ORN Series 1, Vol. X: Correspondence of Rear-Admiral S. P. Lee and Major General Benjamin F. Butler Regarding Obstructions for James River May 11-June 7, 1864

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in Naval Volume X

Benjamin F. Butler

Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding Army of the James

Correspondence regarding obstructions for James River.

Report of Acting Rear-Admiral Lee, U. S. Navy, transmitting enclosures.

Flagship Agawam,
Farrar’s Island, June 7, 1864p. m.

Sir: I transmit enclosed a copy of the correspondence between General Butler and myself relative to sinking obstructions in the river, which the Department will recollect was a part of his original plan of campaign.

The Department will appreciate the reluctance I have felt to adopt this course. The ironclad force at my command is better than was originally expected. General Grant asked for the cooperation of two ironclads. There are four here now, and there will be three left when the Tecumseh, now under your order for other service, shall leave. The Navy is not accustomed to putting down obstructions before it, and the act might be construed as implying an admission of superiority of resources on the part of the enemy. The object of the operation would be to make the river more secure against the attempts of the enemy upon our vessels by fire and explosive rafts, followed by torpedoes and ironclad vessels and boats.

General Grant seems to be expected by our military men and by the enemy (see Richmond paper of June 7) to cross the James River and operate against Richmond on the south side, and I understand it would be of vital importance to the success of the campaign that the river should be held secure against the casualties of a novel naval engagement.

Of course myself and officers desire the opportunity of encountering the enemy, and feel reluctant to discourage his approach, but the point of embarrassment with me is the consequences that would follow a failure of the campaign should the novel plans of the enemy succeed in crippling the monitor force.

SamuelPLee

Acting Rear-Admiral Samuel P. Lee, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron

I therefore lay the subject before the Department, which, understanding the views of General Grant, will best comprehend the extent and the locality of the cooperation he may desire and be able to instruct me on the subject, if thought necessary.

I am more disposed to the reference since the receipt of the Department’s dispatch of 4th instant. The water here is too shoal and narrow for maneuvering the monitors, and they occupy a position for supporting the flank of the army, from which they must engage at anchor, and to keep their turrets upstream are moored head and stern. Even our tugs can not cross the middle ground in this reach at low water, and there is no room for the longer wooden vessels, which are stationed to keep open our communications, which, however, the enemy can interrupt at pleasure, especially at Deep Bottom, should General Grant leave the left side of the James.

I am inclined, in view of all the circumstances, to obstruct the shoaler parts of this reach so as to prevent the convenient approach of the enemy’s smaller torpedo vessels and limit his approach to the channel way, which is narrow and under the control of the monitor fire.

I have the honor to be, sir, very respectfully, yours,

S[amuel]. P. Lee,
Actg. Rear-Admiral, Comdg. North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Hon. Gideon Welles,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.

[Endorsement.]

Left to discretion of admiral in command, in whom the Department has confidence.

[Welles.]

[Endorsement on margin.]

Mooring head and stern seems to me very risky and entirely unnecessary.

F[ox].

[Enclosure No. 1.]

General Butler’s Headquarters,
May 11, 1864—9:45 a. m.

The bark Franklin and five schooners are at your disposal to obstruct the channel of the river. I have the honor to remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

B[enjamin]. F. Butler,
Major-General, Commanding.

Rear-Admiral S. P. Lee,
Commanding North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

[Enclosure No. 2.]

Flagship Agawam, James River, June 1, 1864.

General: Will you please send to me here at once, that they may be at hand for use if necessary, the bark and schooners provided by you for obstructing the river?

I have the honor to be, general, very respectfully, yours,

S[amuel]. P. Lee,
Actg. Rear-Admiral, Comdg. North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Major-General B. F. Butler,
Commanding Department of Virginia and North Carolina.

Note by Admiral Lee—June 1. Written in consequence of the opinion of monitor commanders, Commander Rhind and Lieutenant Lamson, to have those obstructions ready, but like me they were averse to the sinking, and sustained my views on the subject at a council held on board the Tecumseh this day.

L.

[Enclosure No. 3.]

Flagship Agawam, James River, June 1, 1864. 

General: I thank you for sending the two contrabands to me; their information is useful. I desire that the bark and schooners may be sent me for immediate use.

I have the honor to be, general, very respectfully, yours,

S[amuel]. P. Lee,
Actg. Rear-Admiral, Comdg. North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Major-General B. F. Butler,
Commanding Department of Virginia and North Carolina.

[Enclosure No. 4.]

June 1, 1804—3:30 p. m.

Your envelope enclosing letter to French consul in Richmond, and request for the bark and schooners for obstructions, is received. Orders have gone out to Chief Quartermaster C. E. Fuller to send them up at once, with a tow.

B[enjamin]. F. Butler,
Major-General, Commanding.

Admiral Lee,
Commanding North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

[Enclosure No. 5.]

Flagship Agawam,
Farrar’s Island, June 2, 1864.

General: Can you ride over this morning with General Weitzel and arrange for sinking the vessels which you have obtained and appropriated for obstructing the navigation of James River, in such places as will add to the security of the army communications? It must be your operation, not mine, as I have not consulted the Navy Department on the subject, and the Navy Department alone can find vessels for this purpose, if it approves of so using them. I have no authority to employ or use vessels for this purpose, but can give such assistance to your engineers as may aid you in accomplishing the object proposed in your plan of campaign.

I have the honor to be, general, very respectfully, yours,

S[amuel]. P. Lee,
Actg. Rear-Admiral, Comdg. North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Major-General B. F. Butler,
Commanding Department of Virginia and North Carolina.

[Enclosure No. 6. ]

Headquarters In Field, June 2, 1864.

Admiral: Your communication, dated June 2in regard to the obstructions, is received. The five vessels sent up were procured by my order for the purpose of being used as obstructions to the river, if, in the judgment of the naval commander, they would add to the security of his fleet. I have no difficulty as to the point at which we desire to secure the river. It is the right of my line, near Curtis’ house, at the ravine, but whether the river should be secured by obstructions or by vessels, or a disposition of your obstructions or of the vessels of your navy, neither myself nor my engineers have any right to feel ourselves confident to give our opinion. The vessels are wholly at your service, but upon your good judgment, and not mine, must rest their use.

In accordance with your request, as I informed your officer, I will visit you this afternoon and designate the spot we desire to be held, but whether by means of obstructions, or by your ships, or by both combined, must be solely for you to determine.

While I know you would not undertake to give directions to my engineers as to the situation of our earthworks on land, so we ought not to presume to advise you as to your means of defending the water.

I have not consulted the War Department upon the question whether I should procure these obstructions. I supposed that was fairly within my discretion, and I venture respectfully to add that the question whether you should use them is entirely within yours. The Navy Department can not know the exigencies as you know them, and I am certain must leave that question to the good judgment of the rear-admiral commanding the fleet.

I am aware of the delicacy naval gentlemen feel in depending upon anything but their ships in a contest with the enemy, and if it were a contest with the enemy’s ships alone I certainly would not advise the obstructions, even at the great risk of losing the river. But in a contest against such unchristian modes of warfare as fire rafts and torpedo boats I think all question of delicacy should be waived by the paramount consideration of protection for the lives of the men and the safety of the very valuable vessels of the squadron.

Pardon me if I have overstepped any line of duty or courtesy in this latter suggestion.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Benj. F. Butler,
Major- General, Commanding.

Rear-Admiral S. P. Lee,
Commanding North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

[Enclosure No. 7. ]

Confidential.]

Flagship Agawam,
Farrar’s Island, June 3, 1864.

General: The system of naval expenditures is so entirely different from the army system, being controlled and directed by the Navy Department alone, that, to prevent future misunderstanding, I desire now to be assured by you, in writing, whether the cost of the vessels placed by you at my disposal for obstructing the river can be made a charge or liability, present or contingent, upon the Navy Department, if, under my directions, they are used for the purpose indicated, or whether I am to understand that the entire cost and expenditure for the vessels is borne by the War Department.

Without explicit authority from the Secretary of the Navy, I should not feel justified in incurring any pecuniary liability in connection with this matter.

In reply to that part of your communication of yesterday, which I have now the honor to acknowledge, which refers to the lives of the men and the safety of the very valuable vessels under my command as being the primary reason for obstructing the river, I would wish to be understood as regarding the loss of life and material as incidental to the contest which would occur should the enemy make an attack on us, whatever the result should be. The first consideration with me is the necessity, as heretofore represented by you to me, of holding this river beyond a peradventure for the great military purposes of General Grant and yourself. In consulting my own desires, I would do everything to induce and nothing to prevent the enemy from trying to assert their strength in a pure naval contest, which, in my opinion, would give us a naval victory. The only contingency of such a battle is the unknown effect of the novel instruments of war—torpedo vessels—which are to be employed by them, and which, as the attacking party, give them, perhaps, an advantage, which might possibly balance our certain superiority in all other fighting material.

Please return to me the topographical sketch which you gave me and afterwards borrowed.

I have the honor to be, general, very respectfully, yours,

S[amuel]. P. Lee,
Actg. Rear Admiral, Comdg. North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Major-General B. F. Butler,
Commanding Department Virginia and North Carolina.

 

[Enclosure No. 8.]

Confidential.]

Headquarters In The Field,
June 3, 1864—1:30 p. m.

Sir: I beg leave to assure you in writing, as I have heretofore verbally, that the obstructions furnished you by me will in no way be any charge or cost to the Navy Department, unless it chooses voluntarily to assume the expenses.

I have neither doubt nor hesitation upon the subject. If the expenditure of the few thousands for these vessels will save one monitor from torpedo or fire raft, or the lives of ten of the men I have sent to the Navy, I should make it at once. You will judge of the efficiency of the obstructions. The expense has already been assumed by the Army, although I can not appreciate the difference. One treasury, one nation, one cause, all are served alike if one is served.

Respectfully,

Benj. F. Butler.
Major-General, Commanding.

Rear-Admiral Lee,
Commanding, etc.

 

[Enclosure No. 9.]

Confidential.]

Flagship N. Atlantic Block. Squadron,
James River, June 7, 1864.

General: I desire to keep the schooners ready for sinking when I am advised that a controlling military necessity requires that it be done.

Judging from the tenor of a dispatch received from the Navy Department last evening, no such precautionary measure seems to be contemplated.

I have the honor to be, general, very respectfully, yours,

S[amuel]. P. Lee,
Actg. Rear-Admiral, Comdg. North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Major-General B. F. Butler,
Comdg. Military Department of Virginia and North Carolina.

 

[Enclosure No. 10.—Telegram.]

In The Field, June 7, 18642:45 p. m.
(Received 6:30 p. m.)

Your note relative to the sinking of the obstructions is received by hand of Captain Clarke. The necessity of holding our positions here is an overwhelming military one. But how you are to hold yours on the river is, of course, wholly for you to determine.

Respectfully, yours,

Benj. F. Butler,
Major-General, Commanding.

Admiral Lee,
Commanding, etc.1

 

Source:

  1. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume X, pp. 129133

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