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OR XL P1 #305: Report of Major E. Pliny Bryan, AAG, Johnson/DNCSV, July 14-17, 1864

Numbers 305. Report of Major E. Pliny Bryan, Assistant Adjutant-General, C. S. Army, of operations July 14-17.1


GENERAL: I have the honor to report that on Thursday evening last I started with a torpedo expedition from Chaffin’s farm for the James River. At first I intended to operate on Harrison’s Bar, near Berkeley (the place I selected sometime since), but finding Doctor Fretwell had selected the same place and for the same purposes, and being informed by him that he was ready to operate and was acting under the orders of General R. E. Lee, I made a reconnaissance lower down the river and selected Westover. Everything being ready, the expedition embarked Saturday at sunset from a point on Herring Creek, near Rowland’s Mill, and reached the river at Westover about midnight, where a guard of twenty-five dismounted cavalrymen, under the command of Captain Caldwell, was stationed. About 1 o’clock, and just as the expedition was in the act of leaving the shore, a steamer was heard coming up the river. As several others had passed, no particular attention was paid to this one. The boats were, as previously, kept close to the shore in the shadow of some bushes. It soon became evident that the steamer intended making a landing at Westover, which she did, and immediately put a force on shore. Several shots were exchanged between the enemy and our men, when the enemy deployed a

line of skirmishers and drove back our men, thus cutting off the only means of escape for my boats’ crew, except through a marsh. I waited an hour or more, hoping the steamer would leave and the boats be saved. It was impossible to move them so long as the steamer held her position, anchored off about 100 yards, with men on watch and the noon shining bright. The tide by this time was rapidly falling, leaving the boats aground. Seeing no chance of saving the boats unless the steamer left, I sent three men to get their arms that they had left in the boat. Becoming alarmed, they waded and swam through the marsh to the field in rear of the enemy’s line. With the balance of the party, six men, I left, making our escape by cautiously following the margin of the marsh. Lieutenant Andrews, who was in charge of one of the boats, joined Captain Caldwell with his crew before the fight. The next morning (Sunday) the boats were in tow of a steamer. The expedition consisted of two row-boats and twelve torpedoes complete, all of which fell into the enemy’s hands. When I first reached the river I saw two vessels anchored about a mile and a half above Westover. One of the vessels threw up several rockets and showed two red lights, one above the other. This I noticed as each vessel came up the river. I saw no barges or picket-boats, and up to the time the steamer made her appearance everything looked very favorable. I regret the result exceedingly.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Captain and Assistant Adjutant-General.


Commanding Dept. of North Carolina and Southern Virginia.

[First indorsement.]
HEADQUARTERS, In the Field, near Petersburg, Va., July 19, 1864.

Respectfully forwarded through General R. E. Lee to Brigadier General Gabriel Rains for their information. The unfortunate loss of those boats and torpedoes should not delay one instant new attempts at laying torpedoes at various points in the James River. The magnitude of the result contemplated should warrant the loss of many such boats and torpedoes.


[Second indorsement.]

Respectfully forwarded to General Rains.

Doctor Fretwell is acting under no special orders from me. He was directed to report to General Rains.

R. E. LEE,



  1.   The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XL, Part 1 (Serial Number 80), pages 795-796
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