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PROCEEDINGS Vol. 45, No. 2 FEBRUARY, 1919 Whole No. 192
NAVAL OPERATIONS ON THE VIRGINIA RIVERS
IN THE CIVIL WAR
In his treatise, “ The Influence of Sea Power Upon History," Admiral Mahan makes a passing reference to the significance to the Southern Confederacy of her numerous inland waterwaysthe rivers penetrating the heart of her territory and the numberless sounds and inlets that fringed her coasts. These bodies of water, he remarks, which, had the South comprised a seafaring people, naturally disposed to naval activity, would have constituted an element of inestimable strength—for easy transportation, for the concealment and protection of vessels of war, and for secret concentrations against the enemy fleets—these same waterways in reality served as so many gateways through which the dominant naval power of the Federal Government, bringing armies of invasion in its train, entered for her paralysis and eventual overthrow.
The importance of the naval control of the Mississippi and its tributaries in facilitating the land operations in the West has been always and widely recognized; and the work of the Union squadrons in the North Carolina sounds has—largely because of Cushing's sensational feat in torpedoing the ironclad ram Albemarlem-received considerable notoriety in the histories of the war. But there is one little-noted group of naval operations, performed quietly and for the most part without incidents of a striking
character, which nevertheless had a most important, not to say determining, effect upon two of the major and one of the decisive campaigns in the eastern Confederacy. Without the
steady support of the navy in the Virginia rivers, McClellan's peninsula campaign, if begun at all, would have ended in disaster instead of mere frustration, and Grant's final campaign against Richmond would not only have been beset with enormous diffi
culties, but must have been fought out on entirely different lines. It would be hard to exaggerate the importance to the safety of the Northern armies of the naval control of these waters; and that control, while never broken, was at times seriously threatened, and maintained only by vigilant and vigorous action on the part of the Northern fleet.
To compare Chesapeake Bay and the James River with the broad waters between our coast and France, or to mention the dozen or so improvised war vessels of the James River Flotilla in a breath with the Allied navies of the present day, may have a touch of the ludicrous. Yet the pygmy Alotilla in those narrow waters did for the Union forces in '62 and ’64 precisely what the great navies have been doing of late: it made possible the safe movement of troops across waters impassable without its aid, and it kept open the essential lines of communication between those troops and their ultimate base of supplies. If sea power is to be measured not in absolute ship tonnage and weight of guns, but in ability to control essential waterways and thus determine the outcome of wars, then the operations on the James River deserve a place in the history of sea power--a place never hitherto accorded them by even the naval historians.
The most serious danger to federal naval supremacy in these waters came early in the war and at a time most critical for the military plans of the government. It was in March, 1862, that the ironclad Merrimac made her sensational appearance in Hampton Roads, where in one afternoon she destroyed two vessels of the blockading squadron and left the others intact only because of darkness and the ebbing tide. The Merrimac's sortie was not only a threat at the entire blockade program of the North ; it seemed for the moment to have frustrated in a few hours' time the elaborate plans already perfected for the movement of McClellan's army, by water, to Fortress Monroe and the blow at Richmond from that quarter, where the army must be dependent upon a long line of water communications. And it was not until the engagement with the Monitor had materially reduced this source of danger that the great convoy carrying McClellan's army moved from the vicinity of Washington to Fortress Monroe.
From the Monitor-Merrimac engagement to the end of the . Peninsula campaign the Union vessels on the York and James
had no further encounters with Confederate ships, but their dominant presence was none the less important. They not only exercised the same sort of silent yet all-important safeguarding of communications which has in recent times been the chief work of the Allied navies; in addition, their guns time after time rendered the most signal assistance to the troops on shore.
As McClellan, early in May, moved up the narrow peninsula between the York and James, naval vessels kept progress with his march. On the York and its tributary, the Pamunkey, they cooperated with the troops in skirmish after skirmish, cleared the rivers to White House, McClellan's new base, and opened and held his line of communications between that point and Fortress Monroe and Washington. On the James, they advanced to within seven miles of Richmond, where they were at length held by the strong batteries at Drewry's Bluff. They were in position to cooperate more actively with the army had McClellan's advance continued; as it was, a less glorious but no less important rôle was reserved for them—the salvation of McClellan's army after its unfortunate experiences in the Seven Days' fighting.
After a week of indecisive engagements across the head of the peninsula, McClellán, as always seeing his foe double their real strength, decided upon retreat--not upon his old base at White House on the Pamunkey, but upon the James. His first contact with that river was' at Malvern Hill, where in the battle of July 1 the naval vessels materially aided him by shelling the reserve positions of the Confederates. On the day of this engagement he wrote to Flag-Officer Goldsborough of the North Atlantic Squadron: "I would most earnestly request that every gunboat or other armed vessel suitable for action in the James River be sent at once to this vicinity." On the same date, Commander John Rodgers, in immediate command on the James, reported to Goldsborough: “The army is in a bad way; the gunboats may save them, but the points to be guarded are too many for the force at my disposal.
To save the army, as far as we can, demands immediately all our disposable force.
Now, if ever, is a chance for the navy to render most signal service, but it must not delay."
The navy did not neglect its opportunity. No sooner had the army arrived at Harrison's Landing, its destination on the James, than Rodgers placed his gunboats and ironclads upon its
two flanks, where they gave the direct protection of their guns as well as the assurance that communications should be maintained. The importance of this work is evidenced by a department order of July 6 designating the James River Flotilla an independent division of the North Atlantic Squadron, a position which it held until the last of August, when the army had been withdrawn from the peninsula and the necessity of controlling the James had ended. Admiral D. D. Porter thus summarizes the navy's work in this campaign: “Without it, the Grand Army of the Potomac could not have been moved so successfully to the Peninsula ; and it is scarcely yet forgotten how, in the most trying times, when that army seemed to be in danger of annihilation, the navy was at hand to give shelter under its guns to our retiring and weary troops, and drive back the excited and victorious foe, who would have driven our soldiers into the river, or made theni lay down their arms."
For almost two years after the above events the James River saw little of naval activity. While the North maintained a nominal control of the river, little use was ade of it other than for an occasional expedition for the destruction of military stores or other contraband. In the meanwhile the Confederates at Richmond were busy mining the river with electric torpedoes and building a fleet of river vessels which it was hoped might meet successfully the next attempt to approach Richmond by water. The Merrimac, or Virginia as she had been rechristened, had proved of too deep draft to be taken up the river and had been destroyed at Norfolk, but her two wooden consorts, the Patrick Henry and Jamestown, had steamed to Richmond, there to form a nucleus for the new flotilla. Three new ironclads, of the same general character as the Merrimac but in every way lighter, were constructed, and to these—the Virginia II, Richmond, and Fredericksburg---were added the wooden gunboats Nansemond, Hampton, Beaufort, Raleigh, Drewry, and a vessel referred to as “ Davidson's torpedo boat." The difficulties encountered by the Confederates in building men-of-war are indicated by the following bit of description of the Nansemond and Hampton: “ These vessels," wrote a Confederate officer, "had saw-mill engines, and when they got under way there was such a wheezing and blowing that one would suppose all hands had been attacked with asthma or heaves."