The first active naval operations of the war were those on the Potomac River
, in May and June, 1861.
At this time the larger vessels of the navy were engaged in setting on foot the blockade of the coast, in pursuance of the President
's proclamations of April 19th and 27th.
, and Susquehanna
on the Atlantic coast
, under Flag-Officer Silas H. Stringham
, and the Colorado
, and Brooklyn
in the Gulf
, under Flag-Officer William Mervine
, took the initial steps to render the blockade effective.
Smaller vessels were sent to the blockading stations as rapidly as they could be prepared.
The Potomac River
, although officially within the limits of the Atlantic Squadron, became early in the war a nearly independent command, owing to its distance from the flag-ship, and its nearness to Washington
In May the Potomac
flotilla was organized, under Commander James I. Ward
It was originally composed of the small side-wheel steamer Thomas Freeborn
, purchased, May 7th, at New York, and the tugs Anacostia
, but was considerably enlarged in the course of the year.
Its organization was closely connected with the service of the Washington Navy Yard
, and other vessels attached to the yard occasionally cooperated with it. Its movements were under the direct supervision of the department.
In the early part of May, 1861, the Navy of the State of Virginia
began the erection of batteries on the Potomac
, in order to close the navigation of the river to Federal vessels proceeding to and from Washington
Works were thrown up under the direction of Captain William F. Lynch
, Commander Frederick Chatard
, and other officers at Aquia Creek
, the terminus of the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad, at Mathias Point
, and later at Quantico.
A small steamer, the George Page
, cooperated with the forces on shore.
The batteries were manned chiefly by infantry acting as artillerists.
The first duty of the Potomac
flotilla was to clear the Virginia
banks of these obstructions to navigation and open the river.
With this object in view, the Freeborn
, under Commander
as far Ward
, on the 31st of May, attacked the works at Aquia Creek
The attack, which may be called the first naval engagement of the war, was ineffectual, the light guns of the Freeborn
producing little impression.
On the other hand, the necessity of economizing ammunition led the Confederates
to reserve their fire.
On the next day, June 1st, the attack was repeated by the Freeborn
, which had meantime been joined by the Pawnee
, under Commander S. C. Rowan
The bombardment was continued for five hours, but no casualties occurred on either side.
The railroad pier and its buildings were set on fire and blown up by the Confederate forces, and both the batteries and the vessels received several shot, but no material injury was inflicted,
On the 27th of June, the Freeborn
made an attack upon Mathias Point
, where a considerable force of Confederates was posted, although no batteries had as yet been erected.
In this attack Commander Ward
was assisted by two boats from the Pawnee
, under Lieutenant Chaplin
A landing was effected by the party, led by Commander Ward
in person, and after some skirmishing the Confederate
pickets were driven in; but upon the approach of the main body of the enemy a retreat was ordered to the boats.
returned to the Freeborn
, and directed her fire at the advancing force, enabling Chaplin
to make a second landing.
Breastworks were rapidly thrown up, but they were no sooner completed than the landing party was ordered to return, Commander Ward
having received a fatal gunshot wound while sighting his bow-gun.
Late in the afternoon, Lieutenant Chaplin
, with great skill and coolness, embarked his men under a galling musketry fire.
The only casualties in this somewhat rash undertaking were one killed and four wounded. Immediately after, the Confederates
erected formidable works at the Point
Two days after Ward
's death, on the 29th of June, the steamer St. Nicholas,
a passenger vessel still making regular trips between Baltimore
, was captured by a stratagem of the Confederates
A party of armed men, more or less disguised, under Colonel Thomas
, went on board as passengers at Baltimore
, and were joined by Captain George N. Hollins
and others at Point Lookout
As the St. Nicholas
was on her way up the Potomac
, the Confederates
threw off their disguise, and, overpowering the crew and passengers, took possession of the vessel.
She subsequently made several prizes, and was burnt at Fredericksburg
Commander Thomas T. Craven
succeeded Commander Ward
in the command of the Potomac
The force was increased by the addition of eight or ten vessels, but it was unable to dislodge the Confederates
from their positions, and although the navigation of the river was not actually closed to armed vessels, a virtual blockade of Washington
, as the Potomac
was concerned, was maintained until March, 1862, when the Confederate forces retired to the line of the Rappahannock River
The guns were then removed from the batteries, and the George Page
During the remainder of the war, the Potomac
flotilla, commanded successively by Commodore A. A. Harwood
and Commanders R. H. Wyman
and Foxhall A. Parker
, was chiefly occupied in patrolling the river and the adjacent waters to insure the safety of water communication from Washington
, and to prevent contraband trade between the frontiers.
It seconded the operations of the army at various points, and occasionally its vessels had smart brushes with the enemy, but its principal occupation was that of a water-police, and its efforts were mainly directed against illicit trade and guerrilla warfare.