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The navy in the Peninsular campaign.

by Professor James Russell Soley, U. S. N.

On the gun-deck of the Confederate iron-clad, “Merrimac.”

At the opening of the Peninsular campaign, April 1st, 1862, the North Atlantic Squadron, with its headquarters at Hampton Roads, was commanded by Flag-Officer Louis M. Goldsborough. The command included not only the operations in the Chesapeake and its tributary waters, but an entirely distinct series of operations in the sounds of North Carolina, and a third distinct and also very important service,--that of the Wilmington blockade. This concentration of command at a distance from the various fields of action was not without injurious results. The attention of the flag-officer could not be successfully directed at the same instant of time to such varied and complicated movements as were simultaneously in progress in the York River, the James River, Hampton Roads, Albemarle Sound, and the entrance to Wilmington.

Of the various plans for a direct movement upon Richmond considered by the civil and military authorities in the winter of 1861-62, that by way of Urbana on the Rappahannock River was finally adopted, but the withdrawal of General Johnston from Centreville led to a change of plan at the last moment; and on the 13th of March it was decided to advance from Fort Monroe as a base. The detailed plan of General McClellan comprehended an attack by the navy upon the batteries at Yorktown and Gloucester, on opposite sides of the York River. It was upon the navy that he chiefly relied to reduce these obstacles to his progress and to clear the way to his proposed base, the White House on the Pamunkey River. This fact was made known to the War Department, but apparently the Navy Department was not fully apprised of it. The question was asked of the Navy Department whether the Merrimac, at that time lying in the Elizabeth River, could be held in check, [265] and Assistant Secretary Fox replied that the Monitor would be sufficient for that purpose. Captain Fox said:

“It was determined that the army should go by way of Fort Monroe. The Navy Department never was consulted at all, to my knowledge, in regard to anything connected with the matter. No statement was ever made to us why they were going there beyond this.”1

General McClellan arrived at Old Point on the 2d of April, and immediately communicated with Flag-Officer Goldsborough. The advance of the army was to begin at once. Notwithstanding that he had previously considered it an essential part of his plan that Yorktown should be reduced by the navy, McClellan does not appear even at this time to have strenuously urged it, for Goldsborough afterward stated to the Committee on the Conduct of the War that he performed every service in connection with army operations which was requested of him by General McClellan. It may be that the naval attack on Yorktown and Gloucester was not pressed because McClellan learned in this interview that it was impracticable. On this point Fox said:

Maps of the “monitor” and “Merrimac” fight [see also Vol. I., P. 692], and of operations in the York and James rivers.


In the Turret of the “monitor.”

Wooden vessels could not have attacked the batteries at Yorktown and Gloucester with any degree of success. The forts at Yorktown were situated too high, were beyond the reach of naval guns, and I understand that General McClellan never expected any attack to be made on them by the navy.

At McClellan's request Goldsborough sent 7 gun-boats under Commander William Smith into the York River, the Marblehead on the 4th of April, followed the next day by the Wachusett, Penobscot, and Currituck, and later by the Sebago, Corwin, and Chocura. The Maratanza afterward took the place of the Penobscot. The rest of the fleet, including the Monitor, remained to watch the Merrimac. On the 1st of May, during an attack made on the left flank of the army, the fleet shelled the enemy's artillery, posted on a hill to the left, and forced it to retire. On the 5th, the day following the evacuation of Yorktown, the fleet moved up to a position off the town, and a reconnoissance made by the Chocura and Corwin showed that the river was open as far as West Point. On the 6th, Commander Smith moved the gun-boats up to that place, escorting the transports carrying General Franklin's division. On the 7th, before the landing of the troops was completed, a sharp attack was made by the enemy and repulsed, the gun-boats rendering efficient assistance. On the 17th, the Sebago and Currituck passed up the Pamunkey, which resulted in the destruction of the enemy's store-vessels. When the Wachusett was withdrawn to the James, five boats remained to protect McClellan's base, under the command of Lieutenant Alexander Murray.

During the siege of Yorktown the presence of the Merrimac had, of course, [267] paralyzed the efforts of the navy in the waters adjoining Hampton Roads. It was necessary that she should be neutralized at all hazards, or her appearance either in the York or James River would become a serious obstacle to the success of the campaign. But for the negligence of the Navy Department in postponing the building of iron-clads until six months after the war had begun, and that of the War Department in omitting, during the six following months, when it had 150,000 men lying inactive around Washington, to send 50,000 of them to capture Norfolk, the Merrimac would never have become a serious factor in the situation. As, however, General McClellan had been satisfied to leave Norfolk to be turned by his advance on the Peninsula, and as the Navy Department had thus far succeeded in getting afloat only one iron-clad, the efforts of the force at Hampton Roads were necessarily concentrated on holding the enemy in check. This was the first consideration of the flag-officer from March 9th, when the engagement took place between the Monitor and Merrimac [see Vol. I., p. 692], until May 11th, when the latter was destroyed. During most of this time — that is, from April 5th to May 4th--the Army of the Potomac was conducting the siege of Yorktown.

After the battle of the 9th of March, Tattnall had taken command of the Merrimac, and on the 4th of April she came out of the dock thoroughly repaired, and, except for her engines, in good condition. On the morning of the 11th she steamed down Elizabeth River and came out into the Roads, advancing to a position between Sewell's Point and Newport News. Goldsborough, with the Minnesota, the Monitor, and other vessels of his squadron, was lying near Fort Monroe. The

Fort Darling. [see map, P. 272.] from a photograph.

transports and store-ships at this time in the neighborhood had been warned of the danger of lying near Hampton, and most of them had withdrawn under the protection of the fort. Three vessels of the quartermaster's department still remained near Newport News. They had been run on shore. The Confederate gun-boats Jamestown and Raleigh, under Captain Barney and Captain Alexander, were sent to tow them off. This was handsomely done, in full view of the Union vessels, which offered no opposition, notwithstanding the challenge offered by the captors in hoisting the flags of their prizes Union down. This event, rendered all the more humiliating by the presence of a foreign ship-of-war, was suffered by Goldsborough because, in accordance with the wishes of the Department, it was his duty to hold in check the Merrimac; and he feared that a collision between the gun-boats might bring on a, general engagement. [268]

During April the squadron was gradually increased by the addition of new vessels, including the new iron-clad Galena, and several fast steamers, the Arago, Vanderbilt, Illinois, and Ericsson, as rams. When it was apparent that the Confederates would shortly be compelled to abandon Norfolk, a squadron, consisting of the Galena, the gun-boat Aroostook, and the double-ender Port Royal, was sent up the James River on the 8th of May, by direction of the President. On the same day a demonstration made by the fleet against the battery at Sewell's Point led the Merrimac to come out again from the river. The Monitor had orders to fall back into fair channel-way, and only engage the Merrimac seriously in such a position as to enable the Minnesota and the other vessels to run her down if an opportunity offered. According to Flag-Officer Goldsborough, “the Merrimac came out, but was even more cautious than ever. The Monitor was kept well in advance, and so that the Merrimac could have engaged her without difficulty had she been so disposed; but she declined to do it, and soon returned and anchored under Sewell's Point.” Commodore Tattnall said:

Rear-Admiral John Rodgers. From a photograph.

We passed the battery and stood directly for the enemy for the purpose of engaging him, and I thought an action certain, particularly as the Minnesota and Vanderbilt, which were anchored below Fortress Monroe, got under way and stood up to that point, apparently with the intention of joining their squadron in the Roads. Before, however, we got within gunshot, the enemy ceased firing and retired with all speed under the protection of the guns of the fortress, followed by the Virginia, until the shells from the Rip-Raps passed over her. The Virginia was then placed at her moorings near Sewell's Point.

This was the last exploit of the Merrimac. On the 10th, Norfolk was abandoned, and was immediately occupied by the Union forces under General Wool. Early the next morning Commodore Tattnall, being unable to carry out his plan of taking the Merrimac up the James River, destroyed her near Craney Island. Meantime, the Galena and her consorts under Commander John Rodgers had been working their way up the James River. On the first day two batteries were encountered. The first, at Rock Wharf, was silenced. The resistance of the second, at Hardin's Bluff, was more obstinate, but Rodgers, in the Galena, lay abreast of the enemy's guns and kept up a steady fire, disconcerting their aim while the wooden boats went by. During the next week Rodgers continued on his course up the James, meeting with no serious impediment until he arrived at Drewry's Bluff, eight miles below Richmond.

At this time, May 15th, the flotilla had been increased by the addition of [269]

Fort Darling, looking down the James. From a photograph.

Sunken steamboats and other obstructions in the James River, near Fort Darling, on Drewry's Bluff. From a photograph.

the Monitor and the Naugatuck. Fort Darling (Commander E. Farrand, C. S. N.), at Drewry's Bluff, was a strong position, two hundred feet above the river, and mounting a number of heavy guns. At the foot of the bluff an obstruction had been placed in the river formed of sunken vessels secured by chains. The light armor of the Galena had not as yet been seriously tested, and Rodgers had no great confidence in her ability to stand a severe fire; nevertheless, he decided to make the test. In a private letter written shortly after, he said: “I was convinced as soon as I came on board that she would be riddled under fire, but the public thought differently, and I resolved to give the matter a fair trial.” Accordingly, he ran the Galena up to a point opposite the battery, where the width of the stream was not more than double the ship's length. According to an officer in the fort, the Galena “steamed up to within seven or eight hundred yards of the bluff, let go her starboard anchor, ran out the chains, put her head inshore, backed astern, let go her stream-anchor from the starboard quarter, hove ahead, and made ready for action before firing a gun.” Nothing could have been more beautiful than the neatness and precision [270] of movement with which Rodgers placed the Galena, as if at target-practice, directly under the enemy's fire. In the words of the officer already quoted, “It was one of the most masterly pieces of seamanship of the whole war.”

In this position the Galena remained for three hours and twenty minutes until she had expended all her ammunition. She came out of the action badly shattered, having been struck 28 times and perforated in 18 places. The Monitor passed for a short time above the Galena, but being unable to elevate her guns sufficiently to reach the bluff, she again dropped below. The wooden vessels cooperated as far as possible, but of course could not accomplish much. The attack made it clear that the obstructions could not be passed without first reducing the fort, and that the fort could not be reduced without the cooperation of the army. Notwithstanding the vital importance of such a movement, seeing that Fort Darling was the only obstacle to the direct passage up the river to Richmond, and that a small force would have sufficed to accomplish the work, nothing was done by General McClellan. According to Goldsborough's testimony, he went in person to the White House to see McClellan, and, showing him Rodgers's report of the fight, offered the cooperation of the squadron, if McClellan would make the attack with a land force. “General McClellan,” he adds, “replied to me that he would prefer to defer his answer until he got his army on the other side of the Chickahominy.” On the 17th of May, Flag-Officer Goldsborough, in the Susquehanna, with the Wachusett, Dacotah, and Maratanza, had destroyed the two abandoned batteries of the enemy at Rock Wharf and Hardin's Bluff. All this time, and during the campaign, James River was open to Fort Darling.

On the 18th of May, Commander William Smith arrived at City Point in the Wachusett, and relieved Rodgers of the command, being the senior officer. The force was gradually increased, and in June comprised, in addition to the vessels already mentioned, the Mahaska, Jacob Bell, Southfield, Maratanza, Stepping Stones, and Delaware. Commander Gillis shortly after relieved Smith. Occasional attacks were made upon passing gun-boats by field-batteries of the Confederates stationed along the river-banks. The difficulties of the channel and the unprotected character of the vessels rendered them liable to serious injury from such attacks, and the Jacob Bell, under Lieutenant McCrea, narrowly escaped severe loss at Watkin's Bluff on the 21st of June. On the 27th, a demonstration was made up the Appomattox, but nothing was accomplished, the channel proving to be too shoal for successful operations.

On the 29th, McClellan's retreating army opened communication with Rodgers, who now commanded the vessels in the James River. Little change had taken place in the composition of the force since the 1st of June, the Wachusett only having left the squadron, and the Satellite having joined it. The gun-boats rendered efficient assistance to the army, especially in the battle at Malvern Hill on the 1st of July. By the 4th of July, McClellan's position was comparatively secure.

On July 6th, the James River flotilla was organized as a separate command under Captain John Wilkes, and so remained, until disbanded, on August 31st, the withdrawal of the army rendering its presence no longer necessary.

1 On the 14th of March, Secretary Welles wrote to Secretary Stanton regarding McClellan's call for naval assistance:

If a movement is to be made upon Norfolk, always a favorite measure of this Department, instant measures will be taken to advise and strengthen Flag-Officer Goldsborough; but unless such be the case, I should be extremely reluctant to take any measure that would even temporarily weaken the efficiency of the blockade.

On the 17th Gen. McDowell wrote to McClellan:

“In connection with General Barnard I have had a long conference with Assistant Secretary Fox, as to naval cooperation. He promises all the power of the Department shall be at our disposal.” Editors.

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