg, she was sent to Little Rock to shuttle Union troops and supplies up and down the Arkansas River.
The Capture the J.R. Williams
The final voyage of the J.R. Williams would end in disaster.
The steamboat had been heavily loaded with supplies in Fort Smith and had been ordered to transport these supplies up the Arkansas to Fort Gibson. Overloaded and unprotected, the steamboat carried a cargo valued at about $120,000 (valued today at approximately $4.2 million dollars). With only a small force of one officer and twenty-five men, the J.R. Williams was a perfect target.
That’s precisely what Brigadier General Stand Watie thought.
On June 15, 1864, Watie and his Confederate Indian Brigade ambushed the J.R. Williams just as it rounded a bend of the Arkansas river near Pheasant Bluff, about five miles below the juncture with the Canadian River.
High above the slow moving river, Stand Watie carefully concealed three light cannons in the brush. They watched with guns at the ready as the J.R. Williams confidently traversed the calm waters of the Arkansas.
On board the steamwheeler, Lieutenant Cook and his men were relaxed, enjoying the warm summer afternoon while watching the rolling scenery slowly pass by. They passed Ft. Coffee earlier in the day, and expected to reach Ft. Gibson without incident.
The river channel took a slow curve to the south, just under Pheasant Bluff. As the J.R. Williams rounded the curve, the floodgates of hell opened up.
In a blinding flash of fury, explosions ripped the steamboat open. The pilothouse was hit first, and it exploded in a shower of metal splinters. Immediately after, a second cannonball buried itself deep inside a boiler. In a sudden release of pressure, the boiler exploded, ripping a gaping hole through the side of the vessel. The smokestack was crushed by a third ball as Lt. Cook and his men frantically tried to return fire.
The engineer and fireman lay buried under a heap of rubble. The pilot knew there was no way to out-run the battering rain from above. Grasping what was left of the wheel, he pointed the stricken vessel towards the north bank, just opposite of the Confederate position. Amid a barrage of gunfire, the Union troops beached the J.R. Williams.
Forty yards separated the boat from the water’s edge, and another four hundred across the sandbar to the safety of the woods. Lt. Cook gave the order, and the men jumped overboard into waist deep water and waded ashore. The Rebels continued pounding away at the vessel as the men raced across the sandbar, fleeing for their lives.
The men finally reached the safety of the trees without incident. Lt. Cook ordered his men to remain under cover until nightfall, when they would return to the J.R. Williams. If possible, he planned to return to the vessel and complete his mission, otherwise, he was to salvage what could be carried and then send the boat to a fiery grave.
As the Lieutenant made his final plans, he soon discovered the source of their deception. After running the vessel onto the sandbar, the pilot quickly hid in the hull of the boat while the firing took place. Once the Union forces were safe beyond the tree line, the Captain of the boat and another man emerged from their hiding place. Before the Union forces could react, the two men were already piloting the boat across the river, straight into Confederate hands.
Brigadier General Stand Watie had completed his objectives flawlessly. The J.R. Williams had been captured without a single loss of life. The Union soldiers were in retreat, and the fortune stored on the boat now served to support the C.S.A.
After the steamboat was secured, Watie ordered his Indian troops to unload the boat. Energized with their astounding victory, his soldiers quickly became unruly, to a point to where he could no longer control them.
The war had devastated their homes. Their families endured, but life on the frontier was harsh, and the war had taken what little they had left. The soldiers saw a way to bring prosperity back to their families, and they acted.
Despite Watie’s best efforts to keep control over his men, they disobeyed and began to rifle and loot the vessel. Many of them took what they could carry and returned to their homes. With his troops deserting him and with no wagons from his superiors, Stand Watie reluctantly gave the order to burn the J.R. Williams and the remaining supplies.
A number of his loyal troops did just that. Setting the boat adrift and on fire, they watched as it slowly sank in the Arkansas River.
As it slowly disappeared beneath the water line, the remnant of the only naval battle in Oklahoma history was forgotten.
The Recovery Effort
Recovery efforts began in 1998 when Robert DeMoss of Cleveland, Oklahoma led a dive team to the Robert S. Kerr Reservoir to search for the wreck of the Williams. Through dedicated research and eyewitness accounts, he pinpointed a site in Robert S. Kerr Reservoir for his dive team to search.
During the dive, the team found numerous remains of a Civil War era vessel, but there is nothing to signify that these remains are from the J.R. Williams. Among those items brought to the surface was what could be a portion of the steamboat's stern wheel. The wheel is strikingly similar to other steamboats used during this time frame.
The remains of the J.R. Williams may contain clues to events of a by-gone era. Previous shipwrecks have yielded countless artifacts including military and many personal items.
In 1999, Robert DeMoss formed the J.R. Williams Recovery Committee. The Recovery Committee is a non-profit organization made up of individuals in the northeastern Oklahoma area who are dedicated to the effort to recover, preserve, and ultimately display in a museum any remains and artifacts from the steamboat.
Another attempt was made in September 19, 2000. Panamerican Consultants, Inc. of Memphis, Tennessee attempted to find the remains of the J.R. Williams using a magnetometer, side scan sonar and other electronic equipment. After DeMoss brought the site to the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist Louis Vogele, they quickly hired the team of consultants.
Unfortunately, the sonar survey didn't reveal the information that DeMoss had hoped for. When funding becomes available, they may attempt another survey of the site. Still, DeMoss hasn't given up. He continues to send dive teams to the area, in hopes of one day discovering, beyond doubt, the remains of the J.R. Williams.
© 2010 Eric Standridge