Darkness made it difficult for Colonel Henry L. Abbot of the 1st Connecticut Artillery to determine the precise makeup of the Confederate naval force moving past his position above Virginia’s James River at 8 p.m. on the evening of January 23, 1865. It was vital, however, that he do so. Abbot was the commander of Fort Brady, the large, earthenwork fortification that was the key to the Union defenses on the James. His ability to identify the force passing below could be crucial to the ultimate outcome of the war.
At the moment, that stretch of the James River was one of the most significant places in the war-ravaged nation. Upriver a few miles from Fort Brady stood the besieged Confederate capital, Richmond. Downstream, Northerners relied upon the river as well. The food, ammunition and supplies necessary to support the Federal armies in Virginia moved through the large supply base at City Point, only a few miles downstream from the fort at the confluence with the Appomattox River.
The Southern flotilla passing Fort Brady was clearly an imposing force. Northern lookouts identified three of the vessels as large, ironclad rams and also made out the wooden gunboat Drewry, and a small steam-driven torpedo boat. Possibly even more vessels were passing in the darkness, Abbot later reported. It was hard for the observers to tell.
Despite their formidable armaments, the batteries at Fort Brady fired only a few fleeting rounds at the passing Southern force. Their targets obscured by the darkness, Northern gunners did little real damage. Nonetheless, by running the fort the Confederates put the Federal forces along the river on alert. Something big was underway. Without knowing it, Abbot and his men were witnessing the beginning of the Confederate Navy’s last, desperate effort to break the Union’s ever-growing stranglehold on the Confederate capital. It would become one of the last important naval engagements of the Civil War — the battle at Trent’s Reach.
The importance of the James River to the Richmond defense cannot be overstated. In April 1861, the mere rumor of the approach of the Federal warship Pawnee provoked near panic in the city. As if playing a scene from a comic opera, the population turned out en masse to defend the city from the imaged threat of the Union warship. From that time forward, the Southerners worked diligently to secure the city from any attack by way of the river.
The powerful batteries at Drewry’s Bluff were one formidable deterrent to Northern naval operations on the James. In May 1862, for instance, its guns pounded a powerful Northern naval squadron so decisively that afterward the Federals were reluctant to approach the Confederate capital by river.
The Southerners, however, did not rely solely upon shore batteries to defend Richmond. In fact, their crowning defensive achievement was undoubtedly the formidable naval squadron built to guard the river approaches to the capital. The backbone of the fleet consisted of three powerful ironclads. The flagship of the James River Squadron was CSS Virginia II, namesake of the most famous Confederate warship of all time, the same ironclad that took part in the famed battle with the Union warship Monitor at Hampton Roads in 1862. Like her predecessor, Virginia II was a formidable warship. Built at Richmond in 1864, the warship drew 13 feet of water and carried a battery of four heavy guns.
The flagship’s consort, CSS Richmond, was equally powerful. Also patterned on the original Virginia, Richmond was, like the flagship, 180 feet long, drew 16 feet of water, and carried four guns. The third Confederate ironclad, the ram Fredericksburg, drew 11 feet of water and carried four guns. These three formidable ironclads did not go into battle alone. To supplement the trio of large fighting ships, the Confederates had gathered a variety of lesser warships, including gunboats, torpedo boats and tugs. Altogether, the Confederated had assembled a powerful squadron for the defense of their capital.
In one sense, the Confederate’s James River flotilla had performed its task too well. The Northern navy was hesitant to challenge the daunting combination of warships and shore batteries guarding the James. Therefore, by early 1865, the Confederate naval force assembled to defend Richmond sat virtually idle while Northern ground forces closed in on the Confederate capital. With General Robert E. Lee’s Army of the Northern Virginia besieged at Petersburg, however, pressure grew to use the Southern naval force to help lift the Federal siege.
In January 1865, the opportunity to mount just such an operation presented itself. Despite the river’s strategic importance to Union operations, Northern naval forces on the James were badly depleted. The North’s largest naval operation of the war, the attack upon Fort Fisher, the guardian of North Carolina’s Cape Fear River and the largest fortification in the Confederacy, was no underway. Federal naval units throughout the South had been stripped to the bare minimum to provide the ships for the massive naval armada that accompanied the expedition, and the James River force was no exception. This was exactly the kind of opportunity the Confederates had been seeking, and they moved quickly to take advantage of it.
The plan was a straightforward one. The naval force would move downriver to destroy the Union supply depot at City Point, an ideal target for offensive Southern operations. The supplies that maintained U.S. Grant’s army at Petersburg passed through the depot at the mouth of the Appomattox. If Northern supply lines could be broken there, the planners reasoned, they could break Grant’s siege. One obstacle, however, stood between the Southern ironclads and their objective. To prevent just such a move, the Northerners had built obstructions and had fortified a stretch of the river known as Trent’s Reach.
The Confederate fleet left its anchorage at Chaffin’s Bluff, just after dark on the evening of January 23, 1865. Federal forces witnessed the flotilla’s progress down the river. First the Confederate fleet passed the Northern artillery batteries and sharpshooters stationed at Signal Hill. Union artillery batteries at Fort Brady, about four miles upstream from Trent’s Reach fired about 25 rounds as Southern warships passed the Northern artillery batteries and sharpshooters stationed at Signal Hill. Union artillery batteries at Fort Brady, about four miles upstream from Trent’s Reach, fired about 25 rounds as the Southern warships passed. Such token resistance, however, did little damage to the naval force.
By 10:30 p.m., the Confederate flotilla had reached Trent’s Reach. There, two of the ironclads, Virginia II and Richmond, anchored about half a mile above the obstruction. While this maneuver was taking place, the third ironclad, Fredericksburg, with Confederate squadron commander John K. Mitchell on board, continued downriver with some of the flotilla’s smaller vessels to clear a way through the barrier.
It was not an easy task even though the obstructions had been damaged by recent high water in the river. The Federals had mounted a spar between two hulks to prevent passage through the barrier. While men from Fredericksburg worked to remove the barrier, the Southern torpedo boats, under the command of Lieutenant C.W. Read, made a reconnaissance of the channel, preparing the way for the passage of the larger ironclads.
Union fire from the shore heated up as the flotilla approached the obstruction. In all, three Federal artillery batteries commanded Trent’s Reach, and each kept up a steady fire on the Confederates. Northern riflemen deployed along the shore also opened up on the Southerners.
The fire was particularly hazardous for the Confederates working in the open to clear a passage through the obstructions. Lieutenant Read described the situation as ‘a perfect rain of missiles.’ Nonetheless, this superior, squadron commander Mitchell, was fearless in the face of the Northern fire, and his leadership inspired his men to clear a way through the barrier.
Despite Northern resistance, the work went on, and by 1 a.m. Fredericksburg had cleared the barrier. All was now ready for the Confederate flotilla to advance downriver against City Point.
By this time, the Confederates had long since lost the element of surprise. The Union warships assigned to the defense of Trent’s Reach had heard the firing from Fort Brady hours earlier. And by 10:30 p.m., they had received a dispatch warning that the Rebel boats were clearing a way through the obstructions at Trent’s Reach.
Despite these warnings, the Union naval force was ill prepared to meet the Confederate warships. The defenders were clearly no match for the powerful Confederate flotilla. Their most formidable warship was the 1,250-ton, twin-turreted monitor Onondaga. Apart from this ironclad, the Union force consisted of only two unimpressive wooden vessels, the 974-ton double-ender Massasoit and the 5,188-ton converted ferryboat Hunchback.
Nevertheless, the Union force’s orders were explicit: Stop the Confederate advance down the James at all costs. ‘The picket boats must always be kept in readiness at night, with torpedoes ready for instant service, and if an ironclad should come down they must destroy her, even if they are all sunk,’ Rear Adm. David D. Porter had written to the Union commander, a New Hampshire man named William A. Parker. For reasons that have never been clear, however, Parker and his force did not contest the Confederate advance at the obstructions. Instead, Onondaga withdrew downriver a few miles to a pontoon bridge new Deep Bottom. Parker later explained that he ordered the withdrawal to a place where the monitor would have more room to maneuver. ‘I though my chances of capturing the whole fleet would be increased by allowing them to come down river to the bridge, where I intended to attack them,’ the Federal commander later said in defense of his actions. Many, however, were critical of Parker’s failure to fight, including Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant, commanding general of the Union armies.
Grant received word of the Confederate attack on the obstructions at Trent’s Reach at 9:30 the following morning. He immediately saw the danger posed to his supply base at City Point by the Rebel advance down the James. ‘There are three of these ironclads in view, and I am inclined to believe they will make an effort to get down here to destroy our store,’ Grant reported to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox in Washington from his headquarters at City Point.
To safeguard his supply lines, Grant wanted Parker’s force to meet the Confederate flotilla at the obstructions. At first, the general appealed to Parker directly. When this failed to provide satisfactory results, Grant took it upon himself to send orders directly to individual gunboat commanders. He also expressed his frustration in a telegraph to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles: ‘I have been unable to get Captain Parker, by requesting, to assemble his gunboats near the obstructions in the James River. He seems hopeless.’
Disapproval from someone of Grant’s stature was dangerous even for an officer in the Navy. In response to Grant’s concerns, the Navy Department immediately sent orders relieving Parker of his command. Washington sought a replacement suitable to General Grant. President Abraham Lincoln suggested no less a commander than Admiral David G. Farragut, the victor of the greatest naval battles at New Orleans and Mobile Bay. To stabilize the situation on the James River while Farragut was en route, the command was turned over to Commodore William Radford, commander of the USS Ironsides at Norfolk.
Such complex arrangements, however, did little to solve the immediate crisis facing the Federals on the James. Action would be necessary long before an officer could arrive from some distant station. For the time being, Grant expressed confidence in the squadron’s second-in-command, Commander E.T. Nichols. ‘Commander Nichols will no doubt do,’ Grant assured Washington. Such maneuvering by Grant and leaders in the Northern capital would have come far too late had the Confederates moved quickly against City Point, and this was exactly what the Confederates had intended to do. But it was Southern misfortune, not Northern reactions that turned the tide of battle at Trent’s Reach.
At 1:45 a.m., Mitchell returned to the Rebel squadron from clearing the obstructions. All was ready for the Confederate force to continue downriver and make a move against City Point. However, Mitchell discovered the disaster had struck the flotilla during his absence.
When Virginia II had anchored in Trent’s Reach at about 10:30 p.m., she sat in five fathoms of water. During the hours that followed, however, the tide had continued to ebb. By 1 a.m., the water was too shallow to float the Southern warship.
Virginia II was not the only vessel left stranded by the falling tide. By 3:30 a.m., Richmond, Drewry and one of the torpedo boats, Scorpion, were also reported aground. Examination of the stranded vessels was not encouraging. They could not be refloated before the next high tide, which would come at about 11 o’clock in the morning.
The delay for the Confederates proved to be both long and perilous. Northern batteries and sharpshooters stationed along the south side of Trent’s Reach maintained a steady fire upon the stricken flotilla throughout the night. During the darkness, the shore fire had been ineffective. In the growing daylight, however, it became increasingly deliberate and deadly. By dawn, it was having a devastating effect upon the stranded gunboats.
From the beginning, Richmond and Drewry were the main targets of the Northern cannon fire. The ironclad Richmond withstood the bombardment, but the unarmored vessels were quickly torn to bits.
Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, the Confederates evacuated the crew from the unarmored Drewry to the ironclad Richmond at 6:55 a.m. It was not a moment too soon.
Just 15 minutes after the evacuation, a Northern shell struck Drewry‘s magazine, blowing the gunboat literally to pieces. The explosion of Drewry did nearly as much damage to the Southern flotilla as did the Union cannon fire. Commander John McIntosh Kell, captain of Richmond, later reported that ‘the shock felt on board the Richmond was terrific.’ Pieces of the exploded Drewry, he noted, littered the deck of the Confederate ironclad, causing some damage.
Such damage, however, was not confined to Richmond. Two crew members were killed on board the torpedo boat Scorpion, anchored nearby. Scorpion was so badly hammered by Drewry‘s explosion that it could not be refloated, and it was abandoned by the Confederates.
But the biggest surprise for the Confederates was yet to come. Just when it seemed that nothing more could go wrong for the flotilla, two Northern ships, a double-turreted monitor and a double-ender, appeared from the lower reach of the river and began to close on the stranded Confederates.
Parker had not completely given up the fight after all. At 8:30 a.m. on January 24, Onondaga weighed anchor and, with the aid of the tugboat Scorpion, made her way upstream toward the obstructions. Accompanying the monitor were the gunboats Massasoit and Hunchback and the torpedo boat Spuyten Duyvil. The Northern flotilla made its first appearance at the obstructions at about 10:30 a.m. By 10:45, Onondaga had engaged the grounded Confederate ironclads at a range of about one-half mile.
The Confederates were truly helpless in the face of the new threat. Immobilized, they could not train their guns on the enemy. ‘During the whole time while aground, neither the Richmond nor the Virginia [II] could get a gun to bear upon the enemy,’ Mitchell later reported.
Yet just when it seemed that the Confederates had run out of options, fortune inexplicably turned in their favor. As the Northern vessels were closing in, the Confederate warships began to float free. The tide had been rising for several hours, and by 11 a.m., it lifted the stranded rams off the bottom.
Onondaga fired about seven rounds at Virginia II, but the refloated Confederate ironclad brought her 9-inch gun to bear and fired a single shot, that according to Mitchell, was ‘observed to take effect’ upon the monitor.
The engagement between the warships did not last long. By mutual consent, it was broken off as the Confederates withdrew upstream and the Northerners moved off downstream. The ordeal at Trent’s Reach left the Confederate flotilla seriously weakened, having lost Drewry and a torpedo boat to the fight. A second torpedo boat had been disabled, and Virginia II was badly damaged. She had received 70 hits during the engagement.
Even if it was weakened, however, the Southern flotilla was still a formidable fighting force. Virginia II‘s damage, though severe, had no effect on her fighting capacity. Her big guns and armor were still intact. In addition, Richmond emerged from the engagement with little or no damage at all. That encouraging situation prompted Mitchell’s decision to make a second attempt downriver as soon as the tides permitted a nighttime advance.
However, the second Confederate advance at Trent’s Reach fared no better than the first. At 9 p.m., the squadron attempted to get back underway, but pilots aboard Virginia II found the ironclad unmanageable. Damage sustained during the bombardment caused steam to leak from the ironclad’s deck, so obscuring the pilot’s visibility that he was unable to maneuver the vessel.
To make matters worse, the Federals had installed Drummond lights during the day on the south bank of Trent’s Reach near the obstructions. The large lights, Mitchell complained, would have permitted the Northern artillerymen to direct their fire ‘almost as well as night as by day.’
Mitchell and his commanders held a council of war and decided to forego further operations a Trent’s Reach. At 2:45 a.m., Mitchell and his flotilla retreated, rerunning the gantlet of Northern fire as they made their way upriver. The squadron suffered little additional damage. By 8:30 a.m., the squadron had returned to its anchorage below Chaffin’s Bluff.
The battle at Trent’s Reach did not enhance the career of either commander. A naval court-martial later found Parker guilty of an ‘error in judgment’ in withdrawing his force from the obstructions at Trent’s Reach. Federal Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles later dismissed the sentence of the court-martial on a technicality. Nonetheless, Welles placed Parker on the Navy’s retirement list. The Confederate commander fared little better. Perceived as being too timid for not renewing the attack at Trent’s Reach, Mitchell was relieved of this command of the James River Squadron within three weeks and replaced by Confederate naval hero Rear Adm. Raphael Semmes, the former commander of the famed raider Alabama.
The batter at Trent’s Reach proved to be the swan song for the ironclads of the Confederacy’s James River squadron. Even with its new commander, the squadron did not attempt another foray against the Union forces on the lower James River. In February 1865, the Northern flotilla on the James was reinforced by the formidable Union warships Atlanta and New Ironsides. The Federals never again offered the Southerners the same opportunity for a decisive victory on the river below Richmond that they had had in late January. Misfortune and miscalculation had also cost the Confederates their best opportunity to break the Petersburg siege. Had it not been for happenstance, the little-known battle at Trent’s Reach might have changed the course of the Civil War. As it was, the war flowed swiftly to an end, as surely as the James River flows to the sea.
This article was written by John D. Pelzer and originally appeared in the September 1995 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. For more great articles subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!