The subject of the defence of James river
cannot be too often and too earnestly pressed upon the attention of the Confederate
authorities and the people of this city.
In the very beginning of the contest — indeed, before the famous Pawnes alarm, we called attention to the imperative necessity of powerful fortifications upon this river, never doubting that the approach of the enemy to Richmond
would be by the Peninsula
, supported by a powerful fleet.
At that time we had not learned that ships could prove successful in an attack upon shore batteries.
We believed what the whole experience of naval warfare had testified, with scarcely an exception, that guns ashore were more than a match for guns afloat.
The history of the present war has not proved that idea a fallacy, but it has exhibited a most mortifying succession of disasters, arising from badly constructed and badly located fortifications, in every encounter but one between the Confederates
and the Federal
That exception was a glorious one; it was Bragg
's defence of Pensacola
, and in driving off with case the most powerful man of-war in the Federal
navy, he showed what could be done by land batteries, if built and placed in a proper manner.
But if, at the be ginning of the war, we might invoke (as we long invoked in vain) the attention of our people to the thorough fortification of James river
, how much more so now with the lights of the present contest.
Wherever the Yankee gunboats have penetrated, our fortifications, with the exception of Donelson
, have been silenced, an exception which proves what powerful guns and good gunnery can effect.
The ordinary earthworks, without bomb-proof shelters, are no protection whatever against vessels under steam, which can shell them out with case, or run by them without difficulty.
Moreover, the enemy are now building their gunboats with iron plates, which will make them invulnerable to the missiles of ordinary guns.
The success of the Virginia
, we confidently believe, is all that has thus far prevented the attempt of a Yankee fleet to ascend James river
, and has given us time to make ready for the period when they will, in spite of the Virginia
, be able to make such an attempt.--What these defences should be, we cannot present to designates but must leave it to the naval and military chiefs and engineers whose business it is to give it their attention.
We would like to be informed whether the forts upon James river
are bomb-proof; provided with guns of the calibre which proved so efficient at Fort Donelson
, and manned by skillful and experienced gunners; whether means have been prepared of sinking at various points of the channels heavy vessels loaded with stone, commanded by batteries on the shore, which in their turn are protected by batteries farther in their rear.
In addition to these, iron-plated vessels or rafts should be speedily built, to aid in the river defence.--There is a vast quantity of old iron among housekeepers in the city and country, which would be cheerfully contributed to such a purpose.
We call the attention of the city authorities to this fact.
We ask the special attention of our military and civil authorities to the following extracts from an article in Blackwood
December, 1859 on the attack of the batteries of the Peiho
, by the British
They show what can be effected against gunboats when not allowed to run by and en lade batteries:
Apart from these fortifications three barriers had been constructed where the channel was narrowest, and admirably calculated to detain vessels immediately under the fire of the works.
The barriers were three in number.
The first extended across the channel, at an elbow where the curvature of the mud banks and direction of tide placed vessels ascending the stream stern on, or in a raking position to the face of the grand battery.
It consisted of a row of front stakes, nine inches in girth, and with a tripod base so us to preserves an upright position.
The top of each stake was pointed, as well as a sharp spur, which stuck out from its sides, and at high water these dangerous pikes were hidden.
This barrier was 550 yards distant from the centre of the grand battery on the left, and 900 yards from the batteries on the right.
The second barrier was placed 450 yards above the iron piles, and immediately abreast the centre of the fortifications.
It consisted of one eight-inch hemp and two heavy chain cables, placed across the stream at a distance of twelve feet from each other; they were hove as taut as possible, and supported by large spars placed transversely at every thirty feet; each spar was carefully moored both up and down stream.
The third barrier consisted of two massive rafts of rough timber, lashed and cross lashed in all directions with rope and chain, and admirably moored a few feet above one another, so as to leave a letter S opening, above which were more iron stakes, so placed as to impedes any gunboat dashing through the opening, supposing all other obstacles overcome.
The ingenuity of the arrangement was most perfect.
The force of the current would only-allow the passage at this point to be effected at top of high water; at the time the iron piles were covered with water, and their position being unknown, the chances were all in favor of a vessel becoming impaled upon them.
At two p. m., the Admiral
, whose flag was flying on board the Plover
, signalized to the Opossum to-remove the iron pile to which she was secured, and then to makes passage through the first barrier.
This was accomplished in thirty minutes, when the Admiral
led up to the second barrier.
* * * * *
As the stern of the Plover touched the barrier, a single gun served as a signal to all the works, and in a minute a concentrated fire of forty heavy pieces opened upon the little craft.
In the words of the seamen, "It seemed as if the vessel had struck an infernal machine" The Plover
and Opossum were wreathed in smoke, above which the red flag of the gallant leader waved defiantly.
A rush and stampede of men to their quarters sounded through the flotilla, and as the Admiral
throughout the signal "engaged the enemy," with the red pennant under, indicating as "close as possible," the cheers of the delighted ships' companies mingled with the roar of the first hearty broadside.
All day long, through that stern fight, that signal, yet significative, flew from the mast-head of the heroic Admiral
So well concentrated was the enemy's fire upon the space between the first and second barriers, that the Plover and Opossum appeared struck by every shot directed at them.
Within twenty minutes both these vessels had so many men killed and wounded, and even so shattered, as to be almost silenced. * * * * The chattered Plover
almost drifted out of her honors his position, having only nine men left efficient out of her original crew of forty.
, in spite of his wounds and loss of blood, transferred his flag to the Opossum, and the battle raged on either hand.
By three o'clock the Opossum had become so disabled that it was necessary to drop her outside the iron piles of the first harrier, when both she and the Plover received fresh crews from the reserve force, and again took their share in the fight.
* * * * No missile could fall to reach its mark.
The dull thing
of the enemy's shot as it passed through a gun boat's side, the crash of wood work, the whistle of heavy splinters of wood or iron, the screaming of the wounded and the moans of the dying, mingled with the shouts of the combatants and the sharp, decisive orders of the officers — all were fighting their best.
* * * * The Lee
and Haughty were now suffering much; the fire of the boats had been most deadly. * * * By four o'clock the Lee
had a hole knocked into her side, below the bow gun, out of which a man could have crawled.
Both she and the Draughty had all their boats and top works knocked to pieces, and many shots had passed through below the water line.--Their crews were going down fast, and the space between the first and second barriers was little better than a slaughter house.
* * * * * *
That post (the most advanced) was now held by the Cormorant, for the Lee
and Haughty had been obliged to retire for reinforcements and support. * * *
Exhaustion was beginning to tell upon our men, just at the time that the shattered condition of their vessels called for most exertion.
By six o'clock all probability of forcing the barrier with the flotilla was at an end. The Restoral
was sunk and the Lee
obliged to be run on the mud to prevent her going down in deep water.
Many other vessels were filling, owing to shot holes; the Starling and Bantam aground — Plover
disabled. * *
The senior officer
saw that nothing now remained but to withdraw the squadron from the fight.
The difficulties in the way were almost insuperable.
It wanted yet nearly two hours before darkness would set in; the passage of the bar could not be effected before dark on account of high water not occurring until midnight--the probabilities great against the vessels being able to find their way in the dark down so narrow and torinous a channel — and so long as the vessels remained within the bar. so long also must be in ranges of those hard hitting long guns, the effects of which they had had that day such bitter experience.
From this we see how gunboats may be handled, when fought even in the gallant way those of Admiral Hope
were, if they are forced by obstructions to stand and take the fire of shore batteries.
Their force consisted of eleven gunboats, mounting thirty guns of heavy caliber, eighteen howitzers, and a combined rocket battery of twenty-two twelve and twenty-four pounders.