October 22, 1864: “Target Practice” Against the James River Squadron at Fort Brady
October 22, 1864, 150 years ago to the day, a skirmish broke out in the James River south of Chaffin’s Bluff between the Confederate James River Squadron and newly established batteries in Fort Brady and near the Boulware House. These new fortifications were one of the results of the fight at Fort Harrison on September 29 and September 30, 1864. After Butler’s Army of the James captured Fort Harrison, they went to work on that fort, subsequently renamed Fort Burnham, and new lines extending northeast and south to solidify their tenuous foothold so far from the bridgehead at Deep Bottom to the southeast.Fort Brady was located nearly due south of Fort Harrison/Burnham, and anchored the Federal left on the James River. Various other works between Brady and Burnham, including the battery near the Boulware House, completed the Yankee defenses in this area opposite Chaffin’s Bluff.
On October 22, 1864, Butler decided to see what Fort Brady could do. The forest between the fort and the James was cleared, uncovering the artillery in the fort and allowing it to shell the James River. This exposed five vessels of the James River Squadron under Commodore Mitchell, to the fire of the fort’s big guns. Fort Brady and supporting batteries opened fire around 7 a. m. that morning, and the responses of the Confederate ships differed based on their type. The unarmored gunboats Hampton and Drewry moved out of range as quickly as possible, but not before the latter boat suffered some damage, including five wounded. The three ironclads, flagship Virginia, Richmond, and Fredericksburg, instead made their way toward the Federal works, with the Fredericksburg at one point moving to within 500 yards of the advanced works at the Boulware House. Captain Rootes of the Fredericksburg displayed courage in maneuvering his ship so near the imposing Yankee cannon, considering his ironclad was less well protected than her sisters. As a result, the Fredericksburg suffered six wounded and some structural damage, while Richmond only lost her smokestack, and Virginia suffered very little at all. Battery Brooke
After what some sources claimed was two hours of sparring, the Confederate ironclads made their way upriver in the direction of Chaffin’s Bluff, retiring out of range. I managed to find a surprising number of sources on this little fight, including several newspaper accounts, some of which I reproduce below for interested readers. The Sixth Offensive against Petersburg would begin in less than a week, but that’s a story for another day…
The most severe test to which the squadron had been subjected was that which they experienced on October 22d, 1864, in an encounter with a new battery at the Boulware House on the left bank of the river, nearly two miles below Chapin’s Bluff, and connecting with the fortification on Signal Hill. These works had been erected by the Federals since their capture of Fort Harrison on September 19th, and their armament included several 100-pounder Parrott rifles. They were masked until the morning of the engagement, when the forest growth in front of them was cut away and they were revealed within practicable range of the Virginia, Richmond, Fredericksburg, Hampton and Drewry, lying near Cox’s Landing.
The small gunboats, which were not calculated to withstand the fire of the heavy Federal ordnance, moved out of their reach, not however before Lieut. Alexander’s vessel, the Drewry, received a shell which struck one of her gun carriages, wounding two men severely and three slightly. Com. Mitchell, with his flag-ship, the Virginia, passed down to within 500 yards of the battery, signalling Capts. Maury and Rootes to follow with the Richmond and Fredericksburg; and for two hours they maintained so steady and well-directed a fire that the replies of the enemy grew slower and then nearly ceased, whereupon the squadron, which had almost exhausted their ammunition, returned toward Drewry’s Bluff. It was admitted bythe correspondents of Northern papers that the aim of the Confederate gunners was remarkably precise, shell after shell bursting in the earthen faceof the battery and driving the men from their pieces. This being the first test of the resisting quality of the casemates of the ships under a close fire of heavy rifled guns, the result was of much practical importance and interest. It was encouraging except in the case of the Fredericksburg, the weakest of the three vessels. Capt. Rootes had gallantly exposed her to the sharpest of the enemy’s fire, and as the Federal officers had acquired from deserters an acquaintance with the details of the several ships, their thickness of plating and weight of battery, it is rather more than conjecture that they intentionally hammered the Fredericksburg harder and more frequently than they did her stronger consorts. Her comparatively vulnerable casemate was struck several times, and although the wooden backing was not penetrated a few plates were started and bolt-heads knocked off; yet there was no damage done that incapacitated her from continuing the battle, and she emerged from the ordeal in better trim than could have been expected. The only loss in men suffered was on this vessel, a shell that exploded immediately upon the grating of the roof of the casemate wounding seriously two and slightly four of her crew. With the Virginia it was demonstrated that her thick armor was proof against the 100-pound conical bolts from the enemy’s rifles. She was hit by seven projectiles, no one of which did more than make a slight indentation in the six inches of iron. Not a bolt was started, and she came out of the engagement as tight and sound as when she went into it. Nearly the same thing may be said of the Richmond, except that she was more frequently struck and that her smokestack was shot away.
This affair offered the four Federal monitors an enticing opportunity to engage the Confederate squadron if their commanders were spoiling for a fight. As we nave seen, Adm. Lee had already indicated that the obstructions on Trent’s Reach bar could be removed, with little trouble or loss of time, sufficiently to make a gateway for the passage of vessels, and as the nearest Confederate battery was 2,000 yards distant it could not have materially interfered with their working parties making the opening. Com. Mitchell, whom his associates in the old navy knew as an officer who would not have declined such an engagement, remained in the vicinity of Dutch Gap quite long enough to have permitted the monitors to come up to him, but they did not stir from their moorings. It is no impeachment of the courage of their officers that the vessels were held off; but it is another fragment of evidence that the supreme Federal authorities were cautiously averse to an honest fight with the Confederate ships. All through the autumn of 1864 the latter were most of the time below the obstructions at Drewry’s Bluff and in the attitude of challenging the enemy to a combat that was never accepted, notwithstanding the asserted confidence of Gen. Grant and Adm. Lee that the Federals would be victors in a naval battle. The Admiral does, indeed, in his dispatches speak of the channels above Trent’s Reach being too shallow for his vessels, but the monitors were of no deeper draft than the Confederate ironclads, and in the negro boatmen who had flocked to him he possessed as capable and skillful pilots as any on the river.
OR XLII, P3, page 287: Col. Henry L. Abbot to Lieut. Michie from Broadway Landing, Va.. October 22, 1864:
Chief Engineer, Headquarters Army of the James: Please have the landing at Aiken’s cleared by 3 p. m., as the guns will arrive then. Three 30-pounder Parrotts, Ashby’s battery, will cross the pontoon bridge about the same time, probably. Please have guides ready to show the way for both.
HENBY L. ABBOT,
Colonel First Connecticut Artillery.
OR XLII, P3, page 308: H. H. Pierce, Captain, 1st CT HA to Col. Henry L. Abbot from Fort Brady, Va.. October 22, 1864:
Fort Brady, Va., October 22, 1864.
Col. H. L. Abbot, Commanding Siege Artillery:
Colonel: I have the honor to report that, by reason of being compelled to attend to the fire on the gun-boats, was unable to visit the Gap until late this p. m. Am informed by my sergeant, however, that the rebels have shelled but little and with slight effect. Mr. Lewis sent a few shots at them from the 4.5-inch gun, making very good practice. Presume Mr. Woodruff gave you all particulars of the firing at the rebel boats this forenoon. The wooden one was struck at least fifteen times before she could get out of the way; was evidently somewhat damaged. Iron-clads and all were much frightened and steamed up the river out of sight. Ashby’s battery made miserable practice. Regretted that you could not be there.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
H. H. PIERCE, Captain, First Connecticut Artillery.
October 24, 1864 Richmond Examiner, P. 2, C. 3. “The War News”:
A BRUSH WITH OUR GUNBOATS.
About seven o’clock on Saturday morning [October 22, 1864], the newly-erected batteries of the enemy on Signal Hill and at the Boulware house opened suddenly on a portion of the James river squadron, which was lying in the stream below Chaffin’s Bluff—Notwithstanding the suddenness of the attack, our gunboats were found ready for the engagement and responded promptly, assisted by Battery Brooke on the south side. None of our numerous batteries on the north of the James participated; the reason of which is yet unexplained. The action continued for above two hours, during which time both parties distributed their compliments of shot and shell with great briskness and vigour. What damage the enemy sustained could not be told, though the practice of our naval gunners was acknowledged to be excellent. On our part no material damage was sustained. A few men were slightly wounded. The smoke stack of one of the gunboats was perforated, and the side of one of the iron-clads was struck by a glancing shot, which inflicted little damage. Ammunition becoming short, our vessels withdrew to the vicinity of Chaffin’s.
With the exception of the above skirmish not a thing of interest has occurred on either side of the river.