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ORN Series 1, Vol. X: Special Order of Flag-Officer Mitchell, James River Squadron, June 21, 1864

[Engagement of Federal fleet with Confederate ironclads and shore batteries at Howlett’s, June 21, 1864.]

Special order of Flag-Officer [John K.] Mitchell, C. S. Navy, commanding James River Squadron.

C. S. Ironclad Virginia,
Flagship James River Squadron, off Graveyard, June 21, 1864.

Battery Dantzler, at Howlett’s house, will open on the enemy’s vessels in Trent’s Reach to-day at noon.

Flag Officer John K. Mitchell faced a daunting task as commander of the James River Squadron in 1864-65.

The ironclads VirginiaRichmondand Fredericksburg will be placed in position and be in readiness to open fire at the same time on any of the enemy’s vessels within reach of their fire, whether in Trent’s Reach or Varina Reach, using shells and cast-iron bolts. The wrought-iron bolts are not to be used except within point blank range and against the monitors.

Before getting underway, every preparation will be made for battle on board of each vessel, which will have to be anchored in her proper position, using light anchors and kedges carried out on lines run to the river bank from the bows or quarters, to steady and spring ship as required. These lines or kedges should be placed in boats before getting underway, in readiness to run out the moment the positions are reached, the inward ends under the shields, or other cover, so as to avoid exposing the men on deck as much as possible.

Some eligible height in the vicinity will be selected and used as a station for one of the signal corps from each ironclad, who will give information as to the flight of the projectiles.

After reaching their positions, each vessel will immediately use every effort and means to determine the line of fire and establish ranges for any of the enemy’s vessels (especially his gunboats and transports) within range, but fire will not be opened until it is commenced by Battery Dantzler, or to return the fire of the enemy, unless expressly ordered.

Great care should be taken in dropping down to avoid noises of any kind to attract the attention of the enemy, especially in letting off steam, which can be distinctly seen and heard at a great distance. The bell is not to be struck.

Particular attention should be given to a plentiful supply of water in buckets and tubs for extinguishing fires below, as well as for the use of the crew.

The gunboat Drewry will keep within signal distanced of the flagship, but out of the line of fire of the enemy as much as possible, and be ready to use her gun if ordered, or whenever it can be done with effect, and to render such assistance to other vessels as may be required.

The other gunboats will keep out of the line of fire of the enemy, and at the same time, if possible, keep within signal distance and be in readiness to render such assistance as may be required by any of the vessels, in towing, carrying out kedges, hawsers, etc. They will be prepared for action and use their guns should they be brought within effective range of the enemy. When out of signal distance they will be under the orders of the senior officer present, who will be governed by these instructions.

All the vessels in the squadron will be underway by — a. m., and will move down in open order.

The position assigned the Fredericksburg is in the vicinity of the ferry, with her tender (the Nansemondwithin signal distance above her.

The positions assigned the Virginia and the Richmond are near Dutch Gap, so as to command as much as possible the lower part of Trent’s Reach and Varina Reach.

Steam will [be| kept up so as to enable new dispositions to be made at any moment they may be required.

Jno. [Jonathan] K. Mitchell,
Commanding James River Squadron.1

Map of the June 21, 1864 Action at Howlett's Bluff

This map shows the June 21, 1864 Action at Howlett’s Bluff, resulting from this order by Flag Officer Mitchell.


  1. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 10, pp. 185186
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