“The Whole Affair Was a Fiasco”: The Action at Howlett’s Bluff from the Confederate Perspective, June 21, 1864 by William H. Parker

2 comments

in Battle Accounts

SOPO Editor’s Note: Captain William H. Parker served with the Confederate James River Squadron during the Siege of Petersburg.  Their role was to protect Richmond from attack by the Union Navy.  Parker wrote about his service in the United States and Confederate navies in the book Recollections of a Naval Officer, 1841-1865, published in 1883.  This excerpt is taken from pages 336-338 of that book, and describes two small actions from the Confederate perspective on June 19 and 21, 1864.  I’m publishing this excerpt to show you the Confederate perspective because I will be releasing reports from the Union side from the Naval Official Records, Volume 10, in the coming weeks.

Captain William H. Parker, CSS Richmond, Describes Two Actions on the James River Near Trent’s Reach, June 19 and 21, 1864

William H. Parker, Confederate States Navy

Commander William H. Parker was in command of ironclad CSS Richmond on June 19 and 21, 1864.

About this time [mid-June 1864] I [Captain William H. Parker of the Richmond] accompanied Commodore [John K.] Mitchell several times to General Beauregard’s headquarters. The commodore was in constant communication with the general; but I am unable to say what their plans were.1 On the 19th of June [1864] our squadron2 got underweigh from the anchorage at Chapin’s Bluff and proceeded down the river. At 2 P. M. we anchored off upper Howlet[t]s, which I suppose is in an air line two miles from lower Howlet[t]s; but by the river much farther.3 A reference to the map will show that the James river pursues a very circuitous course between City Point and Richmond. It is indicated by the names, such as Curl’s Neck, Turkey Bend, Dutch Gap, &c. In some cases a distance by land of a mile requires eight or ten to accomplish by water. From our anchorage at upper Howlets [Howlett’s Farm] nothing could be seen of the monitors in Trent’s reach—in fact we were anchored under a bluff on the right bank of the river.4 General [Benjamin F.] Butler had erected a tower of wood at Trent’s reach perhaps 120 feet high, as a post of observation. It gave him a very good one. Our artillery officers were prevented from trying to destroy it by the scarcity of ammunition. We could see the top of this tower from our anchorage, and of course the masts of our gunboats were visible from it, but not the hulls.5

Map showing Union monitors firing in the direction of Howlett's Farm on the James River, June 19, 1864

This map depicts the Union monitors in Trent’s Reach shelling Howlett’s Farm and accidentally causing casualties in the Confederate James River Squadron, which was anchored nearby on June 19, 1864.

We had been at anchor an hour or two not expecting a movement of any kind—indeed I was sitting in an arm-chair on the shield of the Richmond reading—when a shell was fired from one of the monitors in our direction. It exploded just at the river bank and scattered the pieces about the forward deck of the Virginia, wounding three men. Whilst we were wondering at this, another shell came and exploded just after it had passed over us, and again another. As we could not return the fire, and there was no necessity to remain and be made a target of, we got underweigh and went back to Chapin’s Bluff.6 As the guns had to be pointed by directions from those in the tower I have mentioned, I thought this the most remarkable shooting I had ever seen or heard of; but happening to mention this circumstance after the war to a naval officer present at the time on board one of the monitors he informed me that they were not shooting at us at all. He said that some officials had come from Washington on a visit, and they wishing to see a large gun fired, the monitors had obliged them. In those days they were not particular as to where they fired, and the result was as I have mentioned. A curious incident certainly, but the facts were precisely as I have stated them.

The authorities in Richmond now became very anxious that the navy should make some demonstration on the river in order to relieve the great pressure on the army. Commodore Mitchell held a council of war; and it was decided to attack the monitors lying in Trent’s reach, at long range, in connection with the heavy guns we had by this time mounted at Howlets.7 Our vessels could not go fairly up to the obstructions and face the monitors, for we knew that the Richmond and Fredericksburg could not stand the 15-inch shot. We thought then that the Virginia could, but were afterward undeceived.

Map of the naval Action at Howlett's Bluff on June 21, 1864.

The Confederates unmasked Battery Dantzler at the western end of Trent’s Reach on June 21, 1864, setting off a wild engagement against the Union monitors that also included a mostly inaccurate crossfire from the Confederate James River Squadron to the north.

On the 21st of June [1864] the vessels got underweigh, and stood down. The Fredericksburg was to take a station in a bend in the river, about two miles (in an air line) from the monitors, and the Virginia and Richmond, with the gunboats, were to anchor on the north side of Dutch gap, about a mile and a half above them. In getting underweigh my vessel, the Richmond, parted a wheel-rope and it got wound up round the shaft and disabled her. We got a gunboat to tow us down, but did not get to the Virginia until the afternoon. We only fired a few shots. The whole affair, however, was a fiasco. We could not see the monitors, and they could not see us. They were not hit once during the day by us, and the reports speak of the firing of our vessels as extremely wild. How could it be otherwise under the circumstances? The battery at Howlet’s struck the monitors but once.8 The fact is we were wrong in yielding to the clamor of the army to “do something.” We knew that we could do nothing with the monitors at long range, even if we could see to hit them; we knew equally well that we could not stand the effect of their guns at close quarters. We might have gotten our gunboats through the obstructions, and made a dash at them with torpedoes; but it must be remembered that the enemy had a battery on shore to cover the obstructions. Our army anticipated a great naval engagement that day, and we were expected to accomplish wonders. The soldiers wore all on the lookout; they looked to see us run over the obstructions like smoke, and destroy the monitors in no time. The result being so much of a disappointment to them, we were much ridiculed. The whole affair was a mortification to us of the navy. From this time until the close of the summer campaign we remained below Chapin’s Bluff, shelling the batteries put up by the enemy on the left bank of the river occasionally; and assisting the army so far as we could.9

Source/Notes:

  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: Although I know of no record of the interactions between Mitchell and Beauregard, I’m sure it had to do with the Confederate James River Squadron protecting the Confederate pontoon bridges on the James River north of Trent’s Reach.
  2. SOPO Editor’s Note: The Confederate naval forces on the James River, assigned to protect Richmond from enemy incursions, was appropriately named the James River Squadron.
  3. SOPO Editor’s Note: Check out this map of the James River in the vicinity of Trent’s Reach.  It will prove useful in following what happened on June 19 and 21, 1864. Keep in mind that the Union fortifications north of the James River starting with Fort Brady did not yet exist.  Those would be created in October 1864 after the Fifth Offensive. “Upper Howlets” is Howlett’s Farm on the map.  “Lower Howlets” is the Howlett House at the western end of Trent’s Reach. Battry Dantzler was located there and controlled Trent’s Reach.  This battery, also referred to as the “Howlett House Battery,” had just been completed.
  4. SOPO Editor’s Note: If you again refer to the map, I believe the bluff Parker refers to can be seen on the south bank of the James just to the west of Howlett’s Farm.  There are no other bluffs of which I’m aware close to Howlett’s Farm and on that specific side of the river.
  5. SOPO Editor’s Note: This tower and its exact location have proven to be a source of consternation for me.  I thought it was located Battery Sawyer, northeast of Trent’s Reach, but I am not 100% positive on this. Clearly Farrar’s Island and/or Dutch Gap contained the high ground which was blocking the view of the opposing sides. If anyone can provide a map showing its location, please CONTACT US.
  6. SOPO Editor’s Note: Chaffin’s Bluff is persistently, almost annoyingly, misspelled as Chapin’s Bluff, usually by the Union side.  It is almost due north from the bluff near Howlett’s Farm.
  7. SOPO Editor’s Note: Parker is talking about Battery Dantzler, or the Howlett House Battery, at what he earlier referred to as “Lower Howlets.”
  8. SOPO Editor’s Note: This was the June 21, 1864 Action at Howlett’s Bluff, reported on fairly well by the Union Naval Officers in the Navy Official Records, Volume 10.  In fact, those reports will be coming out over the next few weeks.  Keep an eye out for those, and click here to see the entire list of reports from Volume 10 of the Naval Official Records if you are reading this later and missed the initial release.
  9. Recollections of a Naval Officer, 1841-1865, by William Harwar Parker, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883, pp. 336–338.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

John Horn March 4, 2021 at 10:18 am

Parker was wrong, as shown by the reports in ORN. Opening Battery Dantzler (it was so named June 13 by Beauregard) alone cleared Trent’s Reach of ALL Federal vessels, wooden and ironclad.

Brett Schulte March 4, 2021 at 10:28 am

John,

Could you clarify? I’m trying to understand to which comment of Parker’s specifically on this page, you are referring. Where does he say Battery Dantzler didn’t clear Trent’s Reach of Federal vessels, or that the James River Squadron helped clear it of Union vessels after June 21, 1864? The monitors were at the eastern end of the Reach on June 21, 1864, which is why the Action occurred. The Confederates planned a joint attack on the monitors on June 21, with Battery Dantzler firing from the west and the Confederate James River Squadron firing from the north. Does he write something else later in his book about this? I’ve gone through all of the reports of the Union and Confederate officers in the ORNs, and nothing Parker says here seems out of line with what they wrote, other than maybe the details of what his vessel CSS Richmond did on June 21.

Brett

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: