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Early operations on the Potomac River.

Professor J. Russell Soley, U. S. N.
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. The Niagara, Minnesota, Roanoke, and Susquehanna on the Atlantic coast, under Flag-Officer Silas H. Stringham, and the Colorado, Mississippi, Powhatan, 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 and Resolute, 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. Commander Ward 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 and Georgetown, 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 in 1862.

Commander Thomas T. Craven succeeded Commander Ward in the command of the Potomac flotilla. 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 was burnt.

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.

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