My Great Grand Uncle
Rank: 1st Class Boy
CSS VIRGINIA II
CSS Virginia II was a Confederate Navy Steam-powered ironclad ram laid down in 1862 at the William Graves' shipyard in Richmond, Virginia. Acting Constructor William A. Graves, CSN, was the superintendent in charge of her construction. In order to conserve scarce iron plating, he ordered the ship's armored casemate shortened from the specifications given in John L. Porter's original building plans; in addition, the ship's iron-plating, while six inches thick on the casemate's forward face, was reduced to five inches on her port, starboard, and aft faces. Due to the shortening of her casemate, the number of her cannon were reduced to a single 11' smoothbore, a single 8' rifle, and two 6.4' rifles.
The Virginia II was named after the more famous Confederate ironclad, CSS Virginia, also called the Merrimack because of the ship's origins as a Union man-o-war. The original Virginia's success at the Battle of Hampton Roads caused 'gunboat associations' to emerge around the South, mainly driven by women; their efforts helped with the construction of the Virginia II.
Money to help with the construction of this ironclad was largely contributed by the Richmond chapter of the 'Ladies Aid and Defense Society' (called the 'National Defense Association'), which adopted the ironclad in early April 1862 for the defense of Richmond. The chairman was Maria Gaitskell Clopton. It is estimated that the society contributed more than $30,000 towards Virginia II's construction. By November 1862, John Mercer Brooke was able to report that she was 'pretty well advanced, frames up, clamps in, etc...She will be a strong and fine vessel.'
However, after this promising start, significant delays plagued the new ironclad. It was not until more than a year after she was laid down that Virginia II was finally launched without incident on June 29, 1863. 'She glided into the water 'like a thing of life' amid the prolonged cheers of the spectators.' However, she suffered from further fitting-out delays and was not fully commissioned until May 18, 1864, almost a year later; she was made the flagship of the James River Squadron (replacing CSS Richmond in this role).
The lethargy that prevailed on the James in 1863, gave
way the next year to extreme military and naval activity,
and from May, 1864, to the close of the war, momentous
events succeeded each other in swift and stirring procession.
In that month the Confederate squadron ready to resume
belligerent operations was the most formidable of which the
navy was possessed. There had been added to it the ironclad
Virginia, a vessel of the same type as her famous namesake,
minus the submerged ends; but plated with six inches
of armor on the sides of her casemate, and eight inches on
the ends. Her battery consisted of two G-inch and two 8-inch
Brooke rifled guns, so placed that three could be fired in
broadside. Another recruit to the squadron was the ironclad
Fredericksburg, but she was a much weaker ship, having but
four inches of armor. She also carried four guns, all 6-inch
rifles. The iron-clad Richmond was still on duty, as were
the gunboats previously mentioned as constituting the naval
force in 1862. Com. John K. Mitchell relieved Capt. French
Forrest in the command of the squadron; the Virginia was commanded by Com. R. B. Pegram, the Richmond by Lieut. Com.
W. H. Parker, and the Fredericksburg by Com. T. R. Rootes.
On May 5th, 1864, Gen. B. F. Butler effected the transfer of the Federal army of the James from the York River to Bermuda
Hundreds under the protection of four monitors, the iron-clad
Atlanta, captured near Savannah, and seven gunboats. One
duty assigned to the latter was the dragging of the river for
torpedoes, but on the 6th the gunboat Commodore Jones rested
near Four and a Half Mile Creek, directly over one of Lieut.
Davidson's tank machines which was connected by a wire
with a galvanic battery secreted in a pit on shore and operated
by three of the subordinates of his corps. At the proper
moment they transmitted the spark, the 400 pounds of powder
which the machine contained exploded, and the enemy's vessel
was literally blown into fragments. More than half her
crew were killed or wounded by the concussion or were thrown
into the river and drowned. Her total loss was stated to be
75 out of a ship's company of 130. Fifty were killed outright
and the mangled portions of their bodies were mingled with
the splinters of the vessel that thickly strewed the surface of
the water. On the next day the gunboat Shawsheen was destroyed
in the same manner near Turkey Bend, and all of her
people not killed were made prisoners.
The Federals obtained some recompense for these losses.
When the Commodore Jones was destroyed, a boat from another
gunboat put for the shore and there captured Acting
Master P. W. Smith, C. S. N., and Jeffries Johnson, a private of
the submarine battery service, who were in charge of the torpedoes. The captors at once examined them as to the location
of other infernal machines, and while Master Smith
courageously refused to betray his cause by giving the information which would enable the enemy to avoid them. Private
Johnson is said by the report of the Federal fleet captain to
have weakened when he was placed in the forward gunboat
searching for torpedoes, and to have told all he knew concerning
the points where they were laid down by Commander
Davidson. From his revelations the Federals were enabled
to take up a number of the explosive machines and make
more rapid progress up the river. They found that each of
the pits, in which a man was stationed to fire torpedoes, contained a simplified form of the Bunsen electric battery, from
which insulated wires led underground and under water to
the tank that held the powder, and conducted the spark that
fired the charge. Within a month the Federals moved twenty
torpedoes from the river, one containing a charge of 1900 lbs,
of powder. What destruction they might have caused but for
the treachery of one man is beyond the bounds of speculation.
The movement of Butler's army to Bermuda Hundreds
was made known at Drewry's Bluff on May 5th by messages
from the Confederate signal men. It was seen that the post
was in danger of an attack from the land side. Lieut. Col.
Terrett of the marine corps was commander of the position,
but in his temporary absence he was represented by Maj.
Frank Smith. Com. Mitchell and Capt. Pegram were also
away, and Capt. W. H, Parker was the senior officer on the
river. Very few troops were at the fort, and Capt, Parker
took on shore all the men that could be spared from the squadron
and assisted Maj, Smith to man the inner line of defences,
their force being too weak to hold the outer line. They sent
dispatches to Gen. Lee and to Richmond asking for reinforcements, and remained in arms all night expecting an attack that they knew they were too feeble to resist. Gen, Bushrod Johnson arrived with his brigade at daylight, but was compelled to move in obedience to orders, and in the afternoon
the alarm was given that the enemy were close at hand. Provisions and ammunition were thrown into the fort, and Capt,
Pegram, who had returned to the Bluff, arrayed the squadron
so that it might render all possible aid to the defence, but
Butler never came. It was his one opportunity to capture
Drewry's Bluff, which within the next twenty-four hours was
heavily reinforced. On the 16th Gen. Beauregard drove Butler
back to Trent's Reach, and by erecting a strong battery at
the Howlett House held him in that safe position and obtained
an additional command of the river.
Torpedoes were attached to the bows of all the vessels of the Confederate squadron now, and they were frequently drilled with them. At the end of May the obstructions were sufficiently removed to permit the vessels to pass through, and they went through and anchored off Chapin's Bluff. An engagement with the Federal fleet was immediately expected, and on May 30th Admiral Lee, the Federal commander, sent the following dispatch to Secretary Welles :
' A deserter from the rebel vessel-of-war Hampton, reports to-day that the enemy have now below Drewry's Bluff three iron-clads, six small gunboats, plated with boiler-iron, each mounting two guns of 6-inch and 4-inch bore, all fitted with torpedoes, and nine fire-ships, fitted with combustible material, with which they propose to attack the fleet in James River, at as early a moment as practicable, by sending down their fireships first, followed by the iron-clads and other vessels.'
So impetuous a desire had been expressed by the Federal authorities for an engagement between their fleet and the Confederate vessels, that it is impossible to underrate the surprise felt when it became known that the Federals were obstructing the river at Trent's Reach, by sinking hulks in order to prevent the Confederate squadron from coming down. The official correspondence of Gen. Butler, Adm. Lee and Secretary Welles, contained in the latter's report for 1864, irresistibly establishes the conclusion that, if the Federal commanders were anxious to try the gage of battle with Com. Mitchell's squadron, their confidence in their ability to win a victory was not shared by their superiors. Adm. Lee was informed early in June that the passage of the river was to be barred, and on the 7th he entered his protest to the Navy Department:
'The navy,' he said, ' is not accustomed to putting down obstructions before it, and the act might be construed as implying an admission of superiority of resources on the part of the enemy”. The object of the operation would be to make the river more secure against the attempts of the enemy upon our vessels by fire and explosive rafts, followed by torpedoes
and iron-clad vessels and boats. * * * Of course myself and officers desire the opportunity of encountering the enemy, and feel reluctant to discourage his approach. But the point of embarrassment with me is the consequences that would follow a failure of the campaign should the novel plan of the enemy succeed in crippling the monitor force.'
Adm. Lee's object was to place the responsibility of obstructing the river entirely upon Gen. Butler, and thus acquit the navy of erecting a barrier against an action with the Confederate squadron, but the wily military lawyer was altogether too shrewd to permit the burden to be placed upon his shoulders. On June 2d, he had written to the Admiral:
'I have no difficulty as to the point at which we desire to secure the river. It is the right of my line near Curtis' house at the ravine, but whether the river should be secured by obstructions or by vessels, or a disposition of your obstructions or of the vessels of your navy, neither myself
nor my engineers have any right to feel ourselves competent to give our opinion. The vessels are wholly at your service, but upon your judgment, not mine, must rest their use.” This clever strategy threw upon the Admiral the onus of deciding whether he would rely upon the fighting qualities of his fleet to protect the army lines, or whether he would resort to obstructions for protection. He appealed the question to Mr. Welles, but meanwhile gave Butler a non-commital answer, in which he said :
'The first consideration with me is the necessity of holding this river beyond a peradventure for the great military purposes of Gen. Grant and yourself. In consulting my own desires, I would do everything to induce, and nothing to prevent, the enemy from trying to assert their strength in a pure naval contest, which in my opinion would give us a naval victory. The only contingency of such a battle is the unknown effect of the novel instruments of war—torpedo vessels—which are to be employed by them, and which, as the attacking party, give them perhaps an advantage which might possibly balance our certain superiority in all other fighting material.'
This diplomatic fencing between the army and the navy
was brought to a termination by Gen. Grant himself. On
June 11th, Secretary Welles replied to Adm. Lee by declining
to decide the question of the obstructions and referring it
back to the discretion of the latter, but before Lee received
this answer Grant had been badly defeated at the battle of
Cold Harbor, and was rushing his army across to the south
side of the James. He did not elect to take the chances of the
Federal ships being driven out of the river by Com. Mitchell,
and he issued his peremptory orders that the hulks already
provided should be scuttled to form the obstructions on Trent's
Reach Bar. This was done, and when booms and cables were
stretched between them the river was closed. The navy was at
any rate saved from the discredit of voluntarily seeking protection from its antagonist, and Mr. Welles was allowed the latitude of boasting in his next annual report of what it might
have done if it had not been overruled.
The Federal fleet available for an engagement embraced the first-class monitors Saugus, Tecumseh, Canomcus and Onondaga, mounting 11-incli and 15-inch guns, and 150-pounder rifles, and some dozen of heavily-armed gunboats, while the Confederate force that could be depended upon for effective work was really limited to the three iron-clad rams and Davidson's torpedo-boat; but still Grant was not willing that there should be a naval action, even with the odds so favorable to the Federals. Until the obstructions were so far finished as to make it evident that the enemy would not accept his challenge to a combat Com. Mitchell remained near Trent's Reach, and then withdrew to Drewry's Bluff. Loth, however, to abandon all effort to disturb the enemy, he established a naval battery on the hill at Howlett's House, from which, by firing across the neck of land around which the river makes one of the many great curves that intervene between City Point and Richmond, he might hope to reach the fleet in Trent's Reach. Manning this work with some of his seamen, his iron-clads were instructed to co-operate from a position on the north side of Dutch Gap, and the gunboats to remain close at hand for any assistance feasible for them to render. The Virginia, Fredericksburg, and the gunboats got into position on the morning of June 21st, but the Richmond was delayed in consequence of a wheel-rope parting, and fouling the propeller; and did not arrive at the scene of action until afternoon. The naval battery opened fire briskly upon the monitors at 10:30 A. m. and the squadron joined in the work, the
vessels being concealed from the view of the Federals by the
trees. It was an artillery duel at moderately long range that
was not of serious effect to either party concerned. The monitor
Saugus was struck once and the Canonicus twice by shot
from the battery, but the damage was trifling; 229 projectiles
were fired by the monitors, and the sole result was to silence
one gun in the naval battery. Mitchell's vessels were not
once struck, and the firing was discontinued at sunset.
The squadron was not again engaged until August 10th,
when a portion of it participated in harassing the working
parties on the canal which Gen. Butler was building at Dutch
Gap for the purpose of opening a new route from below Hewlett's
Battery to the upper reach of the James River. From
time to time the pick and shovel brigade on this useless project
of the commander of the Federal army of the James had
been shelled by the guns of the naval battery at Howlett's so
severely that from a dozen to a score was the daily average
of casualties among them; but on the 13th they were attacked
with a more definite purpose. At 5 a. m. the Virginia and
Fredericksburg opened fire from a position about a mile distant,
while the Richmond and several of the gunboats dropped
down to Cox's Reach, and with the battery on Signal Hill and
at Howlett's took part in the cannonade. The Federal monitor
Saugus, and the gunboats Mackinaw and Delaware, endeavored
to protect the working parties by firing upon the Confederate
vessels, but their fire was altogether unproductive of results.
As the Confederate squadron was partially hidden from the
enemy by a wooded bluff, the guns of the latter could only be
aimed by directions from the masthead of the Mackinaw, and
in fact were so elevated that it was only by chance that they
could hit their mark. The Virginia was struck twice and the
Fredericksburg once, but suffered no damage beyond the starting
of a few bolts. They paid no attention to the enemy's
vessels, but all day long maintained a slow and accurate fire
upon the laborers in the canal, with the result, according to
the Federal reports, of killing and wounding thirty men.
While a demonstration of this character seemed, standing alone, to be aimless it was, in truth, an incident of the policy
of annoying the Federals that produced beneficent consequences.
It compelled the detention of a powerful iron-clad fleet in the James that might otherwise have been detached for operations against Southern ports, and it constantly troubled Gen. Grant concerning the security of his all-important line of communication by water. The authorities at Washington thought that the monitors could be withdrawn from the James for operations against Charleston or Fort Fisher, but when they proposed to strip Adm. Lee of this element of his force, his vigorous remonstrance was so energetically supported by Grant that the administration was obliged to recede from its purpose. '' Whilst I believe,' wrote Grant on June 9th to Lee, ' we will never require the armored vessels to meet those of the enemy, I think it would be imprudent to withdraw them. * * * They stand a constant threat to the enemy, and prevent him taking the offensive. There is no disguising the fact that if the enemy should take the offensive on the water although we would probably destroy his whole James River navy such damage would be done our shipping and stores, all accumulated on the water near where the conflict would begin, that our victory would be dearly bought.' Lee's reasoning was in accordance with that of Grant. He told Mr. Welles that the application of a few torpedoes would
clear a passage through the barricade, and proposed the question: 'What, if the draft of the rebel iron-clads allow them
to pass the bar in Trent's Reach, would become of the communications of the army if our iron-clads were withdrawn?'
They were not withdrawn, and the sleep of the General and
the Admiral was not haunted by the spectre of Com. Mitchell's
squadron sinking and burning the James River armada.
Making use of another period of inaction on the river. Acting Masters John Maxwell and Hines and three men from the squadron on Sept. 17th went into Warwick River with an open boat and captured the Federal schooner Jane F. Durfee and her officers and crew, numbering eight persons. The vessel was bonded and her people paroled. This exploit, successfully performed so far within the enemy's lines, reflected much credit upon those engaged in it.
The most severe test to which the squadron had been subjected was that which they experienced on October 22d, 1864,in an encounter with a new battery at the Boulware House on the left bank of the river, nearly two miles below Chapin's Bluff, and connecting with the fortification on Signal Hill. These works had been erected by the Federals since their capture of Fort Harrison on September 19th, and their armament included several 100-pounder Parrott rifles. They were masked until the morning of the engagement, when the forest growth in front of them was cut away and they were revealed within practicable range of the Virginia, Richmond, Fredericksburg, Hampton and Drewry, lying near Cox's Landing. The small gunboats, which were not calculated to withstand the fire of the heavy Federal ordnance, moved out of their reach, not however before Lieut. Alexander's vessel, the Drewry, received a shell which struck one of her gun carriages, wounding two men severely and three slightly. Com. Mitchell, with his flag-ship, the Virginia, passed down to within 500 yards of the battery, signalling Capts. Maury and Rootes to follow with the Richmond and Fredericksburg and for two hours they maintained so steady and well-directed a fire that the replies of the enemy grew slower and then nearly ceased, whereupon the squadron, which had almost exhausted their ammunition, returned toward Drewry's Bluff. It was admitted by the correspondents of Northern papers that the
aim of the Confederate gunners was remarkably precise, shell
after shell bursting in the- earthen face of the battery and
driving the men from their pieces. This being the first test of
the resisting quality of the casemates of the ships under a
close fire of heavy rifled guns, the result was of much practical importance and interest. It was encouraging except in
the case of the Fredericksburg, the weakest of the three vessels. Capt. Rootes had gallantly exposed her to the sharpest
of the enemy's fire, and as the Federal officers had acquired
from deserters an acquaintance with the details of the several
ships, their thickness of plating and weight of battery, it is
rather more than conjecture that they intentionally hammered
the Fredericksburg harder and more frequently than they did her stronger consorts. Her comparatively vulnerable casemate was struck several times, and although the wooden backing was not penetrated a few plates were started and bolt-heads knocked off; yet there was no damage done that incapacitated her from continuing the battle, and she emerged from the ordeal in better trim than could have been expected. The only loss in men suffered was on this vessel, a shell that exploded immediately upon the grating of the roof of the casemate wounding seriously two and slightly four of her crew. With the Virginia it was demonstrated that her thick armor was proof against the 100-pound conical bolts from the enemy's rifles. She was hit by seven projectiles, no one of which did more than make a slight indentation in the six inches of iron. Not a bolt was started, and she came out of the engagement as tight and sound as when she went into it. Nearly the same thing may be said of the Richmond, except that she was more frequently struck and that her smokestack was shot away.
This affair offered the four Federal monitors an enticing opportunity to engage the Confederate squadron if their commanders were spoiling for a fight. As we have seen, Adm. Lee had already indicated that the obstructions on Trent's Reach bar could be removed, with little trouble or loss of time, sufficiently to make a gateway for the passage of vessels, and as the nearest Confederate battery was 2.000 yards distant it could not have materially interfered with their working parties making the opening. Com. Mitchell, whom his associates in the old navy knew as an officer who would not have declined such an engagement, remained in the vicinity of Dutch Gap quite long enough to have permitted the monitors to come up to him, but they did not stir from their moorings. It is no impeachment of the courage of their officers that the vessels were held off; but it is another fragment of evidence that the supreme Federal authorities were cautiously averse to an honest fight with the Confederate ships. All through the autumn of 1864 the latter were most of the time below the obstructions at Drewry's Bluff and in the attitude of challenging the enemy to a combat that was never accepted, notwithstanding the asserted confidence of Gen. Grant and Adm. Lee that the Federals would be victors in a naval battle. The Admiral does, indeed, in his dispatches speak of the channels above Trent's Reach being too shallow for his vessels, but the monitors were of no deeper draft than the Confederate ironclads, and in the negro boatmen who had flocked to him he possessed as capable and skillful pilots as any on the river.
On Dec. 7th the Richmond again came down within a mile of Trent's Reach, the Virginia and Fredericksburg following, and challenged Fort Brady, a Federal work on the right bank of the James, to a shelling match. It was nearly sunset when the firing began, and it ceased with the approach of darkness. The Richmond was rapped on her casemate with a big rifle bolt, but it did no harm, and none of the other ships were hit.
The closing naval event of the year upon the James and contingent waters was the disastrous Federal expedition to Rainbow Bluff, on the Roanoke River, on which occasion Lieut. Davidson's torpedo inventions made a flattering record for him. Five steamers composed the expedition, which on the evening of Dec. 9th came to anchor near Jamesville. The gunboat Otsego, fitted with a torpedo catcher, was exploring for infernal machines, but she failed to detect two that exploded directly under her and blew her whole bottom out. On the next day the gunboat Bazely was also sunk by a torpedo, and the river was found to be so full of them that the flotilla, now reduced to three vessels, fell back with all the speed that it could make. On the way out of the river the steamers were attacked by sharp-shooters from the shore and almost disabled before they reached the James. Some twenty men were lost by the torpedo explosions and the fire of the sharp-shooters.
We are nearing the finale of the James River squadron,
but before it shared in the fate which overtook the Confederate
States its ships and its men were to do their part in the heroic
struggles of the perishing Confederacy. The gloom that overspread the South when the dawn of 1865 introduced the ultimate months of the war was nowhere darker than over the
horizon of Richmond, and with the ponderous weight of
Grant's armies pressing upon the enfeebled lines of Lee, military resistance was fast giving way. Yet one hope remained that if the squadron could pass down the James, it might
disperse the Federal fleet at City Point and there destroy
Grant's base of supplies; Gen. Lee's veterans might pursue
this advantage by an attack in mass upon the military lines
that were being tightened around Richmond and even break
them at any important points—that if all this could be accomplished the throttling grasp of the enemy would be shaken off, the capital would be relieved and new strength gained for the further struggle. It was the mission of the navy to begin the execution of this bold and brilliant programme, which had
been planned in conferences between Flag-officer Mitchell and
Gen. Lee. To the unflinching spirit of Mitchell, chafing at
the forced inaction of his ships, it came as the most welcome
incident of his career upon the James.
The circumstances that prevailed in the third week of January seemed to be a harbinger of success. Their suspicions of a naval raid from the direction of Richmond lulled by their confidence in the security of the obstructions, which had been planted with torpedoes, the Federals had sent to the attack on Fort Fisher all their monitors except the Onondaga, or Quintard battery, as it was sometimes called, a powerful double-turret vessel, mounting two 15-inch guns, and two very heavy rifles; but for all her formidable character she could scarcely be forced into a fight, as the sequel showed. A flood in the river was awaited to afford the Virginia plenty of water in which to manoeuvre, and the outlooks were instructed to report the indications of a freshet, which, it was believed, might wash out the Federal booms stretched across Trent's Reach. The high water came on January 22d, and all day the ice was running out in great fields and hummocks. That night Lieut. C. W. Read, in command of naval Battery Wood, sent Master's Mate Billups and two men down the river in a dug-out to examine the obstructions, and received from Billups the report that, after carefully sounding, he had ascertained that for a width of 80 feet there was a depth of 14 feet through the obstructions, which were only closed by a large spar lying diagonally across the entrance. Read went at once to Gen. Pickett's headquarters and reported the result of the observations. Gen. Pickett directed him to hasten to Petersburg and advise Gen. Lee. Gen Lee asked him if he thought the channel sufficiently wide and deep to admit the passage of the Confederate iron-clads. He replied that he had no doubt of it, and that at any rate it might be tried. Gen. Lee ordered him to go at once to the Secretary of the Navy and ask that the iron-clads be sent down that night. He rode as fast as possible to Richmond, and went to see Mr. Mallory and explain everything to him. Without the least hesitation the latter wrote an order to Flag-officer Mitchell, directing him to move as soon as possible if he deemed it practicable.
Lieut. Read delivered the orders to Com. Mitchell at 3 P.M. of the 23d, and the commanders of the iron-clads were promptly directed to prepare for the movement. They were Lieut Dunnington, of the flag-ship Virginia; Lieut. Kell, of the Richmond, and Lieut. Sheppard of the Fredericksburg. The remainder of the squadron comprised the gunboat Drewry, the torpedo boat Torpedo, and the torpedo launches Scorpion, Wasp and Hornet, as it was contemplated that torpedoes should be employed against the Federal vessels. Capt. Read was placed in command of the launches. His narrative of the expedition says:
'Just after dark we got under way and proceeded down the river, the wooden gunboats and the torpedo-boats being placed on the starboard side of the ironclads. The night was dark and very cold. We passed three or four miles in range of the enemy's batteries and were not discerned, the Federal pickets being all under cover in their rifle-pits around the fires. When we arrived near the obstructions, Capt. Mitchell brought the fleet to anchor. He then went in the Scorpion, with Flag Lieut. Graves and myself. We went down and sounded through the obstructions, which verified the report that Billups had made. While we were sounding, the Federal picket boat discerned us and gave the alarm. As the enemy occupied both banks, a heavy fire of big guns, field-pieces and musketry was opened on us, and a perfect rain of missiles swept over our heads. Capt. Mitchell was the coolest man under fire that I ever saw; he stood by the man at the lead, and was not satisfied until soundings had been made many times across the gap in the obstructions. The spar that was lying diagonally across above the opening of the obstructions,
was anchored at each end. A few licks with a cold chisel set it
adrift. We then went on board the Fredericksburg, which was the lightest draft of the iron-clads. Capt. Mitchell ordered Sheppard to get under weigh, which was soon done, and Capt. Mitchell himself took the ship through the obstructions. He then returned to the Virginia in the Scorpion. When we went on board the Virginia, we found that she had been anchored too close to the north shore and had grounded. The Richmond was in the same condition. The tugs were pulling at those two ships, but could not move them. The firing from the southern shore was now tremendous and much more accurate than at first. The Confederate
batteries had opened all along the line. About 4 o'clock next
morning Capt. Mitchell sent me down in the Scorpion with orders to the Fredericksburg to return. I found Sheppard about a mile below the obstructions, and piloted the ship up the river and anchored her close by the iron-clads aground near the Confederate battery at the Howlett House.'
The grounding of the Virginia and Richmond was the virtual collapse of the enterprise, the successful consummation of which was balanced upon a quick dash upon the enemy and a surprise. While Mitchell was on his way to the Fredericksburg Lieut. Sheppard, puzzled to account for the failure of the other ships to follow him through the obstructions, had sent Master E. T. Eggleston to look for them, but before the latter found them the flag-officer had communicated with the Fredericksburg and ordered her return, as stated by Lieut. Read.
The break of day disclosed the Confederate squadron reassembled in Trent's Reach directly under the guns of Fort Parsons, which opened upon them a tremendous fire from rifled guns and mortars. Shortly a shell pierced the Drewry and shattered her, but her people had been just previously removed to another vessel. Next the torpedo launch Wasp was smashed by a shot, and the other wooden steamers took shelter under a bank where the missiles could not reach them. Several projectiles struck the iron-clads, but did not pierce their armor or at all impair their fighting capacity. But a more dangerous enemy was at hand. The monitor Onondaga, which had at first retired down the river upon discovery at daylight of the proximity of Mitchell's squadron, came up again at nine o'clock, and brought her 15-inch guns to bear on the Virginia and Richmond, which were still helplessly grounded.
They endeavored to reply, but their batteries could not be worked from the embarrassing position in which they were
situated, and when the port shutters were opened to allow a
gun to be run out the musketry fire from the Federal infantry
on the high land of the right bank of the river was so fierce
as to prevent any accurate aim. The same cause interfered
with the gunners of the Fredericksburg, and the small number
of shots which they succeeded in discharging passed ineffectively by the Onondaga. Her position was on the broadside
of the Virginia, and she planted a 15-inch solid shot squarely
above the after-port of the flag-ship, knocking a clear hole
through her armor and wood backing and sending in a whirl
along the gun-deck huge iron fragments and wooden splinters
that killed six and wounded fourteen of the crew. Luckily
she was floated by the rising of the tide and moved out of
the range of shot that would pierce any armor then placed
on a ship. The Richmond got off at the same time. She
had been less exposed than the flag-ship and was not injured.
Flag-officer Mitchell summoned a council on board the
Virginia, of the commanders of vessels, at noon. Lieut. Read
states, as he was the junior, his opinion was asked first. He
advised an immediate attack on the Onondaga, while the
squadron had the advantage of daylight for passing through
the obstructions, and for striking her with the torpedoes, and
trying the effect of steel-pointed shot upon her turrets. The
opinions of the other officers were divided, some preferring
to wait until after dark; but the decision was to resume hostilities at 9 p. M., at which time the Virginia headed down
the stream with the Scorpion on her port side, followed by
the Richmond and Hornet, and the Fredericksburg in the
rear. As the squadron arrived opposite the Point of Rocks,
a bold bluff half a mile above Trent's Reach Bar, a blazing
calcium light that threw a broad glare over the river was
turned upon them from a Federal battery, and simultaneously
the forts broke the murky night with the flashes of
scores of guns trained upon the channel. The pilot who was
conning the Virginia from the roof of her casemate lost control
of himself and rushed for the comparative safety of the
pilot-house. Once there, he declared that it was impossible
to steer the ship from the small eye-holes in the house, and
that he could not have from them a broad enough field of
vision to take her through the obstructions. The expedition
had reached its end. Com. Mitchell gave the signal for retreat,
and in a few hours the squadron was at anchor near Chapin's Bluff.
Report of Fleet Surgeon Harrison, C.S. Navy, regarding casualties in the James River Squadron.
C. S. Flagship Virginia,
James River, January 26, 1865.
Sir: The following is a correct and full report of the casualties which occurred in the James River Squadron, during its operations against the enemy on the night of the 23d, the day and night of the 24th, and the morning of the 25th instant.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
W. D. Harrison,
_ Fleet Surgeon.
Flag-Officer J. K. Mitchell,
Comdg. James River Squadron, C. S. S. Virginia, James River.
No. 1. Lieutenant William P. Mason, of this vessel, wound through the fleshy part of the left thigh; not dangerous. His right foot was slightly cut, and right leg painfully scorched by the explosion of a shell.
No. 2. Lieutenant Edward Lakin, attached to torpedo boat Scorpion, was blown overboard by the explosion of the steamer Drewry; severely stunned and dangerously contused on left side of chest, right arm and hand, and left leg.
No. 3. P. W. Smith, seaman, of this vessel, was knocked down a hatch by the explosion of a shell and badly braised about the head and back.
No. 4. Thos. Ferrill, landsman, of this vessel, had right foot braised and burned by explosion of shell.
No. 5. William Edwards, seaman, of this vessel, but serving on
board the torpedo boat Scorpion, was blown overboard by the explosion of the steamer Drewry and severely contused on left arm and leg; not dangerously hurt.
No. 6. David Kinker, first-class boy, of this vessel, had ankle contused and painfully scorched by the explosion of a shell, and was knocked down fire-room hatch by same; not dangerously hurt.
No. 7. G. M. Bogers, landsman, of this vessel, received small fragment of shell in right cheek and a cut on left thumb; slight case.
No. 8. J. 0. McDermott, landsman, of this vessel, cut and severely braised on right side of neck; left thigh a good deal contused; not serious case.
No. 9. Peter Mulina, seaman, of this vessel, received contusion of right thigh and left ankle by explosion of a shell; painful, but not serious case.
No. 10. J. K. P. Matthews, landsman, of this vessel, was cut on hand and thigh by fragment of shell; slight case.
No. 11. James Murphy, landsman, of this vessel, cut on both legs and face by fragments from the knocking in of the stern bulwarks of the ship by XV-inch shot from Yankee monitor; not a serious case.
No. 12. J. N. Teague, landsman, of this vessel, cut by fragment of shell on back of wrist; not serious case.
No. 13. Eichard Pascoe, ship's painter, of this vessel, cut by small fragment of shell in right leg and hand; eyes severely scorched by explosion of shell; not severe case.
No. 14. 'W. W. Skinner, pilot of steamer Hampton, struck by minie ball in back; wound slight.
No. 16. J. A. Keenan, landsman, of this vessel; native of New York; was struck and killed by the fragments of the stern bulwarks of the ship when knocked in.
No. 16, William Dechiso, first-class fireman, of this vessel, is missing; was blown overboard from torpedo boat Scorpion.
No. 17. J. K. Cooper, second-class fireman, of this vessel, is missing; was blown overboard from torpedo boat Scorpion.
No. 18. T. M. Moody, landsman, of the steamer Drewry, was killed
by the explosion of steamer Drewry.
No. 19. J. W. Grice, landsman, of steamer Roanoke, was also blown up and killed by explosion of steamer Drewry.
These last two men are reported to have volunteered to go to the
assistance of the torpedo boat Scorpion, which was aground near the steamer Drewry, and had just reached her when the explosion occurred.
The Federals strengthened the obstructions in the river after this episode, and added two monitors to the fleet as a safeguard against another such raid. It was the expiring effort of the Confederate squadron that had just been frustrated by untoward influences not to be foreseen or averted, but the withdrawal of the ships was not accepted by some sternly venturesome spirits among their officers as the finality
of all projects for assailing the enemy upon the water.
Torpedo operations were still possible; and by the use of this
favorite weapon, which in the Confederacy had been developed
to a state of efficiency previously unknown to the world,
the clutch of the enemy might be shaken off where it bore
On the morning of February 10th, 1865, a party of about
100 officers and men in the uniform of the C. S. navy assembled
for inspection at Drewry's Bluff. The weather was bitterly
cold, and as the arms and equipments were inspected it
was easily seen that serious work and imminent peril were to
be encountered by the close attention given to the examination
of weapons, and the expression of the men, who, in those stirring times, were familiar with danger and hardships. The
detachment was under the command of Lieut. C. W. Read,
and the other officers were Lieut. W. H. Ward, Master W. F.
Shippey, Passed Mipshipmen Scott and Williamson, all of the
navy, and Lieut. of Marines Crenshaw, Lieut. Read had organized
the expedition, which embraced ninety seamen and marines, which was to effect in one way what the squadron had failed to do in another—to gain possession of the river and compel Grant to abandon his position at City Point. The details of the plan were to carry torpedo-boats on wheels to a point beyond the Federal left wing, near Petersburg, ' cross the Blackwater River, launch the boats upon the James, below City Point, capture any passing tugs or river steamers, fix the torpedoes to them, ascend the river and blow up the monitors. These destroyed and the obstructions removed, the Confederate iron-clads could make short work of the wooden gun-boats,and the James would be open from Richmond to Hampton Roads, Master Shippey, the only chronicler of the expedition, has told how it was conducted, and why it failed. His narrative runs thus:
'The boats were placed in chocks on four wagon-wheels, torpedoes, poles and gear inside, and each drawn by four mules. One Lewis, a volunteer officer of the navy, had been sent ahead to reconnoitre, and was to meet us at the ford of the Blackwater and pilot us to the James. How he fulfilled his engagement will be shown in the sequel. This man Lewis was mate of an American ship lying in Norfolk harbor at the time of the secession of Virginia, and had left his ship to join the Confederates, had served faithfully in the army, been wounded at Bull Run, transferred to the navy and commissioned as acting lieutenant, and was considered worthy of trust and confidence.”
'Our first day's march brought us to Gen. Anderson's headquarters, the right of our army, where we encamped that night, and, breaking camp early the following morning, we struck out from our picket line to gain the old Jerusalem plank road. Our march was in three detachments, the advance under Read and Ward, about one hundred yards ahead of the wagon train; Crenshaw, with his marines, about the same distance in rear of them, and Shippey commanding the centre, with the wagon train. Fortunately, we met no stragglers or foraging parties of
the enemy, and were not disturbed, and after a good day's march we bivouacked in good spirits and very tired. The following day's march was without incident worthy of mention, an occasional false alarm or seeking the cover of woods to screen us from chance observers. Indeed, we were out of the line of travel; the Federals did all their business at City Point, and there was little more to attract any one to this part of the
country than to the Siberian deserts.
'During the night the weather turned very cold, and our poor, tired fellows lay close to the fires. The following morning we took up our march in the face of a storm of sleet, and we had to stop after a few hours, the sleet being so blinding that our mules could not make headway, besides the road being frozen and slippery. We took shelter in an old deserted farmhouse only a few miles from our rendezvous on the Blackwater, once, doubtless, the happy home of some Southern family, now changed into the rude scenes of a soldiers' bivouac.
'While resting and ' thawing ' out here by the warmth of bright fires in big fireplaces, impatiently awaiting the breaking up of the storm and anxious to continue our journey, a young man in gray uniform came in and informed us that our plan had been betrayed, and that Lewis was at the ford to meet us, according to promise, but accompanied by a regiment of Federals lying in ambuscade and awaiting our arrival, when they were to give us a warm reception. Had it not been for the storm and our having to take shelter, we would have marched into the net spread for us, and most likely all have been killed, or suffered such other worse punishment as a court-martial should inflict.
'This young man had been a prisoner of war at Fortress Monroe, and from his window heard the conversation between Lewis and the Yankee officer, in which the former betrayed us, and the plan to capture the whole party, and having perfected his plans of escape, resolved to put them in execution that night, and, if possible, frustrate his designs by giving us information of his treachery.
'After a hurried council of war, it was decided that we should go back about a mile and find a hiding place in the woods, efface our tracks, and remain concealed, while Lieut. Read should make a reconnoissance to satisfy himself that things were as bad as had been reported, and if, indeed, we would have to return to Richmond without accomplishing: our object. Accordingly, we hitched up and filed out into the road and took it back, and when we thought we had gone a safe distance, turned into the woods and camped, Read taking leave of us, disguised, and saying he would rejoin us the next day, when if he did not lay sunset we were to conclude he was captured and make our way back to Richmond. The night passed drearily away, the weather being very cold and we afraid to make fires for fear of exposing our situation should they be already on the hunt for us, as we had no doubt they would be as soon as they discovered we were not going into their trap; and the following day, though but a short winter one, seemed endless, so great was our anxiety for our leader, who had thrust his head into the lion's jaws. At length, about 4 P. M., Read made his appearance in camp, cool and collected as ever, and told us that what we had heard was true, and gave orders to hitch up, form line and retreat. The enemy's cavalry was already scouring the country in search of us, and every road of retreat was guarded. We marched by night, avoiding main roads, and during the following day halted and concealed ourselves in the woods.
'Headed off at one turn, we took another and pursued our way, resolved to sell our lives dearly should the enemy fall upon us. Every path now seemed guarded, and our retreat apparently cut off, when an old gentleman in citizen's clothes and a 'stove-pipe' hat on, who had joined us as guide, determined to take us through the water of the Appomattox,
and thus 'take soundings' on them. There was a horseshoe bend in the river, which, by fording, we could pass through between their pickets and reach our picket-lines. This was decided upon, and our guide marched us to the ford. It was not a pleasant prospect, that of taking water with the thermometer hanging around freezing point, but it was better that falling in the hands of Yankees, so of the two evils we choose the least.
My teeth chatter yet to think of that cold wade through water waist deep, covered with a thin coat of ice, but we passed it successfully, wagons and all, and then double-quicked to keep from freezing; our clothes freezing stiff on us as we came out of the water.
'We had now the inside track of our pursuers, and leaving them waiting for us to march up one of the many roads they had so well guarded, made our way back towards our lines, which, we reached safely, without loss of a man, wagon or mule.
'The results accomplished by this expedition were nothing, but I thought it worthy of a place in history, because of the effort. Our flag waved in the James River two months after the events I have endeavored to describe, but of the hundred and one men who composed this expedition, fully seventy-five were in the naval hospital in Richmond, suffering from the effects of their winter march, on the sad day on which we turned our backs upon that city.'
Rear Adm. Semmes was appointed to the command of the
James River squadron, and entered upon his duties on the
18th of February, 1865. As reorganized, the vessels and their
commanders were the Virginia, Capt. Dunnington; Richmond,
Capt. Johnson: Fredericksburg, Capt, Glassel; Hampton, Capt.
Wilson; Nansemond, Capt. Butt; Roanoke, Capt. Pollock;
Beaufort, Capt. Wyatt; Torpedo. Capt. Roberts. The squadron
was not heavily manned, many of its officers and men
having been detached to the naval brigade, which, under
command of Com. John Randolph Tucker, was distributed in
the fortifications on Drewry's Bluff and in Battery Brooke,
Battery Wood and Battery Semmes.
Accustomed to the rigid discipline of the navy which he had enforced on the Alabama, Semmes was not prepossessed by the condition in which he found the squadron, although he could not but recognize that it was an unavoidable consequence of the foreshadowed triumph of the Federals. The personnel of the crews had lost its distinctive naval character, and with the exception of the principal officers and about half a dozen sailors in each ship, the men were drawn from the army. Demoralization prevailed and desertions were frequent.
'Sometimes [the Admiral wrote], an entire boat's crew would run off, leaving the officer to find his way on board the best he might. The strain upon them had been too great. It was scarcely to be expected of men, of the class of those who usually form the rank and file of ships' companies, that they would rise above their natures, and sacrifice themselves by slow but sure degrees, in any cause, however holy. The visions of home and fireside, and freedom from restraint, were too tempting to be resisted. The general understanding, that the collapse of the Confederacy was at hand, had its influence with some of the more honorable of them. They reasoned that their desertion would be but an anticipation of the event by a few weeks.
'The evacuation of Charleston and Wilmington and the destruction of Confederate vessels at those places, released three hundred officers and men of the navy, who were ordered to duty at Richmond and assigned to the batteries near Drewry's Bluff. With this addition the naval brigade became a large and important force, and the familiarity of its men with the handling of great guns was apparent in the bombardments
that were the most common occurrences on the lines around
Richmond during Feb. and March, 1865. The men were also
organized into companies by the commanding officer, Com.
Tucker, and drilled as infantry. Among the officers on duty
with the brigade at the time were Capt. T. T. Hunter, Lieuts.
W. G. Dozier, Clarence L. Stanton, M. M. Benton,' W. H.
Ward, F. N. Roby, D. M. Trigg, C R. Mayo, W. L. Bradford,
Gwathmey, Marmaduke and Gardner; Lieut. of Marines A. S.
Berry, Master's Mate Charles Hunter, and a large contingent
of midshipmen. The same causes which had sent these many seamen and their officers from the Southern ports to Richmond had also multiplied the Federal naval force in the that were previously engaged in operations on the coasts of North and South Carolina. The assembling of this imposing and mighty fleet seemed to forbode an attack upon the capital by water, but as Adm. Semmes says, Richmond was secure on that side. No fleet of the enemy could have passed his three iron-clads moored across the stream in the only available channel, with obstructions that would hold it under the fire of the ships and the flanking batteries; and if Adm. Porter, the new commander upon the river, ever thought of such a movement he never attempted it. The remainder of the winter passed slowly and tediously into the spring, and Semmes'
visits to the Navy Department for instructions or suggestions
from the government resulted merely in permission to him to
do about as he pleased. It may be presumed that if the restless
and intrepid sailor who carried the Alabama into a dozen seas had found any employment for the James River squadron the barnacles would not have gathered upon his hulls, but the
opportunities for action were numbered with the past. He has
himself told how, as he sat in his cabin, on board the Virginia,
in March, and studied upon the maps the approach of Sherman,
and knew of the reinforcement of Grant by the army of Sheridan, the prospect was to him hopeless enough. Richmond was invested by 160,000 men, and Lee defended it with 33,000 ragged and half-starved troops, with which he was compelled to guard an intrenched line of 40 miles in length, extending from the north side of the James River, below Richmond, to Hatcher's Run, south of Petersburg. In all military history there is recorded no more stubborn and skillful defence of a beleaguered city, but it could not last much longer. The fate of Richmond was decided on the morning of April. 2d, when Grant broke through the Confederate lines at Petersburg. Adm. Semmes was at dinner on the Virginia that afternoon when he received this message from the Navy Department:
'Confederate States of America, )
' Executive Office, Richmond, Va., April 2d, 1865.'
'Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, Commanding James River Sguadron;
'Sir : Gen. Lee advises the government to withdraw from this city, and the officers will leave this evening, accordingly. I presume that Gen. Lee has advised you of this and of his movements, and made suggestions as to the disposition to be made of your squadron. He withdraws upon his lines toward Danville this night; and unless otherwise directed by Gen. Lee, upon you is devolved the duty of destroying your ships this night, and with all the forces under your command joining Gen. Lee. Confer with him, if practicable, before destroying them. Let your people be rationed, as far as possible, for the march, and armed and equipped for duty in the field. Very respectfully, your obedient servant,'S. R. Mallory, Secretary of the Navy. ''
The enemy being only a few miles distant it was imperative
that the Admiral should conduct his movements with careful
secrecy. At nightfall he got the squadron under way and ran up to Drewry's Bluff, intending to blow up the iron-clads there, throw their crews on the wooden gunboats, and proceed in the latter to Manchester, opposite Richmond, on his way to join Gen. Lee. But these plans he was compelled to change when, an hour or two after dark, the flames that lit up the horizon on the north side of the James revealed to him that the army was burning its quarters as it left the intrenchments. Concealment on his part was no longer practicable. He made his preparations for burning the fleet, first serving out arms, provisions and clothing to the men who were to exchange the decks for the shore. The various occupations occupied them until a late hour. It was between two and three o'clock on the morning of April 3d before the crews of the iron-clads were all safely embarked on the wooden gunboats and the iron-clads were well on fire. The little squadron of wooden boats then moved off up the river by the glare of the burning iron-clads. They had not proceeded far before an explosion like the shock of an earthquake took place, and the air was filled with missiles. It was the blowing up of the Virginia, the late flag-ship. The spectacle was grand beyond
description. Her shell-rooms had been full of loaded shells.
The explosion of the magazine threw all these shells, with
their fuses lighted, into the air. The fuses were of different
lengths, and as the shells exploded by twos and threes, and
by the dozen, the pyrotechnic effect was very fine. The explosion shook the houses in Richmond and waked the echoes
of the night for forty miles around.
At one of the bridges across the James the boats were detained until after sunrise on account of the draw being down to allow of the passage of troops. Then the Admiral landed his 500 sailors in the midst of the troops and civilians hurrying away from the forsaken city. The wooden gunboats were fired and, wrapped in flames, floated down the stream, while he asked himself what he was to do with his seamen, loaded down with pots and pans, mess-kettles, bags of bread, chunks of salted pork, sugar, tea, tobacco and pipes. His orders were to join Gen. Lee, but he did not know where to find him, he was without transportation, and it was as much as his men could do to stagger under their loads. Fortunately, he found at the railroad depot a small locomotive and some cars, and the steam engineers from the squadron soon had the former in running condition and a train made up; but while still directly opposite Richmond the engine stuck on an up-grade; it was not strong enough to pull the train. Another locomotive was discovered in the railroad shops, and after it was hitched on the two drew the train off at the rate of six miles an hour. It reached at midnight of April 4th the city of Danville, having passed Burksville Junction an hour and a half before Sheridan's cavalry tore up the rails. Here the Admiral found President Davis and Secretary Mallory, who ordered him to form his command as a brigade of artillery for the occupation of the defences around Danville, his own rank to be that of brigadier general. He arranged with Capt. Sidney
Smith Lee and Adjt. Gen. Cooper for the transformation of his
sailors into soldiers. Only 400 men were left him, but these
he broke in two skeleton regiments, appointing Capts. Dunnington
and Johnston their colonels. Midshipman Semmes was assigned to a position on the staff; Mr. Daniel, the Admiral's secretary, became the other aide, and Capt. Rutt was appointed Assistant Adjutant General, Admiral Semmes writes:
'We remained in the trenches before Danville ten days; and anxious and weary days they were. Raiding parties were careering around us in various directions, robbing and maltreating the inhabitants, but none of the thieves ventured within reach of our guns. Lee abandoned his lines on the 3d of April, and surrendered his army, or the small remnant that was left of it, to Grant, on the 9th, at Appomattox Court-House. The first news we received of his surrender came to us from the stream of
fugitives which now came pressing into our lines at Danville. It was heart-rending to look upon these men, some on foot, some on horseback, some nearly famished for want of food, and others barely able to totter along from disease. It was, indeed, a rabble rout. Hopes had been entertained that Lee might escape to Lynchburg, or to Danville, and save his army. The President had entertained this hope, and had issued a proclamation of encouragement to the people before he left Danville. But the fatal tidings came at last, and when they did come we all felt
that the fate of the Confederacy was sealed.'
These fatal tidings were the melting away of Gen. Johnston's
army and its dispersion in accordance with the terms
arranged between that commander and Gen. Sherman at
Greensboro on May 1st. This agreement included the admiral's
command, which he dispersed on the same day.
While the flag-officer afloat was making his way out of
Richmond and to Danville, as just described, with the men of
the squadron. Com. Tucker's naval brigade evacuated the positions at Drewry's Bluff on April 2d, and was attached to Gen. Custis Lee's division of Gen. Ewell's corps, which formed the rear-guard of the Confederate army on the retreat from
Richmond. It was the post of danger, and never in any of
the great emergencies of the war did the sailors win brighter
renown than during this perilous march and at the battle
of Saylor's Creek. From the 2d to the 6th of April they were
allowed no rest and were without food; the spring rains and
the passage of troops, wagons and artillery had mired the
roads knee-deep; clouds of the enemy's cavalry hovered
around them and swooped down upon their flanks; but they
tramped on, maintained a compact organization and responded
quickly to the orders of commanders. Upon no portion of the
dwindling army did the sufferings of the retreat fall heavier
than upon this little plucky band, and none bore them with
more fortitude. The story of their conduct at Sailer's Creek
is an illustrious ending of their history.