Tag Archives: James River

The Dutch Gap Canal Flop

January 1, 1865 – A project on the James River intended to allow Federal naval vessels to get to Richmond ended in failure.

After returning from his failed effort to capture Fort Fisher, Major General Benjamin F. Butler resumed supervision over the digging of a canal across Trent’s Reach on the James. The purpose of this canal was to bypass a bend in the river at Dutch Gap, thereby enabling Federal warships to avoid Confederate batteries protecting their capital of Richmond.

Digging the Dutch Gap Canal | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. IX, No. 421, 21 Jan 1865

Black Federal troops had been assigned to this backbreaking project, which had been going on since last summer. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had little faith that the canal would make much difference, but he allowed it to be dug so he could keep the troublesome Butler busy.

On New Year’s Day, Federal engineers brought up 12,000 pounds of gunpowder to destroy the final obstacle in the Federals’ path and open the canal. The explosion hurled dirt about 50 feet in the air, but most of it came back down exactly where it came from, and the canal was a bust. It became a viable water trade route after the war, but for now the canal was useless as a military waterway.

This failure, combined with that at Fort Fisher just a few days before, seemed to symbolize Butler’s military career. Not long after, Grant looked to remove him as commander of the Army of the James.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 511; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 538; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 618; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 231-32

The Battle of Drewry’s Bluff

May 15, 1862 – Confederate batteries repulsed the advance of a Federal naval fleet on the James River, which helped ease some of the panic spreading throughout the Confederate capital of Richmond.

The day after crewmen of the C.S.S. Virginia destroyed their vessel, they assembled under their commander, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, at Drewry’s Bluff. Once owned by a man named Drewry, this was a 100-foot-high eminence on the north bank of a sharp bend in the James, about seven miles from Richmond. It was officially known as Fort Darling, and it was the last stronghold preventing Federal naval forces from reaching Richmond via the James River.

Confederate gun overlooking Drewry's Bluff | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Confederate gun overlooking Drewry’s Bluff | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The crewmen were assigned to help man the eight heavy cannon on the bluff. The overall fort commander, General George W.C. Lee (oldest son of Robert E. Lee), had directed the guns’ placements, as well as the placement of obstructions (including the C.S.S. Jamestown) in a narrow point of the river. The C.S.S. Patrick Henry, a civilian steamer with heavy guns, was stationed in front of Drewry’s Bluff.

The fortification of Fort Darling was a joint effort by the Confederate army, navy, and marines, led by both Commander Ebenezer Ferrand of the navy and General William Mahone of the army. After working tirelessly in the rain for two days, the Confederates commanded all potential river approaches.

The Federal James River Flotilla, led by Commander John Rodgers, began moving up the James toward the Confederate capital on the 14th. The flotilla consisted of the ironclads U.S.S. Monitor and Galena (a new corvette), and the wooden ships U.S.S. Aroostook, Naugatuck, and Port Royal. The crews had orders from Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough to “get up to Richmond, all with the least possible delay, and shell the city to a surrender.” The navy hoped to capture Richmond as it had captured New Orleans the previous month.

Panic swept Richmond as residents realized that they were now under threat from Federal army forces on the Peninsula and naval forces on the James. Alarm bells rang in the capital as the ships continued upriver on May 15, with Confederate sharpshooters firing on them from rifle pits on shore. In a public meeting outside City Hall, Virginia Governor John Letcher declared:

“Some one said to me the other day, that the duty of surrendering the city would devolve either upon the president, the mayor, or myself. I said to him if the demand is made upon me, with the alternative to surrender or be shelled, I shall reply, bombard and be damned!”

Richmond Mayor Joseph C. Mayo told his constituents:

“I say now, and will abide by it, when the citizens of Richmond demand on me to surrender the capital of Virginia and of the Confederacy to the enemy they must find some other man to fill my place. I will resign the mayoralty. And when that other man elected in my stead shall deliver up the city, I hope I have physical courage and strength enough left to shoulder a musket and go into the ranks.”

A committee met with President Jefferson Davis to get his assurance that the Confederate government would help local officials defend the city to the end. The meeting was interrupted by a message stating that Federal warships were coming up the James River. Davis told the committee members, “This manifestly concludes the matter.”

The vessels came in sight around 7:35 a.m., with the Galena and Monitor emerging from the fog in the lead. As the Confederate gunners opened fire, the Galena dropped anchor about 600 yards from Fort Darling and began firing back. The gun noise rattled windows in Richmond.

Action at Drewry's Bluff | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Action at Drewry’s Bluff | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

With the three wooden ships staying out of range, the Monitor steamed past the Galena to draw fire but could not elevate the guns in her revolving turret high enough to hit the Confederates on the bluff. The Monitor moved back downriver, near the wooden ships, to find her range. But from that distance, her smoothbore Dahlgren guns were less effective. The Monitor also drew too much water to become fully engaged. This allowed the Confederates to focus primarily on the Galena.

Commander Rodgers reported that “balls came through, and many men were killed with fragments of her own iron.” The Galena sustained large holes in her deck from the plunging fire of shot and shell. The Patrick Henry connected with an 8-inch solid shot through the Galena’s bow port, and the ship was also running low on ammunition. At 11:05, Rodgers ordered her to withdraw, after a shot sparked a fire.

Meanwhile, the Port Royal took a hit on the forward wheel and another below the waterline, forcing her to fall back. The Naugatuck took heavy punishment and was rendered useless when her 100-pound Parrott gun exploded upon firing. The Aroostook stayed out of range.

The rest of the flotilla followed the Galena when she withdrew downriver, and the Confederates hollered three cheers for their victory. Richmond residents also celebrated, but only briefly because Major General George B. McClellan’s army still threatened them from the Peninsula.

The Federals lost 13 killed and 11 wounded aboard the Galena, along with three others wounded on the wooden ships. Some Federals had been killed or wounded by sharpshooters on the riverbanks. Paymaster William Keeler of the Monitor, which was hit three times but sustained no casualties, went aboard the Galena and later wrote his wife:

“Here was a body with the head, one arm & part of the breast torn off by a bursting shell, another with the top of his head taken off the brains still steaming on the deck, partly across him lay one with both legs taken off at the hips & at a little distance another completely disemboweled.”

The Galena sustained 50 hits, with 18 piercing the four-inch plating and reaching the wooden hull. The Monitor captain reported that “the action was most gallantly fought against great odds, and with the usual effect against earthworks. It was impossible to reduce such works, except with the aid of a land force.”

Corporal John B. Mackie of the Galena’s Marine Guard later became the first U.S. marine awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, for bravery under fire in this battle. Navy Department General Order No. 17, dated July 10, 1863, allowed U.S. marines to be eligible for the award.

The Confederates lost seven killed and eight wounded. After the victory, President Davis wrote his wife Varina:

“The panic here has subsided and with increasing confidence there has arisen a desire to see the city destroyed rather than surrendered. The great temporal object is to secure our independence and they who engage in strife for personal or party aggrandisement, deserve contemptuous forgetfulness.”

The Federal repulse was sudden and surprising to many who expected the ships to easily bypass the obstructions and batteries. But the Federals did benefit somewhat from the incursion: they had forced the Confederates to obstruct the river, which prevented them from going down just as it kept the Federals from coming up. It also revealed an ideal spot for a Federal army landing, just 10 miles from Richmond, if McClellan opted to move his supply base from the York to the James. Few knew at the time how important Harrison’s Landing would become.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 128-29; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13705-14; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 401-02; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 170-71; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 416; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 151, 153; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3418-30; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 296; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 211-13; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 427; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 109; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 330-31, 383-85; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640-41; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 504; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 227, 571

The C.S.S. Virginia Attacks

March 8, 1862 – The Confederate ironclad Virginia demolished the Federal naval fleet off Hampton Roads, rendering all wooden warships obsolete and threatening to permanently break the Federal blockade.

C.S.S. Virginia | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

C.S.S. Virginia | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The crew of the C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimac), the flagship of the Confederate James River Squadron, completed preparations for action on the 7th. The next day, the ironclad vessel steamed out of the Norfolk Navy Yard, accompanied by five other vessels.

Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, commanding the Virginia, had been authorized to make a trial run, but he instead sent the workers ashore and took the ironclad out to confront the entire Federal blockading fleet off Hampton Roads. As the Virginia passed Sewell’s Point, Buchanan addressed his 350-man crew:

“My men, you are now about to face the enemy. You shall have no reason to complain of not fighting at close quarters. Remember, you fight for your homes and your country. You see those ships–you must sink them. I need not ask you to do it. I know you will do it.”

Although the Virginia had not been built for speed (she could barely reach six knots at full steam), her thick iron plating made her almost invulnerable to enemy fire. Crewmen also greased the sloped plating with melted pork fat to better resist the cannonballs.

As the ironclad steamed down the James, five of the Federals’ most powerful warships were stationed near the river’s mouth, 10 miles from Norfolk: U.S.S. Cumberland, Congress, Roanoke, St. Lawrence, and the flagship Minnesota. The Congress, Cumberland, and St. Lawrence were sailing vessels considered behind the times due to the advent of steam power. The Roanoke had a broken shaft and was not functional. All five were wooden warships.

The 8th was a Saturday, so Federal crewmen were drying their laundry on their ships’ riggings when the Virginia appeared. The ironclad steamed directly for the 30-gun sloop Cumberland, one of the Federals’ largest ships, and rammed her around 1 p.m. The Cumberland’s superior firepower was no match for the Virginia’s iron plating. Despite losing her metallic ram, the ironclad opened a gaping hole below the Cumberland’s waterline and sank her.

The Congress, a 50-gun frigate led by Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, saw the action from Newport News Point and began firing at the Virginia. A witness observed several broadsides being fired into the ironclad and noted that the shots “struck and glanced off, having no more effect than peas from a pop-gun.” The Virginia took 98 hits that disabled two guns, blew nearly everything off the deck, and shot up her smokestack. But none inflicted serious damage.

In response, Buchanan directed his crew to bear down on the Congress. Smith ordered the Congress towed to shore, but she sustained heavy damage from direct fire before running aground. Many were killed or wounded, including Smith, who was decapitated by a shot around 4:20 p.m. His successor surrendered the burning vessel.

The Virginia then turned her attention to the flagship, Minnesota. However, the Minnesota’s crew grounded her off Newport News to avoid destruction. The ironclad’s deep 22-foot draft prevented her from steaming into the shallows to finish the Minnesota off.

Meanwhile, Federal shore batteries poured fire into the Virginia, with the cannonballs merely bouncing or sliding off her iron plating. But one shot managed to wound Buchanan, forcing him to pass command to Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones. Jones returned the Virginia to Sewell’s Point near nightfall, with plans to resume the attack on the Minnesota and any remaining blockaders the next day.

This was the Confederacy’s greatest naval victory of the war. The Virginia destroyed two powerful warships in four and a half hours and, despite losing two guns, suffered no serious damage. They sustained 21 casualties (two killed and 19 wounded, Buchanan among them).

Conversely, this was the worst day in U.S. naval history up to that time (only Pearl Harbor, 79 years later, was worse). The Federals sustained 250 casualties, the most the navy suffered on any day of the war. The remaining vessels at Hampton Roads faced almost certain destruction the next day, until a new vessel arrived late that night to help even the odds.

The Federal ironclad U.S.S. Monitor completed a harrowing journey from New York, during which she was nearly swamped several times. The Monitor’s primary mission was to stop the Virginia. Captain John Marston, acting commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron aboard the U.S.S. Roanoke, directed Lieutenant John Worden, commanding the Monitor, to protect the grounded Minnesota.

The Monitor steamed to the Minnesota’s side around midnight, using the light from the burning Congress to find her way. The Congress’s magazine ignited shortly after 1 a.m., sparking several explosions and destroying the vessel. Lieutenant Samuel D. Greene, the executive officer of the Monitor, reported: “Her powder tanks seemed to explode, each shower of sparks rivaling the other in its height, until they appeared to reach the zenith–a grand but mournful sight.”

Within two hours of the Congress’s explosion, Major General John Wool, the Federal army commander at Fort Monroe, telegraphed the War Department that the Confederacy’s “floating battery” had sunk two frigates and would sink the remaining three before assaulting the fort itself. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton read the dispatch with terror and hurried to the White House to notify President Abraham Lincoln. The news soon spread panic throughout Washington, with Lincoln repeatedly looking out windows to see if the Virginia was coming up the Potomac.

An emergency cabinet meeting began at 6:30 a.m. on the 9th, where Stanton paced “like a caged lion” and declared: “The Merrimac (i.e., Virginia) will change the whole character of the war. She will destroy, seriatim, every naval vessel; she will lay all the cities on the seaboard under contribution.”

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles expressed concern but shared a message from Lieutenant Worden announcing that the Monitor had arrived at Hampton Roads. Stanton, unimpressed, went to a window and said, “Not unlikely, we shall have a shell or a cannonball from one of her (Virginia’s) guns in the White House before we leave this room.”

Welles argued that the Virginia drew too much water to come up the Potomac. He later recalled that there was “something inexpressibly ludicrous in the wild, frantic talk, action and rage of Stanton.” Lincoln shared Stanton’s concerns but remained calm. Later that day, Stanton telegraphed the coastal state governors: “Man your guns. Block your harbors. The Merrimac is coming.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 72-74; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 139; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 258; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 119; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 131-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 180-81; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 697; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 375; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 787; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 275; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 504; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 335; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 49, 57-58; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 99-100; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 529-30