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Chapter 22: operations in the Potomac.--destruction of Confederate batteries.--losses by shipwreck, in battle, etc.

  • The Potomac flotilla.
  • -- naval operations in the Potomac. -- destruction of Confederate batteries. -- Confederate rams. -- condition of the Navy, and list of vessels in December, 1862. -- losses by shipwreck, in battle, etc., etc.

On the Potomac, the flotilla seems to have been actively employed from December, 1861, to May 2d, 1862.

Although no important event occurred on this water highway to Washington, early in the war the Confederates left nothing undone to stop the passage of transports, and even men-of-war, but they were not very successful. Cockpit Point was one of the places made quite strong by the enemy, and for a time it was considered quite a dangerous place to pass.

No persistent attack was made upon it until March, 1862, and as our Army was advancing into Virginia at the same time, the Confederates were now compelled to abandon this troublesome battery and blow up the magazine.

Before retreating, they destroyed all the guns and carriages, munitions of war, stores and provisions, having no means of transportation by which they could be taken away. The guns were of heavy calibre, having been mostly obtained from the Norfolk Navy Yard, where they had been abandoned by our forces early in the war. But for that affair, we would not have encountered so many forts in the South and West, and would have escaped the disgrace of having the public river way to Washington obstructed for so long a time.

An expedition under Lieutenant Wyman penetrated the Rappahannock as far as Fredericksburg after this place had surrendered to the Army, and captured twenty small vessels and a quantity of stores.

Some of his command also penetrated the Severn, Pianketank and North Rivers, and captured some small vessels that had, no doubt, been used in transporting goods and information from the Maryland shore.

The Union vessels were frequently attacked by field-pieces and riflemen, but they always managed to give a good account of themselves, while they demoralized the enemy by their persistent pursuit of him — but these adventures were not very exciting.

The Potomac may be said to have been opened with the fall of the forts at Cockpit Point, for though the flotilla was maintained, and there were skirmishes with the enemy from time to time, there was nothing to hinder the passage of vessels up and down the river.

About the end of the year 1861, the United States Government began to realize the necessity of building vessels that would be able to contend with the heavy iron-clads which had been constructed by the Confederates.

By May, 1862, the latter had finished the powerful Merrimac, together with the Louisiana and Arkansas, both equally powerful with the Merrimac, and had nearly completed the Mississippi at New Orleans, the Albemarle, the Atlanta, the Tennessee, at Mobile, and several other iron-clads on the tributaries of the Mississippi.

Up to this time the United States Government had only Ericsson's little Monitor to show, but the success of that famous vessel stirred the Navy Department up to building iron-clads able to cope with anything in the way of ships or forts that the Confederates could devise. Previous to the memorable encounter between the Monitor and the Merrimac the Department had exhibited neither zeal nor intelligence in dealing with this important problem.

The following is a list of vessels of our Navy, published by the Navy Department in December, 1862; an enumeration which is calculated to mislead, for if any one [266] supposes that the vessels therein described as “iron-clads” bore any comparison to those built by the Confederates, he is mistaken. The Northern States, with all their resources, all their vessels which could have been cut down and made impervious to shot and shells, had not an ironclad stronger than those hastily built on the Mississippi River. Naval commanders had to take whatever would carry a gun,no matter how frail or vulnerable, and attempt impossible things with, at times, deplorable consequences to themselves, their officers and crews, from bursting steam pipes and boilers, which added new horrors to the ordinary havoc of war.

The work performed by Foote and Davis and their officers and men on the Western rivers, with the so-called “iron-clads,” was herculean from the time the first gun-boats got afloat in January, until July 1862. They had captured, or assisted to capture, seven heavy forts armed with one hundred and ninety-eight guns, and manned or supported by over fifty thousand men, besides destroying thirteen or more of the enemy's vessels armed with forty guns and a floating battery of sixteen guns; and all this without the enemy's capturing a single vessel.

In the Navy Department list, the Western “iron-clads” ale put down as twenty-six armored vessels, a formidable force on paper, but in this number are included at least fifteen “tin-clads” --small stern wheel merchant steamers, covered with quarter-inch iron to turn musket balls, but easily penetrated by a twelve pound shot or shell.

The list may be interesting as showing the “historical account” of our naval forces in December, 1862, but it conveys no idea of the frail barks in which the officers and men of the Navy had to fight the heaviest kind of earthworks, often perched at a great height above the water where their plunging fire could perforate the vessels' decks and boilers, or even pass down through their bottoms.

Naval force at date of the last annual report.

Description. Number. Guns. Tons.
Old Navy 76 1,783 105,271
Purchased vessels 136 518 71,297
New vessels, completed and under construction 52 256 41,448
Total 264 2,557 218.016

Present naval force.

Description. Number. Guns. Tons.
Old Navy 74 1,691 100,008
Purchased vessels 180 688 86,910
Transferred from War and Treasury Departments 50 230 32,828
New vessels, completed and under construction 123 659 3120,290
Total 427 3,268 340,036
Increase since last reported 163 711 122,020

Losses by shipwreck and in battle.

Name. Class. Guns. Tonnage Remarks.
R. B. Forbes Steamer. 3 329 Wrecked Feb., 1862, coast of North Carolina.
Congress Frigate. 50 1,867 In action with Merrimac, March 8, 1862.
Cumberland Sloop. 24 1,726 do.
Whitehall Steamer. 4 323 At Old Point, March 9, 1862, by fire.
M. J. Carlton Mortar Schooner 3 178 Attack on Forts Jackson and St. Philip, April 19, 1862.
Varuna Steamer. 9 1,300 In action with confederate gun-boats below New Orleans, April 24, 1862.
Sidney C. Jones. Mortar schooner 3 245 Grounded below Vicksburg and burned to prevent falling into the hands of the enemy.
Island Belle Steamer. 2 123 Grounded in Appomattox river June, 1862, and burned to prevent falling into the hands of the enemy.
Adirondack Screw sloop. 9 1,240 Wrecked near Abaco, Aug. 23, 1862.
Henry Andrew Steamer. 3 177 Wrecked in a gale near Cape Henry Aug. 24, 1862.
Sumter Steam Ram. 2 400 Grounded in Mississippi river and abaudoned.
    112 7,908  

Vessels added since fourth of March, eighteen hundred and sixty-one. (exclusive of those lost.)

  No. of Vessels. Guns. Tons.
By purchase 180 688 86,910
By transfer. 50 230 32,828
By construction 123 659 120,290
  353 1,577 240.028

Added by construction.

Description. No. of Vessels. Guns. Tons.
Second-class screw sloops-of-war 13 116 16,396
Screw gun-boats 27 108 14,038
Side wheel gun-boats 39 296 36,337
Armored wooden vessels. 12 65 20,893
Armored iron vessels 32 74 32,631
  123 659 120,290

Iron-clad navy.

Description. No. of Vessels. Guns. Tons.
Armored wooden vessels 8 56 19,005
Armored iron vessels 20 42 22,611
Western Rivers.      
Armored wooden vessels 4 9 1,883
Armored wooden vessels (transferred from War Department) 10 122 6,284
Armored iron vessels 12 32 10,020
  54 261 59,808

Navy on Western waters.

Description. No. of Vessels. Guns. Tons.
Armored vessels 26 261 59,808
Wooden gun-boats 18 79 6,380
Transports and ordnance steamers 10 2 9,000
Rams 5 24 11,200
Armed tugs 13 13 650
  72 379 37,038


When the vessels now under construction are completed, the Navy will consist of

Sailing vessels.

Description. Number. Guns. Tons.
Ships-of-the-line 6 504 16,094
Frigates 6 300 10,237
Sloops-of-war 16 289 14,305
Brigs 4 20 999
Ships, including store and receiving vessels 23 139 18,087
Schooners 29 69 6,821
Barks 18 92 8,432
Yachts 2 2 200
Total 104 1,415 74,175

Steam vessels.

Description. Number. Guns. Tons.
Screw frigates 5 228 18,272
Screw sloops, 1st class 6 133 11,955
Screw sloops, 2d class 21 167 23,992
Screw gun-boats (new) 27 108 14,033
Iron-clad vessels 54 261 59,803
Side wheel frigates 4 49 8,003
Side wheel gun-boats (new) 39 296 36,367
Side wheel gun-boats (old Navy) 5 11 2,190
Screw steamers (purchased) 53 215 23,490
Side wheel steamers (purchased) 63 250 38,617
Screw steamers (old Navy) 6 27 2,590
Gun-boats, transports, etc., transferred from other departments 40 108 26,544
Total 323 1,853 265,861


Description. Number. Guns. Tons.
Sailing vessels 104 1,451 74,175
Steam vessels 323 1,853 265,861
Total 427 3,268 340,036

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