January 23, 1865: The Confederate James River Squadron Sorties Down the James
On January 23, 1865, 150 years ago today, the Confederate James River Squadron was preparing for the sort of last ditch effort which can turn the tide of a campaign, if not a war. By January 1865, Ulysses S. Grant’s massive army group containing the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac had one very specific supply dump, and its name was City Point. It was the nerve center of Grant’s army, centrally located southeast of Richmond and northeast of Petersburg on a peninsula jutting out into the James River. Supplies were carried by water to City Point and distributed via rail and road to the armies besieging the two most important cities in Virginia.
In mid-January 1865, Grant’s supply depot was vulnerable, and the Confederates knew it. The Fifth Division, North Atlantic Blockading Squadron under Commander William A. Parker had until recently been a powerful force full of ironclads, more than 20 ships in all. However, the recent expeditions to reduce and capture Fort Fisher in Wilmington, North Carolina had seriously reduced the number of total ships, and more importantly, the number of monitors and other ironclads in the area.
Parker had at his disposal the massive two turreted monitor Onondaga, but she was the only ironclad in the immediate vicinity. Several others were near the mouth of the James in Hampton Roads, but they wouldn’t be able to react to an immediate crisis.
Onondaga had the following ships to back her up in her role as protector of City Point:
- the screw steamer Daylight
- the side-wheel gunboats
- William Putnam
- Commodore Barney
- The small torpedo boat
- Spuyten Duyvil
JAMES RIVER FROM CHAFFIN’S BLUFF TO DEEP BOTTOM
Another measure of protection was the double line of obstructions in the James River at Trent’s Reach. Sunken ships and other obstructions were chained together to block the channel in “no man’s land” between the Union and Confederate forces facing each other on Bermuda Hundred. Federal Fort Brady, located southeast of Chaffin’s Bluff and upstream from Trent’s Reach, anchored the Union lines north of the James River, and could fire on Confederate ships, but only upstream due to a flaw in its design. Lastly, several Federal batteries, including Wilcox, Parsons, Spofford, and Sawyer, were located just back of the main Federal fortifications facing the Howlett Line, and commanded the James River.
So what were all of these Federal forces so worried about? They were worried about precisely what was happening on the night of January 23, 1865. The Confederate James River Squadron under Flag Officer John Mitchell was tasked with protecting the water route to Richmond up the James River. His forces included three ironclads, from largest to smallest: his flagship Virginia II, Richmond, and Fredericksburg. The supporting elements of the fleet included:
- Wooden Gunboats
- Torpedo Boats
If Richmond fell, the James River Squadron’s main task would be a moot point and they would have to be destroyed, much like the original Virginia was destroyed during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. The Confederate Navy was determined to do their part to prevent that day from arriving. The war had reached the desperate stage for the Confederates defending what was left of Virginia. And what Mitchell and his ships were about to attempt can certainly be classified as desperate. They planned to make an all or nothing sortie down the James in an effort to get to and destroy the supply dump at City Point. They just needed an opportunity to arise which would allow them to pass the obstructions in the James quickly. That opportunity came on January 15, 1865.
Recent rains and snowfall had caused freshets in the James River, and the water level rose rapidly. Lt. Charles Read, in charge of the Confederate torpedo boats, observed that ice floes were moving rapidly down the James in the direction of Trent’s Reach. He assumed, correctly as it turned out, that the Federal obstructions had shifted or broken away, potentially leaving an opening in the channel large enough for the Confederate ironclads to move through. This information was given to Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory and Flag Officer Mitchell. Mallory sent for Mitchell to take immediate action the next day, but Mitchell dallied for an entire week before setting his ships into motion.
Mitchell waited until the sun set on January 23, 1865, and sortied from Chaffin’s Bluff not long after. He was waiting for darkness to cover his approach as well as timing his run so that the squadron would hit the obstructions at high tide, an important consideration when inches could literally mean the difference between success and failure. His ironclads would lead the way, and the Confederates lashed other ships to these powerful boats’ sides. John Coski lays out the details as follows on page 198 of Capital Navy: The Men, Ships and Operations of the James River Squadron:
- gunboat Hampton
- torpedo boat Hornet
- gunboat Beaufort
- armed tender Drewry
- towing torpedo boat Wasp
- Virginia II:
- gunboat Nansemond
- gunboat Torpedo
- towing torpedo boat Scorpion
The plan was for the supporting vessels to be cut loose at the obstructions, but difficulties occurred throughout the run, leading to some running aground and being cut free much sooner in the mission.
Trent’s Reach Area, James River
The first test for the James River Squadron was the southernmost Union fortification on the long line north of the James River, Fort Brady, protecting ground taken during the Fifth Offensive in late September and early October 1864. Fort Brady contained five guns at this point, including several massive 100 lb Parrott rifles. Mitchell’s plan was to float silently past this imposing guardian, allowing the James to carry the fleet past the danger point. Alert Federals, however, spotted the Confederate ships moving past around 8 p. m. Mitchell chose not to fire at all, keeping the position of his ships more secure in the inky darkness. However, Rebel land batteries were more than happy to fire at their old nemesis across the James. The battle was surprisingly one sided…in the Confederates’ favor. A lucky shot, the second fired by the replying Confederate land batteries, disabled one of Fort Brady’s 100 lb Parrotts. In addition, the design of Fort Brady was such that once the Confederate vessels passed downriver, Fort Brady couldn’t fire upon them any longer. The first obstacle had been passed with no problem. However, Fort Brady’s fire alerted the batteries covering Trent’s Reach downriver that trouble was on its way.
However, once the Confederates reached the newly open western end of Dutch Gap Canal, they hit their first snag. Virginia II ran too near shore in this area, and the gunboat Torpedo ran aground while lashed to the big ironclad’s side. The gunboat Nansemond was then cut loose to free Torpedo, but without success. Finally Drewry was also cut free, freed the Torpedo, and towed her down to Trent’s Reach under the protective guns of Battery Dantzler.
Despite the so-so start, most of the James River Squadron was in position in the western end of Trent’s Reach by 9 p. m. Now the real obstacle literally stood in the way. While most of the fleet stood by west of the obstructions, the Fredericksburg, the lightest of the three ironclads, moved forward with Flag Officer Mitchell on board to inspect the Federal obstructions. They found that Lt. Read had guessed correctly. The recent freshets in the James had shifted the hulks which formerly blocked the channel enough to potentially make it through. As January 23 turned into January 24, would the Confederates find a way through to City Point? And if they did, what would the Federal warships have to say about it? Stay tuned for more in tomorrow’s installment…
- Richmond Ironclads at Trent’s Reach, Slideshow, DHR by Taft Kiser
- Notes on Virginia, No. 53 (2009), pp. 48-49 by Taft Kiser
- Desperate Ironclad Assault at Trent’s Reach – History Net
- Navy Official Records, Volume 11, pages 632–694
- Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads, by William N. Still, Jr., pages 182-186
- Capital Navy: The Men, Ships and Operations of the James River Squadron, by John M. Coski, pages 196-210
- February 4, 1865 New York Irish-American, Page 2, Column 3: “Garryowen” from on board the Onondaga
- OR XLVI, P1, pages 176-177: Number 11. Siege of Petersburg Report of Captain Henry H. Pierce, First Connecticut Heavy Artillery, commanding Fort Brady, of operations January 23-25
- OR XLVI, P1, pages 178-179: Number 13. Siege of Petersburg Reports of Lieutenant Henry A. Pratt, First Connecticut Heavy Artillery, commanding Batteries Parsons and Wilcox, of operations January 23-24
- OR XLVI, P1, page 186: Number 22. Siege of Petersburg Report of Lieutenant Charles N. Silliman, First Connecticut Heavy Artillery, commanding Battery Spofford, of operations January 24
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