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150 Years Ago Today: Engagement of Federal Ironclads with Howlett’s Battery: December 5-6, 1864

December 5-6, 1864: More Target Practice as the Monitors Battle Battery Dantzler

From December 5-6, 1864, 150 years ago today and tomorrow, four Union monitors took turns pounding Confederate Battery Dantzler, near the Howlett House along the James River, and the Confederate battery returned the favor.

Commander William A. Parker, commander of the Fifth Division, North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, had four powerful monitors under his command.  The Onondaga, his flagship and a double-turreted monitor, was the largest and most powerful ship on either side on the James.  The single turreted Canonicus, Saugus, and Mahopac, all Canonicus­-class monitors, provided impressive support to the Onondaga.


Parker filed the following report of the operations on December 5-6, 1864:

I have to report that I engaged yesterday and the day before the batteries at Howlett’s house and opposite the anchorage with the four monitors. I witnessed the fight at the foot of the Signal Tower in obedience to your order.

The Mahopac and the Saugus were struck several times by shot from Howlett’s batteries, but none of the crews were wounded.

The enemy used heavy shot, apparently 150-pounder rifle and X-inch columbiad. The damage done to the monitors can be easily repaired, I think, and they are ready for immediate service.

The battery at Howlett’s house affords an excellent opportunity for target practice, being on a hill visible from the ship, but the field batteries can only be fired at by signal from the fort or Signal Tower opposite to the ship.

The fire from the monitors was good and accurate generally, but we were unable to silence the enemy; that from the Saugus on the 5th instant was particularly excellent, eliciting expressions of admiration from the army officers present, as her XV-inch shot struck the parapet and exploded inside the fort at nearly every discharge. I will send on the detailed report as soon as it can be prepared.

Confederate Captain S. G. Leitch gave this account of the December 5 fighting.

We have had a lively fight at Dantzler with the ironclads all the evening.

The 7-inch gun has been most active.

Struck the ironclads four or five times.

The dents are apparent and men are seen working on them. All the land and mortar batteries opened. General Pickett asks that you send it as many wrought-iron bolts as possible.

Distance 2,300 yards.

 December 5, 1865

Parker’s four ironclads moved up the James and settled in just short of the large Union obstructions placed in the river to prevent the Confederate fleet from reaching Grant’s supply depot at City Point.  They opened fire on Battery Dantzler, situated 83 feet above the James on a bluff near the Howlett House, from about 2,100 yards.  The Saugus took the most damage on this first day of combat, firing 14 shells from her two XV-inch guns in 27 minutes before her turret received a direct hit from the 7-inch Brooke rifle in Battery Dantzler.  The turret construction on the Saugus was faulty, and the hot from the Brooke rifle caused more damage than it should have.  This direct hit knocked Saugus out of the action.  The Mahopac fared much better, taking six hits without experiencing any real damage.  Mahopac and Canonicus seem to have been slightly further back than Saugus, with Captain George E. Belknap of the Canoncus estimating a range of 2,300 yards.  Belknap was not actually on his ship.  Instead, he was stationed near Battery Sawyer with a better view of the other batteries near Dantzler, and communicated positions of the enemy guns to his ship and the Mahopac via the nearby Signal Station.  The Onondaga was further back under the “crow’s nest” signal tower on the south bank of the James.  Sailor “Garryowen” of the Onondaga, writing to the New York Irish-American, described the fight to its readers:

Gentlemen—Having completed our overhauling and repairing of machinery on Monday last [December 5, 1864], we got steam up that night and found everything satisfactory; next day we proceeded up the river to our old anchorage at the Gap [Dutch Gap], where we found before us the ironclads “Cannonicus,” [sic, Canonicus] “Saugus” and “Mahopac,” all single turreted monitors, which, with ourselves, comprise the fleet now here.—It was whispered around that on arriving at the Gap we were to make a combined attack on the enemy’s work at Howlett’s House, and above it on the river side. This was accordingly done, the monitors taking position as their names indicate above, while we lay astern of them under the “Crow’s Nest” signal tower, and directed our attention to the batteries above Howlett’s, the distance supposed to be about two thousand yards. At the appointed time we opened fire simultaneously, and continued pouring shot and shell into their works—as could be observed from the signal tower—for about four hours. We have not ascertained what damage was done, but, perhaps, may reasonably conclude that our work had the desired effect, and caused consternation among the “Johnnies,” if not creating vacancies at their mess tables. The bombardment for the time was short, sharp and vigorous, and I must say that we had not all the fun to ourselves, as they replied shot for shot, and manifested to the last convincing proof that they were “still there.” On our side there was some slight damage done to one or two of the monitors, but “nobody hurt.” The “Saugus” received a solid shot on her turret, having no more effect than making a slight indentation of about three inches; the “Mahopac” received about half a dozen taps on her turret, which, striking, glanced off, except one, going through the one inch flange plates on top of the turret, and passing harmlessly by the pilot-house. This goes to show, however, that the rebels can do some good shooting; and also settles the question of the fighting propensities of the monitors—let the torpedoes be cleared from the river, and Richmond falls in less than twenty-four hours. “That’s what’s the matter.”—Notwithstanding that we were as conspicuous as any other monitors, yet strange, we received “nary” [a] scratch. We are beginning to think there is some charm or supernatural spell about us; for we have lain here at the gates of Richmond, as it were, all summer, exposed to the rebel guns, and have had a brush, more or less, every day with our antagonists. Yet up to this they have not as much as touched us. But we have had, in the meantime, some narrow escapes. For instance, after the last engagement, when the retreat from quarters was sounded, we “lay up” on deck to view the scene after the battle, and while thus assembled forward of the turret in a group, a rebel shot came “whirling” and plunged in the river at our feet.—Then there was skedaddling at locomotive speed; and no wonder, for if it had a half foot more elevation, and had reached ten or fifteen feet farther. There would have been some widows made that evening, and not a few, at best, would have lost their appetites. Providentially, however, we came off with a slight sprinkling. My friend Thompson, being at the “head,” was more scared than hurt, as he beat a hasty retreat in good order, looking “pale, curious and genteel,” which caused some laughter at his predicament, eliciting from him the query, “What are ye laughing at?—do ye think a fellow is afraid of them things?” Well, nobody said he was; but we noticed he made himself scarce in that locality, and so we all did.

The “crow’s nest” signal tower referenced by “Garryowen” above can be seen in the image below.


December 6, 1864

The next day, the four monitors proceeded to head upriver a second time and try some more target practice.  The range this day was similar to the last, with the Mahopac estimating 2,100 yards.  This monitor was hit five times on the 6th to go along with the six hits on the 5th, but again suffered no real damage.  Canonicus was anchored to the port of Mahopac, and slightly leeward.  The smoke from the Mahopac’s guns drifted in her direction and slowed her rate of fire from the optimal.  Captain Colhoun of the Saugus was stationed at Battery Sawyer, sending positions of the enemy’s guns to the Crow’s Nest via signal.  He observed the Confederates replying with a 200-lb Parrott and X-inch Columbiad, the latter against Battery Sawyer rather than the monitors.  Commander Parker appears to have been with him at Battery Sawyer.

In the end, no real permanent damage was done to either side.  Saugus had suffered a serious wounding on the 5th, Garryowen’s testimony notwithstanding, but the damage had been repaired quickly enough that she was engaged again on the 6th.  Battery Dantzler suffered no real damage at all.  Both sides were provided with long range target practice and put on a loud performance for the Union and Confederate foot soldiers in the surrounding trenches.

No further major fighting would occur on the James River until the last gasp effort of the Confederate navy to reach City Point from January 23-25, 1865.  But as always, that’s another story for another day…

Further Reading:

  • Naval OR Vol. XI, pages 144149
    • Report of Rear-Admiral Porter, U. S. Navy, transmitting report of Chief Engineer Peake, U. S. Navy, pages 144145
    • Report of Commander Parker, U. S. Navy, commanding Fifth Division, page 145
    • Report of Commander Colhoun, U. S. Navy, commanding U. S. S. Saugus, pages 145146
    • Report of Commander Calhoun, U. S. Navy, transmitting report of practice with Howlett’s battery, pages 146147
    • Report of board of survey on the U. S. S. Saugus, page 147
    • Report of Lieutenant-Commander Belknap, U. S. Navy, commanding U. S. S. Canonicus, pages 147148
    • Second report of Lieutenant-Commander Belknap, U. S. Navy, commanding U. S. S. Canonicus, page 148
    • Report of Lieutenant-Commander Potter, U. S. Navy, commanding U. S. S. Mahopac, pages 148149
    • Telegram of Captain S. G. Leitch to Commander J. M. Brooke on December 5, 1864, page 149
  • Images of U. S. S. Onondaga
  • Images of U. S. S. Saugus
  • Images of U. S. S. Mahopac
  • Images of U. S. S. Canonicus
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