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Chapter 4: death of Ellsworth.--capture of Alexandria, Va.--Potomac flotilla.

  • Conjectures and uncertainties.
  • -- Secessionists and the Potomac. -- Secessionists erect batteries in sight of the capital. -- the Potomac flotilla established. -- Landing of Ellsworth Zouaves at Alexandria. -- death of Ellsworth. -- Commander Rowan demands the evacuation of Alexandria. -- Alexandria evacuated by the Secessionists. -- batteries at Aquia Creek. -- arduous duties of the Potomac flotilla. -- engaging the batteries at Aquia Creek. -- the batteries silenced. -- the Freeborn, Anacostia and resolute. -- renewal of the attack against the Aquia Creek batteries. -- the Freeborn damaged. -- the “ball opened” along the Potomac. -- attack on the batteries at Matthias Point. -- repulse of the flotilla. -- death of Commander Ward. -- Secessionists and their supplies. -- Lieut. Harrel destroys a schooner in Quantico Creek. -- undeserved criticism of the flotilla. -- the public obliged to acknowledge the value of the flotilla. -- vessels arriving from foreign stations. -- officers resigning, cashiered, etc., etc.

At the commencement of the war, many wild conjectures were made as to its duration, and many of those who had hitherto stood high in the nation's opinion, were listened to anxiously, as if on their views depended the life and safety of the country, but as the war went on it was seen that the wisest statesmen and the ablest soldiers were at fault. Indeed, as events multiplied, the question of the Republic's future baffled all human ingenuity. That which all men predicted did not come to pass, and that which all declared impossible, was constantly being done, and our leaders were compelled to adopt measures they had before rejected, not only as unsound, but impossible.

It is not our province to write about matters concerning our Army, or about the immense line of insurrection which early in the war stretched across our country in chains of military posts within supporting distance of one another, but as these increased and Rebellion continued to raise its hydra head from Chesapeake Bay to Southwestern Missouri, it was found to be necessary to increase the Navy, not only for the protection of our long line of sea-coast, but to guard our great lines of river transportation which the enemy was rapidly seizing upon for the purpose of strengthening their great lines of defence, the speedy maturing of their plans enabling them to get possession.

One of the first ideas of the Confederates was to get possession of the Potomac River, fortify its banks, and thereby cut off all communication between Washington and the sea. Their object was to prevent the transportation of troops from the North to the seat of government by sea, for as there was but one line of railroad between Baltimore and Washington, the Confederates were of the opinion that the North could not supply troops in sufficient numbers by that route; besides, at any moment, it might pass into the hands of the enemy. So satisfied were the rebels of this fact that they considered the fall of Washington as certain. The authorities of Maryland forbade the passage of troops across that State, heavy batteries were rapidly thrown up by the Confederates along the banks of the Potomac, [40] and parties of rebel soldiers, with their colors flying, were in sight of the Capitol on the west bank of the river.

The first thing the Navy Department effected amidst all the difficulties of the situation, was the establishment of a flotilla of small steamers, armed with light guns, upon the Potomac.

It could hardly be supposed that the Navy would attempt, with these fragile vessels, to contend with the guns in battery on shore, or that they would be of any other service than that of patrolling the river, watching every movement of the enemy along the banks, and their operations; but those who are left to remember those days, will not forget the daily watchfulness, the sleepless nights, the sickly toil, and the hazardous character of the expeditions upon which the officers and crews of those vessels were engaged.

Commander James H. Ward.

The first landing of Northern troops upon the Virginian shore was under cover of these improvised gun-boats, when the gallant Ellsworth landed with his Zouave regiment at Alexandria, and went to almost instant death at the hands of an assassin — an event which, unimportant as it was compared with others at the time, so fired the Northern heart that it added thousands of soldiers to our armies.

In this case Alexandria was evacuated by the Confederates upon demand of a naval officer--Commander S. C. Rowan--commanding the Pawnee, carrying a battery of fifteen guns, and when Ellsworth's troops were landed the American flag was hoisted on the Custom House and other prominent places by the officer in charge of a landing party of sailors--Lieutenant R. B. Lowry.

This, though not a very important achievement, gave indication of the feelings of the Navy, and how ready was the service to put down secession on the first opportunity offered.

The death of Ellsworth created a great impression upon the minds of the naval officers and sailors from its brutal accompaniments, and showed them forcibly that treason would only carry in its train rapine and murder, with all the horrors attending vindicative warfare.

As early as the last of May, 1861, the Confederates had completed three batteries on the Potomac, at Aquia Creek--railroad terminus — and others above and about the landing. The guns mounted in these works were mostly rifles, giving the Confederates an advantage over our vessels, which mounted only smooth-bore thirty-two-pounders.

As the Government had already, on several occasions, shown great decision, it is remarkable that it did not at once proceed to put down this work of the Confederates in fortifying the commanding points of the Potomac, but there seemed to have been an indisposition on its part at that moment to take any hostile action; and amidst the daily increasing confusion of affairs which startled the Nation, even the Navy Department did not exhibit an unusual activity.

The Potomac flotilla was chiefly engaged in moving up and down the river, gaining information of the enemy's movements, convoying transports to and from Washington, often fired upon, and only able to return the fire without much effect, and with no power to land and capture the batteries for want of a proper landing force — which had been declined by General Scott whenever application had been made to him. It was a national disgrace, and bespoke the weakness of a country when, at the very outset of the war, a great highway — the Potomac — could be closed, and our own people slaughtered in transit by these rebel batteries, which seemed to increase in numbers with a rapidity never conceived of, while it appeared as if they had all the military depots of the country to draw from.

It was at last determined by the Department that the Potomac flotilla should take the initiative, and make an effort to clear the river banks of the rebel batteries.

Commander James H. Ward, an energetic officer, had been placed in command of the flotilla, and on the 20th of May, 1861, he started to engage the batteries at Aquia. Creek, with no expectation, we imagine, of any great success against them with the small and fragile vessels under his command. These consisted of the Freeborn, a paddle-wheel steamer of two hundred and fifty tons, and carrying three guns; the Anacostia, a small screw steamer of two [41] hundred tons, and the Resolute, a small craft of ninety tons and two guns.

The largest gun on board this little squadron was a thirty-two pounder, most of the others being small howitzers. The impoverished condition of the Navy may be imagined when it had to depend upon such craft as these to crush a rebellion, while two or three thousand rebel troops were in the field with batteries against them.

No one who knew anything about such matters would form any favorable idea of succeeding against land batteries with this small flotilla, but notwithstanding the disparity of force,the batteries were silenced altogether in two hours, and the Secessionists driven to their earthworks on the hills overlooking the landing. These hills proved too high for the elevation to be obtained from the guns of the vessels, and the enemy's shot falling all around them without chance of return, the flotilla was withdrawn

Attack on the Aquia Creek batteries by the U. S. Steamers Freeborn, Anacostia and resolute.

out of range. Little damage was done to the vessels, the enemy not proving to be very good marksmen.

This was, we believe, the first battle of the war where the enemy's batteries were engaged by the Navy, and though not an important affair, it marks an era in the struggle which shows how remiss our Government had been up to that time in not having in the Navy a class of vessels suitable for just such occasions as this, and how poor indeed was our merchant marine when it could provide nothing better than the Freeborn, Anacostia and the Resolute--three high-sounding names, which seem now so insignificant beside the Miantonomoh, Puritan, etc., vessels that eventually revolutionized the navies of the world, and made us, at one time, as regards the defence of our coast, equal if not superior to England and France.

On the following day Commander Ward resumed the engagement at Aquia Creek, keeping up an incessant fire for five hours, only ceasing upon the over-fatigue of his men. The enemy were again driven out of their works, but carried their artillery away with them. Some damage was done the flotilla, and the Freeborn was obliged in consequence to go to Washington for repairs; there was no loss of life, nor were there any wounded on this occasion.

The flotilla had been increased by the Pawnee, Commander Rowan, who had reported on the previous evening. More than a thousand shot were fired by the enemy, but though a number struck the hulls of the vessels, there was no irreparable damage done. This little affair may be said to have “opened the ball” along the banks of the Potomac, and it gave the Secessionists some idea of what they might expect in the future under the energetic management of Commander Ward; but unfortunately the career of that officer was cut short soon after in the attack on Matthias Point, when he attempted to disperse some batteries, having also made preparations to land; but in the heat of the action, and while sighting a gun, he was shot in the abdomen and soon after died. The Navy lost a gallant officer, whose example would have inspired his men to deeds of daring if any example was needed, for it was a noticeable fact that the blue-jackets of the Navy were up with the foremost in their devotion to the flag, and viewed these hostile movements on the Potomac against the government with something akin to horror. Let us remark here, that, during the war,we do not remember an instance where a sailor was found untrue to the flag of the Union, or where one ever hesitated to volunteer for an expedition, no matter how dangerous it was.

In the affair at Matthias Point our party was overwhelmed by numbers, and Lieutenant Chaplin of the Pawnee, who had charge of a landing party, only succeeded. [42] in bringing off his men by his coolness and intrepidity under a perfect shower of bullets. In those days, when the war was in its infancy, the soldiers of both sides lacked that precision of fire which they acquired later in the contest, and which made the battles so bloody. But for this our repulse at Matthias Point would have been a bloody one, indeed.

Criticism of this expedition is disarmed when we reflect that the gallant officer who planned it sacrificed his own life in the performance of a duty he considered necessary to clear the Potomac of the bushwhackers that lined the banks of the stream all along, and were firing on unarmed merchant vessels and transports as they pursued their course up or down.

Skirmish between the Freeborn and resolute and a secession force. At Matthias Point.--death of Captain Ward.--June 27, 1861.

Had Commander Ward lived, he would have made as high a mark as any officer in the Navy; no one ever entered the contest with more zeal and activity than he, and to this day the shock of his death has not been forgotten, though thousands died afterwards on more important occasions.

It was only when these deaths of gallant officers occurred that the country began to realize the Secessionists were animated with a fell purpose which would not be appeased until the whole land was saturated with blood and sorrow walked over the battle-fields where friends and foes lay mingled together in the arms of death.

The Potomac naturally became the first theatre of war as regards the Navy, for the Department at that moment had no ships with which to operate elsewhere, and some small affairs which took place on the river rose to importance from the fact that there was then no other field of naval enterprize.

So great were the facilities of communication between the shores of Virginia and Maryland that the Secessionists could hold intercourse with their friends in the latter State by means of small boats, and obtain not only information, but supplies of all kinds, including munitions of war which the Marylanders were too willing to provide them with. Hence it became a necessity not only to guard every salient point on the river, but to capture all boats that were secreted in the numerous creeks and nooks with which the river abounded.

This duty, apparently insignificant, was in fact most important, for the mischief carried on by these small boats, which performed postal service and transported spies back and forth, was so constant that it was necessary to repress it if possible.

On the 11th of October, Lieutenant A. D. Harrel was informed that a large schooner was lying in Quantico Creek, and that a body of troops had assembled there for the purpose of crossing the Potomac, and he determined to make an attempt to destroy her.

He manned three boats, and under cover of darkness, started up the creek, boarded the schooner and set her on fire, then pulled away under a heavy volley of musketry from the rebel soldiers. The vessel was totally destroyed, and the crossing of the Secessionists put a stop to.

In all this river service performed by officers [43] of the Navy there was great peril, and no hope of reward held out as remuneration for the risk of life. Every covert on the banks of the river held men in ambush, and many unerring riflemen, who would wait until our people attempted to land, or came near their place of concealment, when they would pull trigger on them with as much malignity as if firing upon the bloodiest pirates instead of conservators of the peace. They seemed to forget altogether that the men they were slaying not long before may have met them in amity at the festive board.

Such was the strife already begun, and it could not be hoped that it would diminish as the war progressed.

In this river work, as in all other where the Navy was called upon to act, it performed its duty with unflinching courage. The public did not know what the service had to contend with, or how much good work they were actually doing; with all their discomforts, toil and suffering they received but little commendation; the country was too busy watching the black clouds gathering in the South and West to note the ordinary events that were taking place on the Potomac, yet they formed the small links in the chain which, in the end, shackled the arms of the great rebellion.

A steamer captain coming up the river would be fired upon from some point where there were none of the flotilla in sight, and though he might receive no damage whatever, he would make complaints of what he called the useless Potomac Flotilla, which complaints would find their way to the papers, with the usual.result of abuse; but in the end the public were obliged to acknowledge the value of the service, for though the intercourse between the opposite banks of the river could not be altogether prevented, it was made so harrassing and dangerous to those who followed it that its effectiveness was destroyed.

The Secessionists, finding they could neither close the river against the Government transports, nor keep it open for their friends, abandoned the plan of erecting batteries, and in 1862 withdrew from the line of the Potomac River. The patrol of the Potomac was, however, carried on by the Navy during nearly all the war, and though the river had been freed of the hostile batteries, the duties of the officers and men still remained more or less hazardous.

The public, as a general rule, are not attracted by events which have not some brilliancy in them; they read only of battles by land and sea; they never then stopped to consider the importance of such tedious work as occurred on the great highway from Washington to the sea, nor did they ever seem to reflect that if the river was once closed the very life of the Union would be imperilled. It was only in reading over the accounts of a successful battle that they became really interested in the subject, and their minds rested simply on the central figure of the successful chief, who monopolized for the moment all the glory.

Few ever thought of all the toil and hardships officers and men had to undergo to win one of these battles, or cared what became of the workers and sufferers in the conflict. Nor, while carried away with the glamour of a great contest, did they ever reflect upon the dead and wounded, who. to secure victory, had given up their life's blood that their country might live, and the time-honored flag under which they received their first inspirations of glory might float proudly at the peak, without a stain to dim its stripes and stars.

While these apparently unimportant matters were carried on along the Potomac, the Navy Department was putting forth all its energy to get every ship to sea; vessels were beginning to arrive from foreign stations. many of the officers tinctured with secession sentiments, and handing in their resignations, some departing without, and being cashiered: about two hundred and fifty in all leaving the Navy. The ships, after undergoing hasty repairs, were put into commission as soon as possible, and from this time commenced that series of brilliant actions which gave the Navy a name it will never lose, and which ought to make it dear to the heart of every true American.

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