Detailed report of Flag-Officer Mitchell, C. S. Navy, commanding James River Squadron.1
C. S. Flagship Virginia,
James River Squadron, below Chaffin’s Bluff, February 3, 1865.
Sir: On the 25th ultimo [January 25, 1865] I had the honor to report to you the return of this squadron to its present anchorage, with a brief notice of the unfortunate failure of the enterprise and the reason for relinquishing the attempt of its prosecution beyond Trent’s Reach.
On the evening of the 23d ultimo [January 23, 1865], the squadron moved down from its present anchorage soon after dark, consisting of the ironclad Fredericksburg leading, with the gunboat Hampton and torpedo boat Hornet secured alongside; the Virginia, ironclad, next with the gunboat Nansemond, tug Torpedo, and torpedo boat Scorpion secured alongside, and the ironclad Richmond last, with the gunboats Drewry and Beaufort and the torpedo boat Wasp secured alongside.
In this order they passed the fire of the enemy’s batteries and sharpshooters on Signal Hill and vicinity, which opened upon them in Devil’s Reach and continued until they had passed the Dutch Gap. On arriving in Trent’s Reach, the Virginia and the Richmond anchored, at 10:40 p. m., about half a mile above the obstructions, in 5 fathoms of water, with a kedge by the stern. The Fredericksburg proceeded at once near to the obstructions at the north channel, while a sounding and reconnoitering party in charge of Lieutenant C. W. Read examined them. He soon after reported the obstructions practicable on the removal of a spar which was anchored diagonally across a gap between two sunken hulks, about two-thirds from No. 3 hulk to No. 2, counting from the north bank. While the moorings of this spar were being cut, in company with Lieutenant C. W. Read I sounded the channel about two cables’ length below the obstructions. We did not find less than 2 1/2 fathoms water; a slight freshet in the river probably raised it about a foot above its ordinary level.
At 1 a.m. (24th) I went on board the Fredericksburg and immediately after she passed through the obstructions with the loss of her port outriggers for torpedo defenses by their coming in contact with No. 2 hulk.
After seeing the Fredericksburg through, I directed a light to be placed on the obstructions to guide the squadron through, and returned to the Virginia at 1:45 a.m. To my inexpressible mortification I found her aground; ineffectual efforts were made with the aid of gunboats and kedges to get her afloat. At 3:30 o’clock it was reported to me that the Richmond, Drewry, and torpedo boat Scorpion also were aground. The ironclads had been anchored in 5 fathoms water by the stern with kedges and were unfortunately allowed to drag unobserved aground. The reports of the commanding officers of those vessels explain the circumstances of their grounding.
The tide having been at ebb for some hours, and it therefore being impossible to get the vessels afloat before the next flood, I directed the wooden vessels and torpedo boats to take up their anchorage before daylight opposite Battery Dantzler, under cover of a wooded point of land, which would secure them from the observation of the enemy, or at least afford some protection from his fire.
The Fredericksburg was now recalled and ordered to take up a position above the Richmond to cover, if practicable, the grounded vessels with her broadside.
As anticipated, at daylight the enemy’s batteries and sharpshooters on the south side of Trent’s Reach, that had been firing upon the squadron without effect from the time of its arriving in the reach, were now enabled to take deliberate aim. Their fire (the nearest about 800 yards) was chiefly directed at the Richmond and the Drewry, lying close together and in line. At 7:10 a.m. a shell exploded the magazine of the Drewry, blowing her to pieces and covering the deck of the Richmond with the fragments. Fortunately, for fear of such a disaster, the crew had been taken on board of the Richmond about 15 minutes before the explosion took place, and were thus all saved except two, who were killed, having gone to the torpedo boat Scorpion, lying alongside of the Drewry. The Scorpion was badly damaged by the explosion and was not brought off when the Richmond floated, but she subsequently drifted off with the high tide down to the obstructions, where she fell into the hands of the enemy a day or two after.
The first night after the return of the squadron to its present anchorage a party was sent to recover the Scorpion, if possible, but the approach to her was guarded by an enemy’s gunboat above the obstructions, and our boats could not proceed.
After blowing up the Drewry the enemy concentrated the fire of his batteries upon the Virginia, and about 10:30 a.m. a double-turreted monitor and a double ender appeared in the lower part of the reach and opened fire at the distance of about 1,600 yards upon the Virginia. About this time the Virginia and the Richmond commenced floating, and by 12:16 p. m. rounded the point above and anchored with the rest of the squadron. The Richmond received little or no damage, but the Virginia was struck upward of 70 times, many of them blows from the heaviest rifle projectiles and 2 from the monitor; one of the latter, probably a XV-inch solid shot, and another, a rifle 200 pounder; the effect of the last two broke and crushed in the iron, the wooden backing, clamp, stanchions on port side of shield, and on the port quarter made a hole entirely through, 2 feet by 2 1/2 in diameter. The splinter netting no doubt prevented many casualties, only 1 being killed and 2 wounded. The monitor fired about 7 times before we passed from her sight. The Virginia received much other damage in shield deck, beams, and carlines, knuckle forward, port lanyards, a gun-deck beam, and in the starting of bolts and armor plates in various parts of the vessel. The smokestack was so badly cut up and the exhaust pipe cut in two as to allow the steam to escape on the spar and gun decks, but it did not prevent the raising of steam. A small Rodman projectile entered her open port quarter port, striking its side, broke a clamp of the forward gun (8-inch rifle), and, passing through the cheek of the carriage, exploded, wounding Lieutenant W. P. Mason and 7 men. None of the enemy’s projectiles actually penetrated her shield. The 2 boat howitzers mounted on her shield deck were struck and disabled from indentations.
During the whole time while aground neither the Richmond nor the Virginia could get a gun to bear upon the enemy. The latter, in rounding head upstream obtained one shot at the monitor with her Xl-inch, which was observed to take effect upon her. During the afternoon the monitor retired down the river below the Dutch Gap and disappeared from sight toward Varina.
Although our force was diminished by the loss of the Drewry and 1 torpedo boat, and the disabling of another, and the Virginia considerably damaged, yet, as her battery, except the 2 howitzers, was not materially injured, preparations and dispositions were at once made to move down the river as early in the night as the tide would serve.
Soon after dark the enemy exhibited a brilliant Drummond light on the south side of Trent’s Reach, near the obstructions, which, illuminating the reach, would enable him to direct his fire almost as well at night as by day.
At 9 p.m. the squadron was underway, the Virginia leading, down Trent’s Reach, when her pilots (Messrs. Edward Moore and Samuel Wood) declared it was impossible to direct the movements of the ship in consequence of the escape of the steam on deck from the damaged exhaust pipe and smokestack, together with the dazzling effect of the Drummond light. The squadron was at once brought to and efforts made by Chief Engineer H. X. Wright to remedy the trouble complained of, in which he only partially succeeded by diminishing somewhat the escape of steam on the upper deck, while it was rendered more dense on the gun deck.
A council of war was called, composed of Commander Kell, of the Richmond, Lieutenant Commanding John W. Dunnington, of the Virginia, and Lieutenant Commanding F. E. Shepperd, of the Fredericksburg, who advised the return of the squadron to its anchorage below Chaffin’s Bluff for the following reasons, viz: The escape of steam on deck and the Drummond light blinding the pilots, the loss of the gunboat Drewry and a torpedo boat, and the disabling of another and the gunboat Hampton, and the enemy being now fully apprised of our movements diminished so much our prospects of success as to render it advisable to abandon the enterprise. Entertaining the same views, I at once made the necessary dispositions to return that night, in reverse order, sending the Hampton, disabled by having a piece of chain wound round her propeller, ahead, towed by the Nansemond and the Torpedo.
At 2:45 a.m. of the 25th the squadron started back and ran the gantlet of the enemy’s batteries and sharpshooters from Battery Garnett to near the head of Devil’s Reach. No serious damage appears to have been sustained by any of the vessels, although the Virginia was struck several times with heavy projectiles, nor were there any casualties, though exposed to showers of Minie balls, upward of 800 reported as having been picked up on the deck of the Hampton. The Virginia, the rear vessel of the line, reached her anchorage at 7:30 a.m.
The leak of the Virginia is now about twice the quantity it was previous to the late movement, having increased from about 2 to about 4 inches in 12 hours.
The Fredericksburg since her return leaks badly, requiring the almost incessant working of the ship’s pumps to keep her free, making, as she does, from 2 to 3 inches per hour. The ship received a hard blow from a projectile on the fantail forward, which carried away the chain cable and caused the loss of an anchor, but this blow of itself it is scarcely possible could have caused so considerable a leak. Pilots Parrish and Barnes state that they felt the vessel’s bottom strike something as she passed through the obstructions and one of them saw pieces of timber rise to the surface alongside; if they are not mistaken, the leak may be traced to this cause.
The safe passage of the squadron twice over the beds of the torpedoes, placed by Lieutenant Kennon, C. S. Navy, at Bishop’s and at Howlett’s, shows that they must have been washed away by the late high freshet or that they are harmless. If the enemy has torpedoes placed, they were rendered harmless from similar causes, or, if electric, our movement must have been so unexpected as to find him unprepared to use them.
A demonstration was made against the enemy’s right by General Pickett, and our batteries keeping up a fire on those of the enemy, operated, no doubt, for our benefit, although the enemy’s batteries in Trent’s Reach were steadily and continuously directed against our vessels while exposed to their fire.
Our first-class pilots have given cause for complaint. Lieutenant Commanding Shepperd complains much of his, on board of the Fredericksburg; Lieutenant Commanding C. W. Read complains of Mr. Wood, of this ship, and the Richmond and the Virginia, being allowed to drag aground after being anchored in 5 fathoms water, is well calculated to keep commanding officers ever anxious for the safety of their vessels, and distrustful of the success of any movement depending upon the skill, coolness, and courage of their pilots. The Virginia in going down on the 23d passed so near the south bank as to run the Torpedo, lashed to her starboard side, aground, and in coming up on the morning of the 25th she (the Virginia), when the fire of the enemy bad ceased, was run aground and remained fast for twenty minutes or more near the head of Devil’s Reach.
In passing Cox’s Landing the Torpedo, having been crowded into the south bank, and remaining aground, Lieutenant Commanding W. B. Butt was sent to the Nansemond to haul her off, but having tried without success and reported it impracticable. Lieutenant Commanding W. H. Wall was sent with the Drewry to perform the service. Much to his credit he got her afloat, and though not; requiring much effort, yet he was exposed to a heavy fire of the enemy’s sharpshooters, and brought her safely to the squadron after she had been abandoned by her commanding officer, Lieutenant T. P. Bell, with all her crew except Acting Master P. W. Smith, who, with two men, bravely remaining steadfast to his duty, is worthy of special notice. A letter from Lieutenant T. P. Bell, explanatory of his conduct on the occasion, is herewith enclosed; it is not satisfactory to me, and I submit that his conduct be made the subject of investigation.
I am gratified in stating that the commanding officers seconded me with their best efforts, and from their reports of our late movements under the fire of the enemy, the officers and men of their respective commands exhibited the skill and courage the occasion called for. I take pleasure in bearing testimony to the good conduct of my staff, Flag Lieutenant C. J. Graves, Midshipman P. S. Kennett, and my secretary, J. W. Daniel.
Enclosed are the reports of Commander J. M. Kell, of the Richmond; Lieutenants Commanding J. W. Dunnington, of the Virginia: F. E. Shepperd, of the Fredericksburg, W. H. Wall, of the ill-fated gunboat Drewry; J. W. Alexander, of the gunboat Beaufort; W. R. Butt, of the gunboat Nansemond; J. D. Wilson, of the gunboat Hampton; C. W. Read, of the steam torpedo boats Scorpion, Hornet, and Wasp; Acting Master P. W. Smith, of the tug Torpedo, and of Fleet Surgeon W. D. Harrison, of the casualties, which make a total of 5 killed and 14 wounded.
A copy of the opinion of the council of war held on the evening of the 24th, near Howlett’s, is also enclosed. From the examination of the obstructions and the north channel in Trent’s Reach, though hastily made, I felt reasonably assured that, but for the unfortunate grounding of the two ironclads, Virginia and Richmond, the whole squadron would have passed below that night, and, as the enemy was unprepared for the movement, there was every reason to indulge the hope that it would have been successful. As the result has proved so unfortunate for the public interests, I invite the closest scrutiny into the manner of conducting the enterprise committed to me.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Jno. K. Mitchell,
Flag-Officer James River Squadron.
Hon. S. R. Mallory,
Secretary of the Navy, Richmond, Va.
- Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pages 669-673 ↩