B&L: Closing Operations in the James River by James R. Soley

   

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in Petersburg Campaign

Editor’s Note: Only a portion of this Battles & Leaders article pertains to operations during the Siege of Petersburg, but it has been reproduced here in its entirety to give some background information on naval operations in the James River.

CLOSING OPERATIONS IN THE JAMES RIVER.1

BY PROFESSOR JAMES RUSSELL SOLEY, U. S. N.

On the 31st of August, 1802, the James River flotilla, under Captain Charles Wilkes, was disbanded, the withdrawal of McClellan from the Peninsula having rendered its further continuance unnecessary. For a long time thereafter the greater part of the river was left in the undisturbed possession of the Confederates, who took the opportunity to fit out a squadron of considerable strength. The nucleus of this squadron was found in the gun-boats which had assisted the Merrimac in Hampton Roads, viz., the Patrick Henry, Beaufort, Raleigh, and Teazer. The Jamestown, which had also been in Tattnall’s squadron, was sunk as an obstruction at Drewry’s Bluff.

Three other gun-boats, the Hampton and Nansemond, which had been built at Norfolk, and the Drewry, were added to the enemy’s flotilla in the James. [See map, p. 494.]

Little of importance happened on the river in 1863. In the adjoining waters of Chesapeake Bay an active partisan warfare was carried on by various junior officers of the Confederate service, foremost among whom were Acting Master John Y. Beall and Lieutenant John Taylor Wood. Numerous conflicts occurred on the bay, but in November Beall was finally captured. The repression of this guerrilla warfare was chiefly intrusted to the Potomac flotilla, under Commander F. A.

Parker, while several raids were made upon Matthews county, the principal base of operations of the guerrillas, by gun-boats of the North Atlantic squadron. The most striking operation in the James River and adjacent waters in 1863 was the defense of the Nansemond, April 12-20. A sudden movement in force was made by the Confederates to cross the river and thereby reach Suffolk to attack General Peck. Admiral Lee hastily dispatched two flotillas to hold the line of the river: one composed of the Stepping Stones and seven other gun-boats under Lieutenant R. H. Lamson, in the upper Nansemond, and the other of four gun-boats under Lieutenant William B. Cushing, in the lower waters. Of special importance were the capture on the 19th of April of the battery at Hill’s Point, by Lieutenant Lamson’s flotilla, in conjunction with three hundred men under General Getty, and a landing expedition on the 22d to Chnckatuck, several miles inland, under Lieutenant Cushing.

After several months of inaction it was decided in August, 1863, to make a reconnoissance up the James River. The force consisted of the monitor Sangamon, the ferry-boat Commodore Barney, and the small steamer Cohasset, all under the command of Captain G. Gansevoort. General Foster accompanied the squadron in an army tug-boat, but afterward went on board the Sangamon. The expedition started on the 4th and proceeded without incident up the river to Dutch Gap, where the Sangamon came to anchor owing to the low stage of water. General Foster and his staff and Captain Gansevoort then went on board the Commodore Barney, and had gone only a few miles further, to Coxe’s Landing, when two torpedoes exploded under the starboard bow of the Barney, producing a heavy concussion, lifting her bows, and tearing the planking. The wash from the torpedo carried twenty of the Barney’s crew overboard, most of whom were rescued. The torpedoes consisted of five hundred pounds of powder, placed in tanks and fired by an electric connection on shore. They were in charge of Lieutenant Hunter Davidson. After the explosion the Barney was taken in tow by the Cohasset, and the two vessels dropped down to Dutch Gap. On the following day the Sangamon, with the two wooden boats, started down the river. Early in the morning, near Four Mile Creek, they had an engagement with a Confederate battery, hidden in thickets on the bank, and supported by infantry. The Sangamon and the Barney returned the fire, but the Barney was disabled by a shot through the boiler, and drifted ashore. The Cohasset got her off. A few hours later another engagement took place at Turkey Island Bend, but without any definite result. The wooden vessels were roughly handled; more than thirty round shot penetrated the Barney, and she was fairly peppered with musket-balls. The expedition arrived at Newport News on the morning of the 7th, having lost 3 killed and 3 wounded.

Meantime the Confederate Government had been constructing a powerful squadron for the defense of the river. Besides the Patrick Henry, which was used as a school-ship for midshipmen, there were the Beaufort and Raleigh, and the three later gun-boats, of slight importance, the Nansemond, Hampton, and Drewry. The main force consisted of three new iron-clads. Of these, the Fredericksburg carried four 6-inch rifles with four inches of armor, the Richmond was still more powerful, and the Virginia No. 2, modeled after the first Virginia or Merrimac, was the most powerful of all, having a casemate with six inches of armor on the sides and eight on the ends. She carried two 8-inch and two 6-inch Brooke rifles, and was the strongest vessel at any time in the Confederate service.

The opening of the year 1864 found the North Atlantic squadron still in Hampton Roads, and without so much as a foothold in the James River. Early in the year two joint expeditions of the army and the navy were made into the country in the neighborhood of the Nansemond, then occupied by scattered forces of the enemy. The first of these, on February 1st, resulted in serious disaster, the principal army detachment and the army transport Smith Briggs being captured by the Confederates. The second expedition, on April 14th, composed of a larger force of troops, supported by the Morris, Perry, and Barney, failed of its main object, and retired without gaining any substantial advantage.

The James River campaign opened in May with the landing of the army at City Point and Bermuda Hundred. At daybreak on the 5th the fleet left Newport News. It was composed of five iron-clads, the monitors Tecumseh, Canonicus, and Saugus, the Quintard turret-ship Onondaga, and the casemated ram Atlanta, which Captain John Rodgers had captured the year before in Warsaw (Wassaw) Sound. The iron-clads were towed up the river by ten of the small steamers in the rear of the transports carrying the troops. The advance was composed of seven gun-boats, the Osceola, Commodore Morris, Shokokon, Stepping Stones, Delaware, General Putnam, and Shawsheen, which were to drag the river for torpedoes. Nothing occurred to impede the fleet, and on the evening of the same day the army was landed.

The gun-boats now proceeded to drag the river for torpedoes above City Point. On the 6th the Commodore Jones, while exploring near Four Mile Creek, was blown up by a torpedo fired by electricity from the shore; half her crew were killed or wounded. A boat from the Mackinaw, under Acting Master’s Mate Blanchard, put out to search the banks, and captured the torpedo operators. One of the prisoners was then placed in the forward gun-boat employed in dragging for torpedoes, and was thus led to give much information in reference to their locality and the mode of operating them. On the 7th the gun-boat Shawsheen was destroyed by batteries from the shore, and most of her crew were captured.

During May the monitors remained between Trent’s Reach and City Point, protecting the right flank of General Butler’s army. [See map, p. 198.] The fighting was principally in Trent’s Reach, where the Confederates were erecting batteries. They built a strong work at Howlett’s, so placed that it could not be destroyed by the fire of the monitors.

This was the situation on the 14th of June, when General Grant arrived at the James. The advance

division of the fleet, composed, of the iron-clads, lay in or about Trent’s Keach. The gun-boats searching for torpedoes occasionally went a little distance beyond, far enough even to draw the fire of Chaffin’s Bluff, but Trent’s Reach remained substantially the advance position of the fleet. The Confederate squadron, powerful as it was, was unequal to coping with the five Federal iron-clads. In view, however, of the overwhelming importance of the river as a base of operations and means of communication, General Grant had determined that he would not take the chances of a naval contest for its control, and he had previously ordered General Butler to procure and sink a number of hulks in the channel at Trent’s Reach. The obstructions were put in position between the 15th and 18th of June, and the operations of the fleet for the remainder of the summer were confined to desultory engagements with batteries at various points along the base of the army. In July and August these engagements occurred with great frequency. Once on the 21st of June, soon after the sinking of the obstructions, the Confederate squadron came down below Dutch Gap, and in conjunction with the battery at Howlett’s made an ineffectual demonstration — the only occasion during the year 1864 on which they were brought into action. During the summer and fall the iron-clads were gradually withdrawn, with the exception of the Onondaga, a double-turreted monitor carrying two 15-inch smooth-bores and two 150-pounder Parrott rifles. Up to this time the Confederate squadron, under Commodore John K. Mitchell, had been clearly overmatched, and was therefore not in a position to take the offensive. When the last of the iron-clads had been taken off for the Fort Fisher expedition, however, leaving only the Onondaga, Mitchell determined to try conclusions and see if he could not open the river. After waiting for the river to rise, on the 22d of January a party was sent down to examine the obstructions, and found that they could be passed without much difficulty. On the 23d the fleet, composed of the flag-ship Virginia, Lieutenant J. W. Dunnington, the Richmond, and the Fredericksburg, all iron-clads, the gun-boat Drewry, Davidson’s torpedo boat, and three torpedo launches, proceeded down to Trent’s Reach. The Fredericksburg passed safely through the obstructions, but the Virginia and Richmond ran aground. At daybreak they were discovered, and fire was opened on them from Fort Parsons, the Federal battery near by. The Onondaga, Captain William A. Parker, which, on the approach of the enemy, had retired down the river, according to the statement of Captain Parker, to obtain an advantageous position, now returned and joined in the attack. With the flood-tide the two iron-clads were floated off, and withdrew up the river. The Drewry and one of the torpedo launches were destroyed. The armor of the Virginia was penetrated. That night the Confederate squadron came down again with the intention of attacking the Onondaga, but retired after meeting with a warm reception from the batteries on the banks.(1)

About the middle of February Commodore Mitchell was replaced in the command of the James River squadron by Admiral Semmes, lately the commander of the Alabama. During the six weeks that followed there was very little that the squadron could do. The obstructions at Trent’s Reach had been strengthened, and additions had been made to the fleet below. Meantime the Union armies were closing in about Richmond, and at length the fall of the city was inevitable. On the 2d of April, in obedience to orders from Secretary Mallory, Semmes blew up his vessels, landed his men, and proceeded by rail to Danville, N. C, where he remained until Johnston’s surrender. On the 3d of April Richmond was occupied, and on the following day the Malvern, Admiral Porter’s flag-ship, carried President Lincoln up to the late capital of the Confederacy.

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(1) From a brief narrative furnished to the editors by Chief Engineer Alexander Henderson, U. S. N., the following statement is condensed:

“At this time [January 23d, 1865] I was serving on board the Onondaga, which was lying at anchor some little distance below the obstructions in Trent’s Reach. On the evening of the 23d I was preparing to lay torpedoes at the obstructions, in compliance with a suggestion made a short time before by General Grant. When the approach of the Confederate iron-clads was reported, I verified the report by going up in a picket launch, and signaled the fact to the Onondaga from the army signal tower on shore. During the remainder of the night, which was the darkest I ever saw, I was constantly moving back and forth between the obstructions and the signal station. My boat was so close to the Fredericksburg when she passed through that I could distinctly hear the closing of her furnace doors, the step of a man on some loose oars, and other sounds. I could also hear orders given, but in too low a tone to detect their import.

“What the Confederate vessels did is told in a letter written by Lieutenant E. T. Eggleston of the Fredericksburg, which I subsequently found in Richmond. He says:

“‘We got under way at 6: 30 P. M. Monday last [23d] and proceeded down the river, passing the upper end of Dutch Gap at 10:30 P. M., this vessel, with the Hampton in tow, leading, the Virginia and Nansemond next, followed by the Richmond and Drewry in the same order. It was a most complete surprise. The first picket that fired at us was at the foot of Signal Hill; the first heavy gun was opposite Dutch Gap. We had to anchor twice above the Yankee obstructions to wait for the other vessels, and having cut away some spars we passed safely through their obstructions at 1: 15 A. M. and came to anchor some four hundred yards below to wait for the other vessels. . . . We waited for an hour and a half, when our captain (Sheppard) sent up and found the Virginia, Richmond, and Drewry hard aground, with the tide falling. . . . We came up and anchored above the Virginia. The enemy had opened on us from four mortar-batteries and several rifted guns, and were getting our range pretty well, but up to daylight no damage was done. About daylight a double-turreted monitor came up to within nine hundred yards of the Virginia and opened on her with 15 and 11 inch guns. Their land-batteries of 200 and 100 pounder Parrotts also opened with their mortars and 12 or 15 pieces of field-artillery (20 and 30 pounder Parrotts). She was struck between 125 and 150 times, but the only ones that did any damage were two 15-inch. One struck Just above and to the right of the after-port on the port side, driving in the shield from the top of the port to the spar deck. The shield had six inches of iron and twenty-eight inches of old field pine. This shot killed one and wounded seven. Another struck amidships on the port side, driving in some two feet of the plating and the woodwork.

“‘The Richmond sustained little or no damage. The greatest damage this vessel sustained was from a 200-pounder Parrott that struck on the fantail forward and cut our anchor chain, and the jar, it is supposed, started her leaking. Wo got under way Tuesday evening, but found the Virginia’s exhaust-pipe and smoke-stack were so riddled as to fill the gun-deck with smoke and steam, which was the cause of our returning. The whole blame rests with the two pilots of the Virginia.'” EDITORS.

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Source:

  1. Soley, James Russell. “Closing Operations in the James River.” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 4, pp. 705-707

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