“They believe in their torpedoes”: The Confederate naval threat along the James

An under-appreciated aspect of the 1864 Overland Campaign is the support given by the US Navy.  Rear-Admiral Samuel P. Lee’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron in effect secured the water-facing flanks of the army and facilitated rapid movement of men and supplies throughout the campaign.  With secure passage through the Chesapeake Bay and various riverways, General U.S. Grant could shift his base of supply and move troops to keep the pressure on.

On occasion, such as in the Battle of Wilson’s Wharf in late May, the squadron was involved with the action on land.  But for the most part, Lee focused on threats in the water.  And a varied set those were.  On May 6, 1864, the fleet lost the USS Commodore Jones to a Confederate torpedo.

And the following day, while operating in the James River on torpedo-clearing operations, the USS Shawsheen was captured and burned by Confederates.  And aside from the torpedoes and shore batteries, Lee had to consider Confederate ironclads, torpedo boats, and other “novel” threats on the James River.

On this day (June 1) in 1864, Lee too time to detail these threats in a message to the Navy Department.  Attached, Lee offer statements from refugees and deserters.  The first of which was from John Loomis, a “white deserter from the CSS Hampton.”  Loomis related particulars of the ironclads CSS Virginia (the second, and not the more famous ironclad from 1862), CSS Richmond, and CSS Fredericksburg.  Loomis also mentioned several old schooners prepared for use as fire rafts.  He warned, “They intend attacking the Federal fleet as soon as practicable, in the night; first sending down the fire ships, and following with the rebel craft when we are disconcerted by the fire rafts.”

Another report, from a colored refugee from Richmond named Archy Jenkins, offered more details (and not only those concerning the Navy):

I am a free man, stevedore.  I was employed on the Bonita. I left Richmond Monday.  I gave a colored man $10 to show me the batteries, past the pickets. I crawled through the bushes and came down to Hill Carter’s place.

The firing was about 7 miles from Richmond, out toward Boar Swamp; the firing was rapid and heavy. The mate of the Bonita said Lee was 5 miles from Richmond and Grant about 7 miles. Opinion is divided as to Grant’s getting to Richmond. They are putting two barges and a sloop lashed together, filled with shavings and pitch with torpedoes, which they intend to set on fire, and when it reaches the fleet it will blow up and destroy the fleet. There is a vast quantity of powder on int. There are six others, small steamers…. All are fitted with torpedoes on long poles.

Jenkins noted the Confederate ironclads all drew about 14 feet of water.

They were lightened over Warwick Bar. You can carry with good tide 2 feet. You can carry about 15 feet good tide over Trent’s Reach.

There is a freshet now, a little; there is about 6 or 7 inches more than usual high water.

I don’t think they will have any trouble in bringing their ironclads over Trent’s Reach; there is plenty of water close over the left bank. They must come at high water. I am no man for steering a boat, but I know where the bars and deep water [are]. I have been running on the river five or six years, off and on. They all say they know “they can whip you all; they are certain of it.”  They believe in their torpedoes in preference to everything. They all say you haven’t sense to make a good torpedo; they reckon on them more than all else besides. They say that all they are afraid of, that you have a string of torpedoes all across at Cox’s and Trent’s reaches, and that the river is otherwise obstructed…. They say that is all they care about.

Jenkins continued on to conclude with an interesting assessment of the situation in Richmond:

They are very hard up for provisions at Richmond. If you took Petersburg “they could not fight another week.  They must give right up.”

Later that day, Lee sent a telegram to Washington, to arrive in advance of his written report:

The concurrent testimony, which seems reliable, of deserters from the rebel Army and Navy, and contrabands from Richmond, is that enemy meditate an immediate attack upon this fleet with fire rafts, torpedo vessels, gunboats, and ironclads, all of which carry torpedoes, and that they are confident of being able to destroy the vessels here, principally by their torpedoes.

Lee continued on to request Washington forward torpedoes for him to use, both in the channel and on the ironclads.  He further requested the USS Tecumseh, which at the time was ordered to proceed on to support operations in the Gulf of Mexico, be retained until the crisis passed.

These Confederate threats on the James were considerations which weighed upon decisions made by both army and navy leaders through the spring campaign.  If Grant opted to move south of the James, Lee would have to provide a shield against that threat.  And south of the James, just as Jenkins related, lay the opportunity to cut off Richmond from supplies.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 10, pages 111-3.)