Small force of Navy ships battled Confederate guns to keep the Potomac open for traffic

No spot along the Potomac River triggered more angst for Union officials in the spring and summer of 1861 than Virginia’s Mathias Point, a promontory jutting well into the river about 30 miles east of Fredericksburg. At Mathias Point, the Potomac takes a very sharp turn—nearly 270 degrees—and narrows to less than a mile, compelling larger boats traveling up and down the river to abruptly adjust their courses. During the Civil War, that meant that each vessel could become a target for Confederate riflemen or shore batteries lining the channel, threatening to close the river to military and commercial traffic. Rising 20 feet above the river and covered with a dense layer of trees and brush, Mathias Point was a perfect place for the Confederates to conceal troops or a battery of heavy guns ready to wreak havoc on Union ships attempting to pass. 

The vitality of the Union capital, already perched perilously between Confederate Virginia and Confederate-leaning Southern Maryland, depended on the free flow of commerce. And in those early months of the war, Commander James Harmon Ward of the neophyte Potomac Flotilla (See sidebars, below) determined uninterrupted ship traffic could never be ensured unless Mathias Point and several other Confederate strongholds below Washington were brought under Union control.

 At Mathias Point, Major Thomas Williamson, chief engineer of Virginia state forces, had been pushing for installation of a 10-gun battery but was prevented from doing so by President Jefferson Davis’ senior military adviser, Robert E. Lee, who was worried the point was too vulnerable to a Union land attack.

In late May and early June, Ward’s flotilla had been unable to defeat the Confederate defenses at Aquia Creek, 40 miles below Washington, so Ward turned his attention farther downriver. Even though he was denied the assistance of Union infantry, the 55-year-old commander remained undeterred, and on June 27 he was ready to launch an assault on Mathias Point.

During an early morning artillery barrage intended to chase any Confederates away from the promontory, an armed party of sailors and Marines, led by Lieutenant James C. Chaplin of USS Pawnee, would land, destroy any enemy works already in place, then cut down trees and set fire to the brush to open an expanse that would be clearly visible from the river. Ward hoped to construct and man a Federal battery there.

About 10 a.m., after bombarding the promontory with grape and solid shot from his flotilla, scattering Confederate pickets, Ward put ashore a landing party of more than 30 men outfitted with picks, shovels, sandbags, and all manner of combustible material, including oakum, old canvas, and spirits of turpentine. Once ashore, the men went to work, though burning green scrub proved difficult. Soon, Ward’s sailors were in trouble when a large Rebel force appeared. Hopelessly outnumbered, they made for the small landing boats and protection of the larger vessels.

Alfred Waud titled this 1861 sketch, “Capt. Ward and his gun.” This cannon, however, seems too small to be the 32-pounder Ward was aiming when he was killed. (Library of Congress)
Alfred Waud titled this 1861 sketch, “Capt. Ward and his gun.” This cannon, however, seems too small to be the 32-pounder Ward was aiming when he was killed. (Library of Congress)

Confederate musket balls peppered the small boats, severely injuring a number of sailors. One boat’s flagstaff was shot off, only to be carried aloft by a determined bluejacket; another boat’s flag received 19 bullet holes. Frantic for the safety of the larger craft, men couldn’t understand the lack of covering fire from Thomas Freeborn’s big guns. As Ward’s squadron worked to recover the landing party, the commander directed the fight from Thomas Freeborn’s deck, aiming his flagship’s forward 32-pounder himself. Here, in the thickest of the fight, an enemy musket ball struck Ward in the abdomen. In the confusion surrounding the commander’s wounding, no one thought to fire the guns. An hour later, James Ward was gone, the only death that day.

A day that had begun with such promise had ended tragically. Ward was the first U.S. Navy officer killed in the war. Although Mathias Point remained in Confederate hands, the foundation he had established would continue. Over four years of war, the unsung Potomac Flotilla successfully maintained the tenuous security of Washington, D.C., and the vital free flow of commerce along the river.

Born in 1806, James Ward had served nearly 40 years in the U.S. Navy when the Civil War began. In late April 1861, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles accepted Ward’s proposal to create a “flying squadron” of swift vessels capable of operating on the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac, and other rivers in the region. That would not be the reality. Ward’s flotilla initially consisted of a disparate group of vessels, including some civilian ships and private steamships impressed into U.S. military service.

“One of the first ideas of the Confederates was to get possession of the Potomac River, fortify its banks, and thereby cut off all communication between Washington and the sea,” Union Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter wrote after the war. “Their object was to prevent the transportation of troops from the North to the seat of government by sea….So satisfied were the rebels of this fact that they considered the fall of Washington as certain.”

The Confederates had difficulty choosing locations for their shore batteries, however. In April, after determining that Alexandria, Va.—directly across the river from Washington—was too vulnerable to attack, Robert E. Lee ordered the first battery constructed at the mouth of Aquia Creek. The northern terminus of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad, Aquia was at a strategic position; but because the river channel was wide at that point, Union ships could stay out of range of enemy cannons. Construction of the earthworks and embrasures for four guns went ahead anyway, completed May 10.

The sense of urgency dealing with this problem was not shared by most Union Army commanders. Although the position of the Aquia Creek stronghold presented some danger to ships, it was manned by volunteer infantrymen with little artillery training. On May 20, Ward and three vessels conducted a reconnaissance of the defenses there.

After scouting Rebel batteries that were popping up on the Virginia side of the river in the early weeks of the war, the Potomac Flotilla fired its first shots in anger at the Confederates’ Aquia Creek defenses May 29-June 1, 1861, as depicted in this wartime engraving. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
After scouting Rebel batteries that were popping up on the Virginia side of the river in the early weeks of the war, the Potomac Flotilla fired its first shots in anger at the Confederates’ Aquia Creek defenses May 29-June 1, 1861, as depicted in this wartime engraving. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Ward “started to engage the batteries at Aquia Creek, with no expectation, we imagine, of any great success against them with the small and fragile vessels under his command,” Porter later wrote. “These consisted of the Freeborn, a paddle-wheel steamer of two hundred and fifty tons, and carrying three guns; the [USS] Anacostia, a small screw steamer of two hundred tons, and the [USS] Resolute, a small craft of ninety tons and two guns.

“The largest gun on board this little squadron was a thirty-two pounder, most of the others being small howitzers. The impoverished condition of the Navy may be imagined when it had to depend upon such craft as these to crush a rebellion, while two or three thousand rebel troops were in the field with batteries against them.”

When the Potomac Flotilla began a multi-day attack on Aquia Creek on May 29, the shelling caused minimal damage because Freeborn was caught on the outgoing tide and was unable to bring its guns to bear. On June 1, Anacostia, Resolute, and the 1,500-ton sloop-of-war Pawnee—a Navy warship, constructed in 1859—joined the action. Pawnee’s eight 9-inch and two 12-pounder guns nearly doubled the number of cannons the Federals could bring to bear on the enemy.

The inexperience of the gunners on both sides made the artillery duel unproductive until the Federal ships drew too close and a direct hit from the Rebel battery damaged the engine of Ward’s flagship, forcing it to be towed back to Washington. Pawnee was hit nine times but was able to withdraw to make repairs.

Those 10 hits were the only ones recorded by the Rebel guns, even though nearly 600 shells were fired during the engagement. According to Confederate commander William Lynch, a horse and chicken were the only fatalities on shore.

Without significant support from the Army,the Potomac Flotilla could only harass the emplacements that the Rebels continued to place northward along the Potomac, ever closer to Washington.

Remarkably, Confederate gunnery never improved much—few of the thousands of shells they lobbed over the next several months ever hit their mark. A senior Union officer even commented that his ships “are as likely struck by lightning as by rebel shot.”

The captain of the commercial steamer Mystic, in fact, thought so little of Rebel gunnery that he deliberately halted his vessel and challenged the enemy to hit him. Eighty-four shots later, nothing had hit his ship. The crew responded with jeers and laughs.

But in Washington, more and more ship captains refused to attempt the supposedly risky trip into the capital past batteries both real and imagined. As one local paper reported on September 30, 1861: 

“We have daily reports in regard to the effort of the rebels to impede the navigation of the Potomac. Some of these rumors may be by parties interested in putting up the price of freight or of articles of necessity usually transported on the Potomac, but the fact stands out prominently that not a single vessel has yet been prevented from coming up or going down to its destination.”

By October, the flotilla boasted about 15 vessels of all types. But while ships were being added, the number of Confederate outposts needing attention and the distances involved was growing, too, stretching thin the tiny fleet’s resources as transport ship traffic into and out of Washington fell off. Captain Thomas T. Craven, who commanded the flotilla into the fall of 1861 following Ward’s death at Mathias Point, was growing frustrated with the lack of priority the Army placed on keeping the Potomac open. By mid-October, a series of Rebel batteries had been completed about 10 miles north of Aquia Creek, ranging upriver from near Chopawamsic Creek through Evansport on up to Shipping Point. The river narrowed here and ships moving past would be in range of Confederate cannons for more than a three-mile stretch.

“So long as that battery stands at Shipping Point and Evansport the navigation of the Potomac will be effectually closed,” Craven lamented on October 15. “To attempt to reduce it with the vessels under my command would be vanity. Had our army occupied the points opposite, as I have suggested in two previous communications, this insult would not have been perpetrated.”

Indeed, the situation along the Potomac seemed to be reaching a climax. “Lights are shown on the Maryland side to give notice of our vessels coming and should be seized,” Commander John Dahlgren, Washington Navy Yard commandant, reported on October 17. “Small parties of troops should be distributed near the locality to observe and check communication by boats between the shores,” The next day, Welles wrote Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan about a need for a permanent solution, beyond the large patrols into Southern Maryland that the army had been conducting since early September.

“[N]avigation on the Potomac River is becoming daily and almost hourly more dangerous,” Welles wrote. “The Navy has exerted itself to keep open this important avenue to the city, and thus far with success, but the erection of extensive batteries and stationing troops…imperatively requires the action of the Army, unless communication by the river is to be abandoned, which…would be unfortunate and almost disastrous.”

McClellan responded that he had “the honor to inform you that a command composed of infantry and cavalry started this morning for different points below here on the Potomac…” By the end of October, troops under Brig. Gen. Joseph Hooker that had been making regular forays into Southern Maryland from bases established on the outskirts of Washington, were moved south to permanent positions in Charles County, Md., in a concerted effort to prevent the flow of men, information, and material from crossing the river to Virginia.

The Potomac River is 383 miles long, but it was primarily the 50 or so nautical miles between Washington, D.C., and Mathias Point, Va., that troubled both governments. The Confederates moved quickly to place shore batteries at key points along the Virginia side of the river. Extended engagements between these batteries and Union ships were rare, but notable clashes did occur, including at Mathis Point (shown in detail, left), Aquia Creek, Shipping Point, and Cockpit Point.
The Potomac River is 383 miles long, but it was primarily the 50 or so nautical miles between Washington, D.C., and Mathias Point, Va., that troubled both governments. The Confederates moved quickly to place shore batteries at key points along the Virginia side of the river. Extended engagements between these batteries and Union ships were rare, but notable clashes did occur, including at Mathis Point (shown in detail, left), Aquia Creek, Shipping Point, and Cockpit Point.

If such a move came as a surprise to the Navy or was anticipated is unknown, but for Craven, it may have been a case of too little, too late. Lack of Army support and the transfer of at least four of the flotilla’s largest ships to support operations in the Carolinas seemed to be the last straw. On October 31, Craven wrote that no vessel drawing more than eight feet of water was safe navigating the Potomac. Anticipating that such an admission would hurt his career, Craven asked for and received a transfer “to some sea going vessel,” effectively resigning as flotilla commander.

As winter approached, bulk items like coal and firewood became dangerously scarce. Food was expensive, but there seemed to be enough at least, thanks in some measure to the single-tracked Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, now primarily responsible for the city’s survival. Reported Dahlgren: “The Potomac is now so far obstructed that it is no longer used by the army for the transportation of supplies, and the sole dependence for that purpose and for the supplies of the inhabitants of this city is limited to the railroads alone.”

Fear and lack of military initiative had seemingly done what inaccurate Confederate gunners could not: close Potomac River traffic into Washington.

With Rebel batteries now closer and more threatening to Washington, the flotilla increasingly engaged these strong points, often forcing Southern gunners to cease shooting and seek cover. But as exciting as the occasional firing on Virginia batteries may have been, the more important duty was the mundane task of interrupting communication between Confederate-sympathetic parties across the river in Maryland.

In one case, three ladies and two children were apprehended in the dead of night on December 18. Plucked from their small craft in the middle of the river, the women asserted they were on their way to Virginia to join their husbands. All vowed and gave “most solemn word and honor that nothing contained in our trunks, boxes, or parcels contain any letters, papers, or articles intended for the use or comfort of the enemy, and nothing contraband of war, or about our persons.”

They were searched anyway. Finding nothing of consequence, two days later, Secretary Welles ordered their release. Officers were instructed to warn them, “that if they are again taken in a like attempt they will be held and treated as prisoners.”

On land, Hooker’s men roamed Southern Maryland, collecting contraband, administering loyalty oaths to locals (most of dubious sincerity), and working to cut off communications with Virginia.

Ambushes by Confederate forces, as depicted in this Illustrated London News sketch, were a common concern for Union boat crews early in teh war. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Ambushes by Confederate forces, as depicted in this Illustrated London News sketch, were a common concern for Union boat crews early in teh war. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

All the while, the flotilla kept a close watch on gun emplacements on the Virginia shore. New batteries drew a quick response from one or two Union gunboats, while others received attention from nearly the entire fleet. Confederate gunners occasionally would hold their ground, resulting in a pitched duel between the Virginia batteries, flotilla gunboats, and Hooker’s cannons posted on the Potomac’s Maryland side. The resulting contests were a great source of entertainment for the troops, prompting cheers from the various sides, Rebel or Yank, depending on the success or failure of each round.

Although Federal naval superiority during this period was never in question, Confederate cannons posed an immediate danger, and the mystique surrounding one lone Rebel ship was undeniable. Like much of the information floating on the Potomac at that time, rumor and hearsay seemed the dominant currency. CSS George Page was a 410-ton former U.S. transport vessel captured by the Confederates early in the war at Aquia Creek. This side-wheeler had evaded multiple attempts to capture or destroy it. Sailing out only at night, from the security of inlets protected by Confederate batteries, served only to enhance Page’s reputation. And while its two guns could have never seriously threatened the flotilla, its mere presence  was a constant point of irritation for Navy and Army planners alike.

Winter had been hard on Washington’s citizens, suffering through what many saw as unnecessary and embarrassing shortages. Lincoln, too, was growing frustrated and called on McClellan to act. But if McClellan had a plan, he kept it to himself. Charles Boynton in The History of the Navy During the Rebellion summed up the situation: 

“The Navy Department constantly urged the importance of a cooperating land force, by whose aid the Potomac batteries could at any time have been destroyed; the Secretary of War and the President were anxious to have this national disgrace of the Potomac blockade wiped away; but General McClellan, on one pretense and another, refused to furnish any men, and could not be induced to consent that even four thousand troops should be spared for this purpose from the magnificent Army of the Potomac, which he persistently, and against all remonstrances of the President, kept month after month in disgraceful inaction, instead of aiding the Navy with a small body for which he had no use except to exhibit them in reviews.”

Tired of McClellan’s stalling and the growing unrest in a deprived Washington, Lincoln issued his General Orders No. 1 on January 27, 1862, calling on land and naval units for a general move against “insurgent forces.” McClellan apparently got the message and commenced real planning for an offensive south out of Washington, what became the Peninsula Campaign.

On March 7, Brig. Gen. W.H.C. Whiting, in overall command of the Confederate Potomac batteries, received orders to withdraw, though bad weather made roads nearly impassable for horse-drawn artillery and supply wagons, forcing much materiel to be abandoned or destroyed.

Confederate batteries along the Potomac that threatened Union ships were gone by mid-April 1862. The strategic situation was in great flux and Confederate planners realized these emplacements could no longer be defended properly. As McClellan started his Peninsula Campaign, Hooker and his division moved to Yorktown. Many of the flotilla’s vessels were sent elsewhere, but others remained to check the flow of contraband from Maryland to Virginia.

Ship traffic in and out of the capital resumed at a hectic wartime pace. B&O Railroad revenues returned to normal levels with the eased demand on the railroad.

With the crisis along the Potomac’s Virginia shore passed, the role of the flotilla expanded in scope to include operations up the Rappahannock River. Still charged with keeping the Potomac open for shipping in and out of Washington, its role in interrupting enemy communications and illicit cargo moving along the river-ways was now paramount.

Union sailors row past an enemy battery at Shipping Point, Va., which the Rebels were forced to evacuate by the start of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. (Harper’s Weekly)
Union sailors row past an enemy battery at Shipping Point, Va., which the Rebels were forced to evacuate by the start of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. (Harper’s Weekly)

Chasing and seizing enemy ships was one thing, but friendly vessels often needed inspecting, too. Sometimes vessels coming in and out of Washington carried hidden or disguised cargoes that were not listed on their manifests, as was the case of the sutler schooner Mail. A guard ship stationed near Alexandria discovered that Mail “had on board of her 428 dozen cans of strong drink resembling eggnog, marked on the manifest ‘milk.’” Mail was destined for the Union supply base at Belle Plain, Va. Sutler contracts stipulated that their cargoes were subject to seizure if they didn’t match the manifests. “Frauds have been recently committed by sutlers by introducing intoxicating drinks in cans purporting to contain “milk drink” and entered on the manifest as milk but really containing intoxicating drink,” warned flotilla commander Andrew Harwood.

For the remainder of the war, the size of the Potomac Flotilla ranged between 15 and 25 vessels—not including the hundreds of civilian shipping vessels impressed by the government. Many came and went, some for brief periods. At the end of the war, the Potomac Flotilla was disbanded, its ships sold off or destroyed. A small squadron that perhaps never earned the glory of more prominent commands, it nevertheless provided valuable service to the nation at a critical time.

Rick Barram, a regular America’s Civil War contributor, is a history teacher based in Red Bluff, Calif. This story appeared in the January 2020 issue of America’s Civil War. 

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Navy’s first Civil War martyr

Commander James Harmon Ward belonged to a small pantheon of senior officers serving the U.S. Navy at war’s outbreak. Born on September 25, 1806, and raised in Hartford, Conn., Ward joined the Navy as a midshipman in 1823 after attending American Literary Scientific and Military Academy in Norwich, Vt. After a four-year Mediterranean cruise aboard the frigate Constitution, he received a year’s leave of absence for scientific studies at Washington College, back in Hartford. Steadily rising through the ranks, Ward served on and commanded various ships that took him around the globe. His various duties included policing the slave trade off the coast of Africa and quelling a resurgence of piracy in the West Indies.

Commander James Harmon Ward
Commander James Harmon Ward
When not at sea, Ward demonstrated his academic prowess teaching at the Naval School in Philadelphia, where his courses were later published as An Elementary Course of Instruction in Ordnance and Gunnery. In 1845, when the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis was opened, Ward was a natural choice to be part of the inaugural faculty. While at the academy, Ward held the office of executive officer (a post that later became commandant of midshipmen), with duties that included instructor of gunnery and steam engineering.

In 1847, during the Mexican War, Ward commanded USS Cumberland. He was given command of the steamer Vixen in 1848 and remained with it through 1850. Over the next 14 years, Ward served at a variety of posts both on the sea and land. On land, service included postings at the Washington and Philadelphia Navy Yards. On the sea, Ward commanded the sloop of war Jamestown, taking it to the African coast in search of illegal slave ships.

Off duty, Ward spent time writing, most notably a textbook, A Manual of Naval Tactics, which would eventually run to four editions along with texts on gunnery and steam propulsion. Ward was even involved in the 1861 planning of a relief mission to Fort Sumter, a mission eventually vetoed by Army General-in-Chief Winfield Scott.

With the outbreak of war, Ward immediately recognized the threat Confederate land and naval forces posed along the Potomac River and the potential threat to Washington, D.C. Proposing a “flying squadron,” to meet this threat, Ward was given command of what would soon become the Potomac Flotilla, marking his next, and unfortunately last, phase of a distinguished naval career. –Rick Barram

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Commander Ward’s World War II Legacy

Students of American military history may recognize the Civil War namesakes of many 20th- and 21st-century weapons, ships, and military bases. Grant, Lee, Stuart, and Sherman all graced tank names during World War II. The names Stonewall Jackson, Grant, Lincoln, and Lee all graced Polaris Missile submarines while a host of guided missile cruisers can trace their names to battles such as Antietam, Gettysburg and Chancellorsville. Indeed, no fewer than 10 Army bases are named for Confederates alone, not to mention countless named for Union men. These same students may also know the ship that fired America’s first lethal shots of World War II, sinking a Japanese midget submarine trying to enter Pearl Harbor shortly before the aerial attack began. But few may realize USS Ward owes its name to the first U.S. naval officer killed in the Civil War.

The death of  Commander James Harmon Ward rocked the naval community and one of the many forts built surrounding Washington bore the brave commander’s name. And while the name of Ward could have easily slipped into the dusty pages of history, less than 60 years later with the need for destroyers at its peak in World War I, the name Ward would again rise to prominence. In 1918 the keel of a Wickes class destroyer was laid at Mare Island in California. Eighteen days later, a record construction speed, USS Ward, DD-139, was launched. Arriving too late to see much action in the Great War, Ward served for three years, was decommissioned, and placed into reserve.

Twenty years later, as war clouds gathered over both Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the old “four stacker” was dusted off and sent to Pearl Harbor. Part of a destroyer squadron composed of similar ships they rotated through the usually mundane duty of patrolling the sea lanes leading into the harbor. Early morning December 7, 1941, it was Ward’s turn.

Responding to a report of a periscope sighting, Ward ran up on a Japanese midget submarine trailing behind a cargo ship heading towards Pearl. Firing at the “bogey” with her deck gun beginning at 6:45 a.m., Ward’s crew watched the sub go down, dropped depth charges, and eventually moved on, not certain they’d hit the intruder. (In 2002 the sunken Japanese submarine was discovered, its conning tower holed, evidence Ward’s attack was successful.)  Dutifully, skipper Lt. Cmdr. William W. Outerbridge, a 1927 graduate of the Naval Academy, reported the encounter, but within 70 minutes Japanese bombs and torpedoes were raining down on an American fleet still sleepily at anchor.

Ward finished out 1942 conducting routine patrols along with the rest of its squadron. Though the old ‘four-stacker’ would always and forever be associated with its very destroyer-like chasing, shooting and depth-charging at Pearl Harbor, it would spend most of its career against the Japanese in a much different role. By end of 1942, it and many of its ilk were making way for newer and more modern destroyers joining the fleet, being assigned to other duties including mine laying and sweeping and seaplane tending. Ward, along with other, older flush deck destroyers would be overhauled, converted to fast transports, ships capable of carrying upward of 200 fully equipped troops for assault landings. 

While the Navy originally envisioned converting merchant craft to transports equipped with davits to carry 36-foot Higgins landing craft that would put Marines on shore during amphibious landings, “ponderous transports and cargo ships carrying conventional Navy boats for landing were not a complete solution,” according to the Destroyer History Foundation. ” Something more nimble was needed—fast, shallow draft, yet capable of embarking troops in adequate numbers and delivering them with equipment to landing beaches.” 

On November 28, 1938, the Navy’s oldest flush-deck destroyer, USS Manley, underwent the first of several exercises and modifications in quick succession until, by February 7, 1939, her forward two boilers and two stacks were replaced by a berthing compartment for 120 Marines and her four triple torpedo tubes mounts were replaced by davits to handle the new Higgins boats. One waist gun was deleted, the other moved to her centerline.

So impressed was the Marine Corps with the results of what was accomplished with the new conversion, it immediately requested more such ships. Since no four-stackers remained available from mothball, the Navy began converting active duty ships at the rate of only four weeks each.

The venerable old Ward reported to Bremerton, Wash., and the Puget Sound Navy Yard for her conversion. Like 16 other of its Wickes class sisters, Ward’s forward funnels were removed along with two of four boiler and fire rooms, the space now used to accommodate berthing space for the troops she would soon be hauling; this modification reducing its speed a full 10 knots to about 24 knots. Gone were its old four 4-inch guns, one 3-inch AA gun, and 12 21-inch torpedo tubes, replaced with three modern 3-inch AA guns, one 40-mm AA gun, and five 20-mm AA guns, two depth charge racks and up to six K-gun depth charge throwers. In place of the torpedo mounts, four davit-mounted landing craft were shipped. Soon all the new Auxiliary Personnel Destroyers (APDs) were nickednamed “Green Dragons” because of the dark green base paint and camouflage given those vessels which served in the Pacific by the Marine raiders which they transported. Fourteen of the Clemson class flush-deck destroyers, which were intended as an improvement to the Wickes class, and were of like age, also went through similar modifications on their way to becoming APDs.

USS Ward was a World War I-era destroyer recommissioned for service in World War II. Best known for depth-charging a Japanese midget submarine just outside Pearl Harbor, Ward spent the war as a auxiliary personnel destroyer, reconfigured as a fast troop transport. The APDs were nicknamed Green Dragons because of their green paint base and camouflage scheme. Ward was attacked and suffered severe damage during the Leyte campaign in 1944. She was deliberately sunk December 7, 1944. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
USS Ward was a World War I-era destroyer recommissioned for service in World War II. Best known for depth-charging a Japanese midget submarine just outside Pearl Harbor, Ward spent the war as a auxiliary personnel destroyer, reconfigured as a fast troop transport. The APDs were nicknamed Green Dragons because of their green paint base and camouflage scheme. Ward was attacked and suffered severe damage during the Leyte campaign in 1944. She was deliberately sunk December 7, 1944. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Now redesignated APD-16, Ward left for the South Pacific in early February 1943 and was active during the next year putting Marines and U.S. Army raiding parties ashore along the coast of New Georgia and other hostile shores. It also was active as an escort vessel, screening convoys from both enemy submarines and aircraft.

While operating in Ormoc Bay during the early part of the Leyte Gulf landings, the sky became thick with Japanese planes, Ward sighting a formation of nine twin-engine G4M Type 1, Betty bombers coming from the north at an altitude between 4,000 and 5,000 feet, pressing their attack despite being intercepted by Army P-38s and P-40s. While American ships took evasive action below them, anti-aircraft fire filled the air against the Japanese attack.  Before 10 a.m. other ships in Ward’s area had been hit and were emitting smoke. It was now that a formation of three Bettys singled out Ward, attacking in a loose V formation. Blazing away with its 3-inch and 20-millimeter batteries, Ward’s ack-ack hit the center plane which wavered and crashed into the ship amidships at 9:56 am; smashing Ward at the waterline near the forward end of the boiler-room.  A moment later, another Betty passed low overhead, strafing the wounded APD. But this second Betty was also shot down by Ward’s guns, splashing into the ocean 200 yards off the starboard bow. A minute after being struck, the order was given to cease fire with all hands put to work fighting the fires. Men at the forward part of the ship were now unable to communicate with those aft of the amidships fires as smoke belched from the holes in its hull.

Dead in the water with fires out of control in the troop spaces and throughout the ship, and with the threat of explosion from fuel and ammunition imminent, Lieutenant Richard E. Farwell Jr., USNR, Ward’s commanding officer, gave the order to abandon ship less than 30 minutes after being hit. Miraculously, only one man had been injured in the attack; it was December 7, 1944, three years to the day after Ward drew the nation’s first blood of World War II.

With the crew safe aboard USS O’Brien (DD-725 was the second destroyer in WWII to bear this name) and other vessels that were assisting Ward, the order came to sink her. Ironically it was O’Brien’s skipper, Commander William Outerbridge, captain of Ward back at Pearl, who now received orders to sink the crippled APD. With little emotion—“it just was something that had to be done,” Outerbridge remembered—O’Brien opened fire. At 11:30 a.m., Ward sank, having earned nine battle stars against the Japanese, one as destroyer and eight as a high-speed transport.

Overall, 11 APDs were sunk, scuttled, or damaged beyond feasible repair during or immediately after World War II. Eight others would receive the Navy Unit Commendation for their actions during the war. William Outerbridge would continue in the Navy after the war, serving mostly in the destroyer community. From 1953-1955, Outerbridge commanded the cruiser Los Angeles and then retired in 1957 after promotion to rear admiral. Throughout the 1960s, the retired officer taught school, passing away in 1986 at his home in Tifton, Ga.

And while the action at Ormoc Bay ended a ship’s career worthy of the energetic officer who lent this ship his name, this still was not the last time the name Ward echoed through the halls of the Navy…literally. In June 2017, a conference room in the Pentagon was named the “Ward Room.” According to a blog site maintained by the Naval History and Heritage Command, the room is to be “used to host major meetings for the Navy within the Pentagon…dedicated to honor both Cmdr. James Ward, the first U.S. Navy officer killed in the Civil War, and Rear Adm. William W. Outerbridge, once the commanding officer of the destroyer named for Ward, USS Ward (DD 139).” Currently serving admirals and family members of the late Admiral Outerbridge were in attendance for the dedication, complete with cake and historical artifacts, including a gun sight from the old DD-139 and a copy of Commander Ward’s book on ordinance and gunnery. Yet while a name affixed to a conference room may seem modest compared to a fort or warship; it is a name that reflects individual and collective deeds of gallantry which are transcendent through the years and are exemplary of the finest traditions of the United State Navy.  –Rick Barram