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NP: June 22, 1864 Philadelphia Inquirer: The James River Fleet, June 7, 1864


Where the Iron-clads are Located—The Removal of Torpedoes—Position of the Rebel Fleet—Condition of the Defenses on the James River.

Correspondence of the Providence Journal.

UNITED STATES STEAMER “ONONDAGA,” James River, Virginia, June 7 [1864].—The iron fleet is now at anchor in a bay-like expansion of the river called Trent’s Reach.  We are three miles below Fort Darling [at Drewry’s Bluff], and ten below Richmond.  The river is very tortuous, making a little peninsula of the land on our right, which is low and marshy, and overflowed at high stages on the river.1  This shore, of course, cannot be held, and is of no use if it could be.  The western bank consists of a series of rolling hills of considerable elevation, and thickly wooded.  A mile in front of us the river makes a sharp turn to the right or east, and from this point the bank, like a broad lawn, rises to the top of the hill, which is crowned with a new, large, unfinished country mansion.2

This house marks the point where the left flank of BEAUREGARD’S Army rests upon the river.  At this point they have been endeavoring for weeks to erect batteries which might serve to annoy us, as well as to oppose our ascending the river.  But the emphatic intimation to “clear out,” which always accompanies a 15-inch shell, has stopped the digging, and the batteries are yet unfinished.  We can see none of the Rebel army, for the land slopes gently toward the interior, and their lines are hid by the intervening woods, immediately on our left, and almost abreast of us, the right flank of BUTLER’S Army is in position.  Along and in front of the line on the right of this army the woods have been felled, and the remainder of the mile which separates the two lines is broken by ravines, and quite thick with timber, and this intervening distance is occupied by the opposing pickets.  So much for the position.  Although we have seen the enemy in no force of any magnitude, either on or near the river, that is, on the eastern bank, yet we know there are scouting and skulking parties who are vigilantly watching our movements, and from which the fleet has suffered to a small extent in the capture of pickets, of sailors and marines, who were sent ashore, and venturing too far, were surprised, surrounded and captured.

From Rebel sources we have been threatened in all sorts of ways and by all manner of things, but the threats have resulted in no recent material manifestations. From the bed of the river, both above and below this point, a large number of torpedoes have been taken, some made of three-eighth inch boiler iron firmly riveted, and containing large quantities of powder, one having nineteen hundred pounds.  In their exterior geometry has been amply illustrated; for there are spheres, and cubes, and ovals, and polygons and all other kinds of gons. Some are anchored in the river and fired by concussion, some are attached to logs and sent floating down the river, and some, I presume, from their exhaustless store, are awaiting our moving up the river.3  And we are hoping that the river may be sufficiently high before long to warrant our moving still further up.  At the foot of Drury’s Bluff, which is the site of Fort Darling also, the three Rebel iron-clads, Virginia, Richmond and Fredericksburg are lying.4

The first was built in the early part of the war, and was intended to go to sea with the Rebel Merrimac, and is armored with eight inches of iron, and mounts eight guns.  Her draught is too great to admit of her manoeuvring in the river, except at its highest stages. The other two are lighter draught and smaller vessels, but more vulnerable.  We have understood that the obstructions placed in the river to oppose our ascending have been removed, to permit the Rebel iron-clads to come down.  This, however, is very improbable.5  Opposite Drury’s Bluff is another high bank, called Chapin’s [sic, Chaffin’s] Bluff and this, too, has been, and still is, crowned with batteries, but from which, we are assured by recent deserters, the guns have been moved and taken to the defenses of Richmond. Above these bluffs there is sufficient water, until you reach the lower suburbs of the city, called “Rocketts,” where there is scarcely ever water enough to float vessels of much draught. As Rocketts is some distance from the city proper, it is doubtful if the city could be injured by the guns of the fleet, though it is an experiment we are extremely anxious to try.6

SOPO Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jackie Martin.

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  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: This peninsula of land was called Farrar’s Island.  At its base was the soon to be famous Dutch Gap, at which Army of the James Commander Benjamin F. Butler would soon start to construct a canal, trying to bypass Trent’s Reach due to the Confederate batteries you will read about later in this article.
  2. SOPO Editor’s Note: This is the Howlett House, located naturally enough at the top of Howlett’s Bluff. Battery Dantzler would soon be constructed here, and would be fired in anger for the first time at noon on June 21, 1864 in the Action at Howlett’s Bluff.
  3. SOPO Editor’s Note: Naval mines were called “torpedoes” during the American Civil War.  If a ship struck a mine, it could have devastating consequences.  The USS Tecumseh, a single turreted monitor which was on the James with the Onondaga in June 1864, eventually went to Mobile, Alabama, struck a mine during the Battle of Mobile Bay, and turned over and went to the bottom in mere minutes.
  4. SOPO Editor’s Note: These three ironclad rams were the heart of the Confederate James River Squadron. The threat of these rams coming downriver to City Point to wipe out Grant’s main supply depot kept the Union leadership up at night.
  5. SOPO Editor’s Note: Only eight days after this letter was written, obstructions in the form of sunken ships were dropped in Trent’s Reach, not far from where this letter was written.  It was a touchy subject for Acting Rear-Admiral Samuel P. Lee, who did not want the US Navy to be seen as cowardly for hiding behind obstructions.  Ulysses S. Grant, concrned for his supply depot and headquarters further down the James River at City Point, insisted on them. Interestingly, a New York Herald article in late June 1864 accused Admiral Lee of cowardice for these obstructions!
  6. “The James River Fleet.” The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), June 22, 1864, p. 2, col. 2-3
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