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Doc. 57. James river expedition.

United States steamer Onondaga, James river, Va., three miles above City Point, Thursday Evening, May 5, 1864.
We have this day seen the beginning of the spring campaign. The strong arm of the government is again extended toward the heart of the Confederacy, and we trust — how earnestly — that it may not fail to gain the prize which seems almost within its grasp. The iron-clad fleet which has been gathered near the mouth of this river has found another, if not a safer, anchorage.

Until yesterday, we were not aware that the movement of the fleet in this matter would be made so soon. During the day, yesterday, the fourth instant, a number of new steamers, of the class familiarly called “double-enders,” came up from Hampton Roads, and joined the fleet which has for a few days been at anchor off Newport News, and which consisted of the iron-clads Roanoke, Onondaga, two turrets; Canonicus, Tecumseh and Saugus, one turret each, and the Atlanta; of double-enders, the Mackinaw and Eutaw; of gunboats, the Dawn, Osceola, Commodore Jones, Stepping Stone, and a large number of powerful armed tugs. Besides these there were steamboats armed as army transports, of all sizes, shapes, colors and models. In the evening the broad river off Newport News Point was filled with the different vessels, so that it was difficult for the iron-clads to manoeuvre among them, as they were obliged to do to take their allotted places in the line which had been planned for the movement in the morning. During the afternoon Admiral Lee transferred his flag from the steam frigate Minnesota, his former flag-ship, to the fine steamer Malvern, formerly the blockade-runner Ella and Annie, and came up into the fleet and took command. During the afternoon and evening all were busy in completing the plans for the work of the coming day. It was ordered that all vessels should be ready to move this morning at four o'clock. The morning came, and in the dim twilight the vessels got under way slowly, quietly moving from the stations they had occupied during the night. It was five o'clock before the column was passed, and then the movement of the strange-looking line began. The morning was unusually fine, the atmosphere was soft and refreshing, the river was without a ripple, and nature seemed strangely in contrast with the mission upon which we had set out. Scarcely any of our rivers afford more enchanting scenery or a more delightful sail than the James, and although our errand was not one in search of pleasure, still it was impossible not to enjoy so beautiful a trip. At six o'clock A. M. the Admiral came by the line in his flagship, passed up, and was soon lost in the distance. Soon after we came to the “Wren” (so-called as a coast-survey signal-station), a fine Virginia residence, situated high up on the green sloping bank of the river. Upon the portico was a group of ladies, who intently viewed us through their glasses, yet made no disloyal demonstration, as Southern ladies sometimes do. At nine o'clock we came to Jamestown Island, upon the lower point of which we saw log cabins partially destroyed, and further along the banks, series of earth-works, quite extensive. The ruins of the old church, which was the first Protestant church built in America, is one of the few remaining marks of that short-lived settlement. As we moved by the island, the steamer Grayhound, with General Butler and staff, passed by; the General was carelessly leaning on the window of the pilot-house, and from his unassuming manner, his genial and frank, though much-abused face, he hardly looked the man who had just assumed command of sixty thousand men, and who “abolished slavery by an epigram.”

Soon after ten o'clock we passed the mouth of the Chickahominy, and although its bosom was unruffled, and the foliage which skirted its banks was soft and green, we did not think of these which we saw with our own eyes, but of Fair Oaks, Malvern Hills, and Seven Pines; of a brilliant army demoralized and retreating, and of forty thousand graves they left behind.

At one o'clock we came to Fort Powhatan, a large, strong, and extensive work, on the west bank of the river, and where it makes a bend to the north, so that the fort commands the river for a long distance below. It is on top of a bank, at the elevation of eighty or ninety feet above the river, and seems almost impregnable, although the rebels have been driven from it once or twice by our gunboats; it is now unoccupied. Two of the transports have stopped, as though it was intended to disembark the men, but after a little while they push off, and are up the river again.

Up a few miles further, and we are in view of the advance vessels of the fleet, prominent among which is the flag-ship. Below us immediately is the remainder of the iron-clad fleet, and further below, even until they are lost in the river bend, are ocean and river steamers, side-wheels and propellers, barges, canal-boats, and sailing vessels, long lines of them, crowded even in shrouds and at mast-heads, with soldiers, whose bright belt-plates and clean bayonets glisten in the sun.

Through our glasses we look up the river again, and see our advance vessels off the long pier at Harrison's landing, and away beyond on a distant hill, between two high tree-tops, the [438] quick glass detects a belfry, from the top of which some earnest worshipper of secession is hurriedly signalling, and telling undoubtedly of the strange fleet which is approaching him.

But now we, too, have reached the landing, and discover, retreating behind the house upon the knoll, a half dozen of the chivalry, who have evidently seen better times, or at least cannot see much worse, if we may judge from the variety and color of their uniform, if it be a uniform.

But we are crossing Harrison bar, and there in front of us, three miles further, is City Point, a place become famous since the a point of exchange for the Union and rebel prisoners. At the landing we can see the large steamer City of New York, the flag-of-truce boat, which makes its weekly or tri-weekly trips between Fortress Monroe and this place.

One by one the transports move up, and the soldiers jump off, until the shore is lined with boats and steamers. Baggage-wagons, caissons and limbers are soon ashore, and almost immediately the signal station on the bank is occupied, and the familiar signal flag displayed, ready for communication with any point. The flag-of-truce boat, with the white flag still flying, moves away from the landing; still there is not room for a tenth of the steamers and transports which are coming; faster and faster they gather, until the river all about the point is covered, and almost clogged with the accumulating vessels. The S. R. Spaulding passes, unable to land the two thousand men who cluster from stem to stern, below and aloft, like immense swarms of bees. The men who have landed have formed in line, and then goes marching along the dusty road on the river bank, a full regiment, route-step, arms at will, and bound Richmondward.

The iron-clads move in order to a point two miles above City Point; come to anchor. Admiral Lee, who has been upon the Tecumseh during the afternoon, takes the gunboat Mount Washington and returns to his own ship.

And now, after a day of intense excitement and thrilling interest, the sun slowly settles behind the thick, rich foliage, promising a night of rest — if it may be — to prepare for what the morrow may bring us to do.

But on the shore, on our right, and only a little way off, are three or four ladies grouped together beneath the intertwining trees, and earnestly engaged in discussing a very interesting matter. They are evidently occupants of the fine unique old mansion which stands on the bank immediately behind them. They must be talking about the strange vessels which they have come down to see, and we think we can guess what they are saying by the little girl with a blue dress, who is one of the company, and who turns toward us, and, shutting up her little hand, shakes it at us as though she would do — oh, what terrible things, if she could only bring that little white fist against these great iron turrets.

'Tis now midnight. The fleet is quietly at anchor, and a more beautiful sight one could scarcely behold. The army vessels, have their bow, and stem, and masthead light, varicolored; the men are clustered around their brightly blazing camp-fires on the shore and on the bank; and the scene looks like an illuminated garden in some wierd fantastic land.

And so we wait the morrow.

Curl's Neck, James river, Friday Evening, May 6.
This morning at six o'clock a flag-of-truce boat came down the river, and from it an officer went to see the Admiral, who was in the little steamboat Shawsheen. After remaining awhile the officer-messenger returned, and the flag of truce put back up the river. The fleet were gathered at City Point, two miles below; the army steamers were unloading their regiments, which were forming and marching away toward Richmond; and the region was all activity with the preparations for the movement of the day. It is therefore more than probable that the flag of truce was only a cover under which information might be obtained respecting the anticipated movement.

After breakfast the order was given to “get under way,” and soon we were off up the river. Just above our anchorage the west bank shoals off into the river, forming a sort of muddy, marshy point, around which we necessarily slowly steamed.

The steamboat New York, the regular Fortress Monroe and City Point boat, used for the exchange of prisoners, and which we last evening noted at the wharf with a large lot of unexchanged rebels on board, now passed us for the point of exchange, which now is not City Point, but some place above the river, chosen at the option of Admiral Lee.

On our right the bank now is low and marshy, yet with thick woods, while the opposite bank for a long distance is elevated twenty or twenty-five feet. It was on this side that the Union forces landed last evening, and every now and then we see upon this same bank the Union pickets, standing cautiously beneath the shadow of some majestic oak, or pacing their little beats.

At noon we arrived at a point about ten miles below Fort Darling, and a picket came down from the bank and said he had a contraband who wished to come on board. A boat was sent from our ship, being nearer than any other, and the man came on board, said he knew where the torpedoes were, and could find them. He was immediately sent to the Admiral, who, after questioning him, ordered the fleet to anchor, and the contraband was sent in a small gunboat up the river to find one of the torpedoes, which he stated was only a little way in advance of us. The gunboat Commodore Jones steamed up a little way, though her commander was advised not to by one of the officers of the fleet; yet his position was such at the moment that he was [439] obliged to do so to prevent his vessel from running ashore. He had gone but a short distance further when the torpedo was exploded, and the gunboat blown out of the water and entirely demolished. Some forty or fifty were killed and drowned, and as many wounded. Only a few escaped. The first two officers alone were saved. The Paymaster and engineers have not been seen. The man who fired the torpedo ran, but was immediately shot. An officer and men from a steamer near them went on shore, found the wire connecting another torpedo, traced it, and soon came upon a spot in the bank covered by brush, but from which two men sprung as they approached the spot, and ran. They were immediately caught and carried on the flag-ship and put in irons. In the excavation where the men were concealed was found a galvanic battery, from which ran a small copper wire, as large as a knitting needle, around which was a covering of gutta percha. The wire ran along the shore to the river, a few inches under the surface, and was very nicely adjusted to the torpedo, which could not have been in the water over twenty-four hours.

The wounded and scalded men were brought on board the gunboat Mackinaw, and well cared for. At dusk a portion of the fleet dropped down the river a few miles to this place, in order to coal, and we came to anchor here in the early evening. The army steamer (flag of truce), New York, went up the river, and is probably at some point arranged upon between Commissioner Ould and Major Mulford, the exchange officers, for the transfer of the men now upon the steamer.

Below our present anchorage a few miles, is a place familiarly known as the “Hundreds,” and there some of the army steamers are now lying.

And so another evening, our second in the James, quietly follows the departing day. The sloping banks crowned with oak and beach, melt away in the darkness. We cannot see the steamers which lie only a few hundred feet from us, and friend and foe all alike, are hidden from the view. The stars look down upon us silently, and the river murmurs as peacefully as when the Indian princess was borne down upon its bosom in her birchen canoe. Perfect stillness and quiet pervade the region. But to us it is an ominous stillness — it is a stillness that we feel presaging the tumult. It is the calm before the coming storm — that storm, the first murmurings of whose voice we now listen for. Let us pray that its lightning and thunder may purge the land of traitors, and the atmosphere of treason, forever and forever.

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R. E. Lee (3)
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