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NP: June 23, 1864 New York Herald: “The Failure of Our Iron-Clad Navy”

SOPO Editor’s Note: This New York Herald article condemning the inactivity of Acting Rear-Admiral Samuel P. Lee and mocking him for placing obstructions in the James River at Trent’s Reach, is actually referenced by Lee in a June 24 telegram to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox.1 Considering Lee had spent a month arguing with General Butler2 against sinking vessels as an obstruction at Trent’s Reach, and after finally having General Grant order army engineers to do so, I can understand the Admiral’s frustration.  I present Lee’s telegram to Fox here in its entirety so readers might see how Lee felt about being unfairly attacked in this way:

“You probably have, and will be good enough to use, the means to correct the injustice which the flies of the Department will show has been done me by the editorial attack in the New York Herald of the 23d instant, and which, if not publicly corrected, will be prejudicial to the public interests. The bar in this reach, which is at the head of monitor navigation until it shall be dredged out, was obstructed according to the military plan of campaign. The obstructions furnished by the army are of a temporary character and can be readily removed when the progress of the army makes naval cooperation higher up the river necessary. At present, as heretofore, the navy is only needed to protect the communication of the army. You know that for more than a month I took the responsibility of resisting the sinking of these obstructions. It was finally done under an army order.”

Interestingly, a day later on June 24, 1864, the Washington Daily National Intelligencer rebutted the article below in no uncertain terms.


Operations on James River—The Failure of Our Iron-Clad Navy.

It is announced in the news from the James river that Generals [Ulysses S.] Grant and [Benjamin F.] Butler visited Admiral [Samuel P.] Lee, on one of the gunboats, on Saturday last [June 18, 1864]. What took place at this interview between the Lieutenant General and the commander of the James river flotilla we of course do not know; but we know very well what ought to have taken place; and we can only hope that the presence and the words of the victorious commander of our armies may have stirred up Admiral Lee to a sense of his position, and inspired him to make some attempt, even though a lame one, to go forward to the performance of his plain duty in opening the James river, and taking his iron-clads to the wharves of Richmond city.

There is no disguising the fact that, under their present commander, the James river gunboats are having a shamefully easy time of it. They are ignominiously compelled to look on in idleness, while the army loses eight or ten thousand men in a glorious struggle that they should have rendered unnecessary. It is reported that even Commodore Goldsborough has growled at the inactivity of the gunboats on the James river. But, as if mere idleness were not enough, Admiral Lee has just performed an at that, we doubt not, has called an honorable blush to the cheek of every officer in his fleet. He has sunk boats in the river—obstructed the channel—to prevent the rebel rams from getting out at his ships. He has ironclad vessels enough to blow every ram in the confederacy to atoms; but he is afraid of the trial. If he fears to meet these vessels down the river where his own boats lie, when may we expect that he will go up the river and fight them where they are supported by batteries on shore?

If it be urged against his advance up the James that the obstructions are dangerous and that the fire of the forts is too severe, it must then be admitted that iron-clad vessels are a failure, and that the immense sums spent in their construction have been thrown away. Early in the war Admiral Dupont silenced shore batteries under a terrible fire with only wooden ships. Admiral Farragut went to New Orleans despite obstructions in the river, and running the fire of perfectly constructed forts, all with wooden ships. He ran the fire of the Port Hudson batteries with wooden ships; and Porter ran past the formidable and well served Vicksburg batteries with even the army transports. If so much more can be done by some commanders with wooden ships than can be by others with iron ones, we ought either to waste no more money in the construction of iron ships, or we ought to change commanders.

We do not object to Admiral Lee because he is a relation of Mr. Blair, nor yet because he is a Virginian; but we do object to him because he has no energy in the discharge of his most obvious duty, and because he is for that simple reason palpably unfit for the important position he now occupies.3

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  1. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 10, pp. 207208
  2. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 10, pp. 129133
  3. “Operations on James River—The Failure of Our Iron-Clad Navy.” The New York Herald (New York, NY), June 23, 1864, p. 4, col. 4
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