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Upcoming Posts on the Action at Howlett’s Bluff, June 21, 1864

In the upcoming weeks I’ll be posting numerous items pertaining to the little known June 21, 1864 Action at Howlett’s Bluff.  These include Union and Confederate reports and telegrams from Volume 10 of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, a look at June 19-21, 1864 through the eyes of Lieutenant William H. Parker, captain of the CSS Richmond, one of the Confederate ironclads involved in these events, and several original maps I created to help readers understand the action.

Map of the James River in 1864 from Drewry's Bluff to Bermuda Hundred

A closeup pulled from a map in Volume 11 of the Naval Official Records shows the larger area being contested by the opposing navies.  Trent’s Reach, just left of center at the bottom of the map, was no man’s land during most of the Siege of Petersburg. Events on June 21, 1864 in Trent’s Reach made it so.

As the Petersburg Campaign became static in mid-June 1864 naval affairs grew heated and changed the dynamic at Trent’s Reach for the rest of the campaign.  Obstructions had been placed in Trent’s Reach (see the map above) just as the Siege of Petersburg kicked off.  Ulyssses S. Grant had essentially ordered it done.  The goal was to stop the Confederate James River Squadron, including ironclad rams Virginia II, Richmond, and Fredericksburg from coming down the James River from Richmond (north of the top left corner of the map) to wreak havoc on Union supplies at Bermuda Hundred (pictured at the lower left edge of the map) as well as City Point (just off the lower right map edge to the south).

Prior to June 21, 1864, Union monitors were able to steam into Trent’s Reach, right up to the obstructions in the James.  That all quickly changed when, on the morning of June 21, the Confederates unmasked a hidden battery they had built just northwest of the Howlett House on the James.  It had a perfect view down the entire stretch of Trent’s Reach.  Four Union monitors, the TecumsehSaugusCanonicus, and the double turreted behemoth Onondaga all fired deliberately at this new battery from the eastern end of Trent’s Reach.  The Howlett Battery answered back, as did the Confederate James River Squadron, posted a few bends upriver. The lead Union monitor Tecumseh managed a few hits on the new Confederate work, dismounting a 7-inch Rifle near the end of the engagement.  Battery Howlett, in turn, bounced a shot off of the deck and turret of USS Saugus, second in line, causing some minor damage to the ship but major damage to the Union Navy’s psyche.

Illustration of Howlett Battery and Trent's Reach in the London Illustrated News

A view looking generally east down the James River at Trent’s Reach from Battery Howlett, newly unmasked on June 21, 1864.  Note the obstructions in the mid-distance across the river, as well as Union monitors in the left distance. The scene must have looked much like this on June 21, 1864 during the Action at Howlett’s Bluff. (October 22, 1864 London Illustrated News)

After an engagement which lasted from 11:30 am until nearly 6:30 pm, the situation had been permanently changed.  Union Acting Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, the commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, could no longer keep his monitors on the eastern edge of Trent’s Reach.  Battery Howlett commanded this stretch of the James River now.  Lee could not keep expending ammunition at the rate needed to silence the new Confederate threat.  Instead, he asked Major General Benjamin Butler to emplace heavy land artillery on the southeastern edges of Trent’s reach to keep the Howlett Battery in check.  And the Union warships patrolling the James stopped coming into Trent’s Reach, preferring to stay hidden behind the southeastern portion of Farrar’s Island, and only to be used if the Confederate ironclads were actively coming down the river to attack.  They would eventually do so during the January 1865 Battle of Trent’s Reach.

I hope this short introduction whets your appetite for a deeper dive into this little engagement in the coming weeks.  Stay tuned!

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