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Doc. 209. fight with the Patrick Henry

Official report by her Commander.

Confederate States steamer Patrick Henry, off Mulberry Island, James River, Va., Dec. 2, 1861.
sir: Since the 18th of November the enemy have accumulated at Newport News several small gunboats and armed tugs. Learning that they were in the habit of sending several of these gunboats up the river at night, and withdrawing them in the morning, induced me to take the first favorable opportunity to surprise arid attack them. This morning being dark and suitable for the enterprise, I left our anchorage, off Mulberry Island, at four o'clock A. M., and proceeded cautiously down the river, all lights carefully concealed. I regret, however, to say, that I was disappointed in not finding the steamers as high up the river as I expected. At early daylight we discovered four steamers anchored in line, this side of the frigates, but in supporting distance of them, and the battery at Newport News. We rounded to at a supposed distance of a mile, and commenced the attack with our port battery and pivot guns, which was returned by the steamers and the battery on shore, from rifled and other guns. Many of the rifled shells came near and over us, and one struck us, going [447] through the pilot house, and exploding in the starboard hammock nettings, producing slight injury, and wounding one of the pilots and a seaman, very slightly, by the splinters. The engagement lasted two hours, when we returned to our anchorage, the enemy evincing no disposition to advance, either during the engagement or afterwards. We expended twenty-eight shells and thirteen solid shot, some of which must have struck, but with what injury to the enemy we are unable to say. * * *

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

John R. Tucker, Commander C. S. N. Hon. S. R. Mallory, Sec'y of Navy, Richmond.

A National account.

on board the gunboat Sausheene, James River, off Newport News, Dec. 2, 1861.
At six o'clock this morning, in the gloaming, as I still lay snug in my berth, on board the gunboat Sausheene, boom came the roar of a heavy gun, and the yell of a big shell passing over us. In about one minute and a half I was dressed and on deck. At short distance from us lay the little fleet of three small gunboats — the Hetzel, Saybrook, and Whitehead — in line of battle, and two miles off up the river, just discernible in the heavy morning mists, lay the long hull of the rebel steamer Patrick Henry, the masts hidden by the fog and the smoke of her guns. In another minute we opened on her with our thirty-two-pounder. The rest of the fleet pitched in with their various armaments. Our orders being positive, in case of attack, to fall back on the heavy ships of war lying off Newport News--we being merely a picket guard--we slowly dropped down the river, firing at every moment, and thus led on the enemy until we were within three miles of the frigates. At this moment we perceived that the Patrick Henry was aground, by her remaining stationary and working her engines disconnected. We ran alongside the senior officer's steamer, Capt. Davenport, stated this fact, proposing to run up and rake her before she could get off, but that officer refused, on the ground that the enemy's metal was heavier and her sides iron-plated, rendering it imprudent to attack at close quarters with our small boats. So we had to content ourselves with lying off and practicing long-range firing at the pirate. The Patrick Henry's sides appear to be only plated about the bulwarks. No signs of them could be discerned below, nor does she draw water enough to make it probable that she has plates all over, as, with her armament, she would be very deep. With a glass, her decks could be seen to be crowded with men--three to four hundred at least. Her firing was very good, the shells striking all around us, sometimes striking within twenty feet of us, the pieces flying over us like a flock of birds. During the heaviest firing, we were surprised to see, just ahead of us, a small wherry with an officer and a black man in it. It lay in the track of the shells, and every few minutes would be half submerged by the bursting of them on the water. After the fight was over, we found it to be a young officer, Capt. Drake De Kay, of the army, aid to a General on shore, who had pulled off alone to join in the fun. He came on board, to the great relief of his nigger, who was nearly white with fear. The firing was kept up for about two hours--no damage being done on our side, and our shots only hulling the Patrick Henry, and one or two shells bursting over her, the effect of which it was impossible to make out. She then veered around, and, firing a few random shots as a parting salute, steamed rapidly up the James River. Had we had one or two regular gunboats, and not weak tug-boats with heavy guns mounted on them, we could have run up and cut out the rebel flag-ship; but with the poor tubs we have, nothing could be done more than we did do.

A secession account.

Norfolk, December 3, 1861.
For some days past two or three of the Federal gunboats have been in the habit of running up James River five or six miles above Newport News each evening, and remaining there all night. What the object of this was is unknown, unless it may have been to keep a watch on the movements of the Confederate steamer Patrick Henry. These gunboats on Sunday evening repeated this same manoeuvre, and on yesterday morning the Patrick Henry got under way from her position further up James River and came down. On seeing her, the gunboats left immediately and put out down the river towards the blockading ships. The Patrick Henry continued her chase after them, and they ran in under the protection of the guns of the frigates Cumberland and Congress and the fort at Newport News. The Patrick Henry opened fire among them, after getting a desirable position, from her after-gun, firing shell; and, our informant tells, for as much as a half hour she continued to drop her shell on and around the frigate Congress, many of which it is believed, bursted on her decks, with what effect we shall be unable to determine, as the Federals keep all such matters too close. The engagement commenced about quarter-past six and lasted two hours. During the time, the gunboats would frequently sally out from behind the frigates to give the Patrick Henry a shot, and on such occasion she would soon force them back by a well-directed shot, several of which, it is believed, struck these gunboats. Two of them, (there were four altogether,) after receiving a shot from the Patrick Henry, retired to the immediate vicinity of the wharf at Newport News, while the other two kept their position out of harm's way in the rear of the frigates. They at one time made an attempt to pass up James River so as to flank the Patrick Henry, and, when getting well out from under the protection of the frigate's batteries, the Patrick Henry put chase after them, and they [448] scampered back. After this, they appeared to have become afraid to venture out again, and the Patrick Henry had to then remain satisfied with peppering the frigates, which she did, it is said, in a masterly and beautiful manner.

It is said by those who witnessed the entire engagement,that the Patrick Henry was handled in a thoroughly seamanlike manner by those on board, and her guns were worked to perfection. She played upon the enemy mostly with her after-gun while lying off Newport News, and would occasionally back up towards the enemy when she would drift out of range of her mark. It is supposed she used her after-gun, in order to keep the best position to prevent being outflanked, and to keep the enemy from having a chance at her broadside.

We are unable to say what damage was done to either party in this engagement, and, so far as the Federal vessels are concerned, we shall not be able to ascertain; but our informant tells us it is his opinion that the Patrick Henry is entirely unharmed, notwithstanding she was the single object of attack from the four gun-boats, the two frgates, and four guns from the fort at Newport News. After the firing ceased, she passed up James River to her position, apparently as fresh as a lark.

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