150 Years Ago Today: Action at Fort Brady, James River: January 24, 1865

   

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January 24, 1865: Confusion and Delay on the James

In the early morning hours of January 24, 1865, 150 years ago today, a drama was playing out on the James River at Trent’s Reach between the Confederate James River Squadron and the Union Fifth Division, North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  On the evening of January 23, Flag Officer John Mitchell’s Confederates set off from Chaffin’s Bluff with an audacious plan to break through the Union obstructions blocking the James River channel at Trent’s Reach and destroy Ulysses S. Grant’s all-important supply depot at City Point.  As I discussed yesterday, City Point was the key to the Federal chokehold on Petersburg and Richmond.  Supplies came up the James by water to City Point, and were then loaded onto wagons, mules, and railroad cars to be sent to the soldiers at the front.  If City Point could be reached and destroyed by the Confederate ironclads, the Confederates reasoned, Grant would be forced to at least temporarily consolidate his position and release a bit of the iron grip he currently held.

JamesRiverFromChaffinsBluffToDeepBottomAreaMap

City Point, then, was the goal.  But when we left the scene yesterday, the Confederates were still at the Union obstructions barring the way downriver from Trent’s Reach.  While most of the Confederate vessels anchored about a half mile west of the obstructions, Flag Officer Mitchell took the Fredericksburg and Scorpion close by the blockage to determine if the heavy ironclads could work their way through.  While Mitchell surveyed the scene, a Union picket boat saw what was happening and gave the alarm.  The four Union batteries guarding the James River, Wilcox, Sawyer, Spofford, and Parsons, opened up in the darkness, hoping to hit something down on the surface near the obstructions.  Through the ineffective Federal fire, Mitchell discovered that several hulks which formed the backbone of the river barrier had shifted due to the recent freshets, allowing enough room for an attempt to pass.

Mitchell ordered the Fredericksburg, the lightest of his three ironclads, to test the feasibility of a run by the entire squadron.  Lieutenant Shepperd, in command of the Fredericksburg, ordered his ship through.  Despite losing the torpedo spars attached to her sides and striking something heavily underwater, the Fredericksburg successfully made it through at 1 a.m. on January 24.  The gunboat Hampton accompanied the larger ship to within a football field’s length from the eastern end of Dutch Gap Canal.  These vanguards then anchored and waited patiently for Flag Officer Mitchell to head back upriver and shepherd the rest of his boats through the tricky obstructions.  There was no guarantee of success for the larger ironclads, both of which had a deeper draft than Fredericksburg.

ORNVol10Page465MapObstructionsJamesRiverTrentsReach

 Map of the Obstructions in the James River, Trent’s Reach (ORN, Vol. 10, page 465)

When Mitchell made it back to the middle of Trent’s Reach around 1:45 a.m., however, he found a disaster.  His flagship and most powerful ironclad, the Virginia II, had become grounded around midnight, and the gunboats Nansemond and Beaufort spent hours trying to help get her free.  To make matters worse, the third ironclad Richmond and the gunboat Drewry had also run aground in the river, with Scorpion later meeting the same fate on the pitch black river.  Running aground by itself could be a disaster for any naval ship.  In this case, matters were much worse.  If Mitchell could not get his ships freed by morning, the four Federal fortifications in the vicinity would have his ships as stationary targets at fairly reasonable ranges.  They would be sitting ducks.  And this didn’t even take into account the potential danger from a sortie by the powerful two-turreted monitor Onondaga.  The Confederates might be able to sink her with a torpedo spar if they presented many moving targets, but sitting motionless, they were no match for Onondaga either offensively or defensively.

Mitchell recalled the Fredericksburg and Hampton back through the barrier, hoping to try this again another night.  But he still had a massive job to do with massive ramifications if he failed.  He pulled back all of the ships which could still move to the protective guns of Battery Dantzler.  Then the Confederates  worked all night to free their many grounded ships in Trent’s Reach.  By morning, despite heroic efforts, the gunboat Drewry and the ironclads Richmond and Virginia II were all still grounded right in front of the Federal batteries.  As can be expected, the Union gunners opened up and started inflicting damage immediately.  The Drewry suffered a direct hit to her magazine fired by a 100 lb Parrott located in Battery Parsons and blew up in spectacular fashion.  Luckily for her crew they had been evacuated to the Richmond earlier in the morning as a precautionary measure.  The explosion caused a shockwave to hit the nearby Richmond and Scorpion, disabling the latter vessel and causing her to float downstream to her capture.  The 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, manning the guns in the land batteries, estimated a 50% hit rate from the 140 or so rounds they fired that morning into the target range presented to them on the morning of the 24th.

ORNVol11Page672673SketchCSSRichmond

Sketch of CSS Richmond (ORN, Vol. 11, between pages 673 and 673))

As the Confederates lay helpless, the Union’s greatest weapon, the double-turreted monitor Onondaga,  was still nowhere to be found.  Ulysses S. Grant himself, in an uncharacteristic series of almost frantic messages, asked where Parker and his Union ships were.  He realized as well as anyone the value of his supply depot at City Point, and he was determined to protect it at all costs.  After he learned that Parker had taken the Onondaga AWAY from the Rebel squadron rather than toward it during the night, allowing them to cross the river barrier unoppposed, Grant tried in vain to communicate with the Fifth division commander.  After failing to find Parker and get him moving in an offensive direction upriver, Grant finally telegraphed the Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox, explained the situation, and got permission to take over.  He ordered up all of the naval vessels near Fort Monroe to rush in the direction of City Point without stopping for any reason, the objective being to get between that spot and the Rebel ironclads.  He also used Fox’s permission to send the following order to the ships under Parker which were currently between City Point and the Confederates:

“Special order from Lieutenant-General Grant, U. S. Army, regarding movements of the gunboats.

City Point, Va., January 24, 1865.

All gunboats now in the James River above City Point will immediately proceed to the front above the pontoon bridge, near Varina Landing. This order is imperative, the orders of any naval commanders to the contrary notwithstanding.

By authority of the Secretary of the Navy :

U. S. Grant,

Special Orders to Gunboat Commanders.”

 

Obviously Grant was taking no chances, perceiving Parker as useless and doing his utmost to save his stranglehold on Lee’s army, Richmond, and Petersburg.  Before receiving this order, Parker had sent the torpedo boats Spuyten Duyvil and No. 4 in the direction of Trent’s Reach, but the Fredericksburg and Hampton had pulled back through the barrier by this point.  More importantly, the massive Onondaga was on her way.

USSOnondagaJamesRiver6465

Around 10:45, the Virginia II managed to free herself, and it was just in time.  Shortly thereafter, Onondaga rounded the bend in the James and started using her four massive guns (2 x 15-inch Dahlgren’s and 2 x 150 lb Parrotts) to pummel the Confederates unlucky enough to be in range.  The Virginia II suffered serious damage from the two shots which hit her, one driving in her armor and even the wood backing.  Onondaga only managed seven shots before the Richmond was also afloat and out of range.  Commander Parker had been too late.  He had a perfect opportunity to destroy the two largest ships in the James River Squadron, and failed.  John Coski, author of Capital Navy: The Men, Ships and Operations of the James River Squadron, thought Parker was right to wait until daylight to attack the Confederates.  He would be able to stay away from their torpedo boats, the only real way his ship could be mortally damaged by the Confederates.  But for some reason, rather than timing his attack at dawn, he waited for five more hours.  I may have a reason for this delay which I’m unsure most people are aware of.  A sailor aboard Onondaga using the pen name “Garryowen” spent a good portion of his career aboard the ship sending letters to the New York Irish-American.  In a letter written on January 24, 1865, he states:

“Last night [January 23, 1865], about eight o’clock, heavy and continuous firing was heard in the direction of “Howlet[t]’s;” and about eleven o’clock we were signaled, “the rams are coming.” We immediately were beat to quarters, and in quick time every man was at his station. We lay in hourly expectation of them till about four o’clock this morning [January 24, 1865], when we concluded to have at them. With this intention we weighed anchor, when our vessel suddenly “sheared,” and grounded on the opposite shore; our port propeller thereby becoming deranged, to what extent as yet we can’t tell, but sufficient to render the port engine at present useless. On account of the unexpected accident we dropped down to the pontoon bridge at Jones’ Landing, there to await them, and at the same time protect the bridge and base of supplies for the Army of the James. At about nine this morning, seeing they were not advancing, our undaunted Captain procured two tugs and had them tow us up, which was accordingly done, we working the starboard engine only; and in this crippled condition faced the rebel foe, and poured our 13-inch solid shot into them thick and heavy, for about two hours, the result of which was that one of them was struck in the magazine and blown up, the other two “turned tail and run,” and left us alone in our glory. The only injury we received was, our little “Dinkey” was cut through and through above the water-mark, our “whaleboat” was sunk, one shot went through the smoke-pipe, another 7-inch Brooks [sic, Brooke] rifle shot made a slight dent in the after turret, started three or four bolts, glanced off and ripped across the port side of the deck, tearing it up some. The escaped rams are now hemmed in between us and Fort Brady (Union), and to-night or to-morrow we expect to put an end to the rebel navy.” [emphasis mine]

I can find no reference to this accident in the Official Records, either army or navy.  Did Commander Parker intend to attack the Rebels at dawn, as naval expert John Coski believes he should have done?  Or was “Garryowen” mistaken in his understanding of the situation?  Regardless, no matter the reason, Parker didn’t get up to the fight quickly enough for U. S. Grant, and he lost his job on the evening of the 24th as a result.  Commodore William Radford came up and took over, with Parker disappearing from the war as so many others had before.

As for the Confederates, they withdrew for the day under the protective cover of Battery Dantzler at the western end of Trent’s Reach.  Flag Officer Mitchell hadn’t given up yet.  He would wait until darkness on the night of the 24th and try again.  Would this attempt be any better than the first? Check back tomorrow to find out…

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