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ORN Series 1, Vol. X: Report of Flag Officer Jonathan K. Mitchell, James River Squadron, June 20-22, 1864

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

Report of Flag-Officer [Jonathan K.] Mitchell, C. S. Navy, commanding James River Squadron.

C. S. S. Ironclad Virginia,
Flagship James River Squadron, off Graveyard, June 22, 1864.

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

Battery Dantzler and the Confederate James River Squadron combined forces against the Union monitors in Trent’s Reach on June 21, 1864. (October 22, 1864 London Illustrated News)

Sir: On Monday morning, the 20th, it was arranged with Major-General Pickett that Battery Dantzler, at Howlett’s, should open fire on the enemy’s monitors in Trent’s Reach at noon yesterday, and that the forces under my command would be in position to act simultaneously. It was also understood that Brigadier-General G. W. C. Lee would, on the north side, so far as practicable, operate against the enemy’s wooden vessels below Varina (or Aiken’s) with a force of artillery, and to drive in any pickets he might have out.

At noon, or very soon after, Battery Dantzler opened on the enemy, with what results I have been unable to learn.

A few minutes after noon the Virginiain a position near Cox’s Landing, and the Fredericksburgnear the ferry, together with the gunboats HamptonNansemondDrewryRoanokeand Beaufortopened with shell upon the enemy’s wooden gunboats in Trent’s [Reach] and Varina Reach, and continued their fire till near sunset. As the distance of the enemy was generally near the extreme range of our guns, and the fire was directed over high intervening banks, the aim could only be determined by the smoke of the enemy’s guns or by directions from lookouts on elevated positions on shore. It probably did little damage to the enemy; certainly none that we could discover. A double ender at Aiken’s was driven by the fire of the gunboats from her position to one lower down, apparently covered by Aiken’s house. The fire from the enemy in Trent’s Reach appeared to be directed chiefly, if not entirely, at Battery Dantzler, and that directed at our squadron was mostly from the double-ender near Aiken’s. His fire was without effect in the squadron, from which there is no damage or casualties to report.1

The ironclad Richmondin getting underway, parted her wheel chain, which fouled her propeller, and the vessel remains disabled. She has been towed up near the obstructions, or Chaffin’s Bluff, where it is hoped the propeller will be cleared.

I invite your attention to the report (a copy enclosed) of Lieutenant Commanding [William H.] Parker for the particulars of the accident, showing also, as it does, the creditable efforts he made to cooperate with the rest of the squadron and the part taken by him.2

This ship (the Virginiawas about proceeding to take a more eligible position near Howlett’s, when it was discovered that the piston was deranged; on removing the cylinder head a chisel was found in the cylinder, which, but for the timely discovery, might have caused serious damage. The engine was in good condition for service again in the afternoon, but too late as to time and tide for taking up the desired position.

The marine guard and a division of small-arms men were landed at Cox’s to picket the high ground close to Dutch Gap; no force of the enemy was discovered on shore. The marine guard fired into one of the enemy’s transports passing down the river.

The bow gun of the Nansemond burst on the first fire near the muzzle, without other damage, fortunately, of any kind. A full report of the accident has been made to the office of ordnance and hydrography by Flag-Lieutenant Minor, ordnance officer of the squadron. The Nansemond will be sent up to land her burst gun, when she will return to the squadron till another is ready for her or the burst one rendered serviceable.

A commendable spirit and energy were displayed by the officers and crews of the command, which afford a gratifying assurance that their best efforts may be relied upon whenever an opportunity for a more close and serious action shall occur.

I was informed by Major [Francis W.] Smith, commanding Battery Dantzler, last evening that the battery was to be masked last night and that it would not be ready to open on the enemy again for two or three days.

The gunboat Hampton will be sent to Richmond today for the purpose of being taken on the ways for the examination of her shaft, which seems to be deranged, supposed to be caused by the propeller striking a log. I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

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

Hon. S[tephen]. R. Mallory,
Secretary of the Navy, Richmond, Va.3

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

This map shows the June 21, 1864 Action at Howlett’s Bluff, covered in this report by Flag Officer Mitchell.


  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: This double ender was probably the flagship Malvern, retiring after signaling the Agawam to open fire.  The Agawam seems to have been somewhere between Dutch Gap and Trent’s Reach, given that she fired on Battery Danztler with her forward guns and the Confederate warships with her aft weapons.  The report from the Agawam’s captain in Volume X of the Naval Official Records indicates she fired some shots at the Confederate ships, the only report which mentions a non-ironclad vessel doing so.
  2. SOPO Editor’s Note: Although quite a few reports of Mitchell’s subordinates are included in the pages following this report, I cannot find Parker’s official report of the action which Mitchell lists as enclosed here. If you know where this report might be located or if it even exists, please Contact Us. Interestingly, Parker wrote a book of reminiscences on his life after the war, and he does give a brief description of this fight in that book on pages 337338, calling it a “fiasco.”
  3. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 10, pp. 186188
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