Part 1 of 2: The first hour of January 24, 1865, found the Commanding General of the United States Army asleep with his wife in the tiny two-room wooden shack that served as national headquarters. The huge supply base at City Point, Virginia, surrounded the cabin on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers thirty serpentine river miles south of the Rebel capitol.
Wooden wharfs extended a mile along the James accommodating daily some 40 steamboats, 75 sailing vessels, and 100 barges. Commissary, quartermaster, and ordnance warehouses stockpiled 3 million pounds of goods including 9 million meals and 12 thousand tons of hay and oats to sustain soldiers and animals for a month. Commissary bakers produced 100,000 bread rations a day. Forges, wagon repair shops, and barracks filled the grounds.
Multiple railroad sidings converged from riverside to railhead served by an engine roundhouse and repair shed with 25 locomotives and 275 railroad cars conveying men and material southwest behind the siege lines surrounding Petersburg. Manned trenches and batteries encircled the facility. The powerful double-turret monitor USS Onondaga and a few gunboats of the Fifth (James River) Division of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron patrolled the waters.[i]
A loud knock at the general’s bedroom door just after 1:00 a.m. announced the arrival of a messenger. “Yes. What have you heard?” called General Grant. Answer: “The gunboats have passed the obstructions, and are coming down.” Three formidable ironclad rams of the Confederate James River Squadron—CSS Fredericksburg, CSS Virginia II, CSS Richmond— accompanied by wooden gun and torpedo boats reportedly were slipping by multiple Union shore batteries in the dark and penetrating barricades of sunken vessels at Trent’s Reach, a straight stretch of river piercing the front lines halfway up to Richmond.
Staff officer Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter was present: “In about two minutes the general came hurriedly into the office. He had drawn on his top-boots over his drawers, and put on his uniform frock-coat, the skirt of which reached about to the tops of the boots and made up for the absence of trousers.” He lighted a cigar, sat at his desk, and began writing. “The puffs from the cigar were now as rapid as those of the engine of an express-train at full speed.”
Mrs. Grant entered and quietly asked: “Ulyss, will those gunboats shell the bluff?” “Well, I think all their time will be occupied in fighting our naval vessels and the batteries ashore,” he replied. “The Onondaga ought to be able to sink them, but I don’t know what they would do if they should get down this far.” Then a new report revealed that the Union monitor had turned tail and retired downstream below the pontoon bridge at Jones’ Neck. “[General Grant’s] indignation knew no bounds,” wrote Col. Porter.
Mrs. Grant remained composed: “Ulyss, what had I better do?” The general, half-serious and half teasing, replied, “Well, the fact is, Julia, you oughtn’t to be here.” A lieutenant offered to hitch up an ambulance and drive her into the country. “Oh, their gunboats are not down here yet,” Grant answered, “and they must be stopped at all hazards.” Additional dispatches were penned; a fresh cigar was puffed. Shore batteries were to act with all possible vigor; more heavy guns were ordered to the riverbank, and coal schooners would be towed upriver, ready to sink in the channel.[ii]
A few weeks earlier in December, Admiral David D. Porter departed City Point with most of his warships for a massive expedition against Fort Fisher guarding Wilmington, North Carolina. Commander William A. Parker remained in command of the James River Division with Onondaga as his flagship and a few wooden, lightly armed gunboats. General Grant was apprehensive about his depleted naval force leaving City Point vulnerable to the enemy squadron upriver.
“There had been so much talk about the formidable character of the double-turreted monitors,” recalled Col. Porter, “that General Grant decided one morning to go up the James and pay a visit.” Each massive turret enclosed one XV-inch Dahlgren smoothbore and one 150-pounder, 8-inch Parrott rifle—the most powerful weapons afloat—behind 11 inches of iron. The general admired the machinery, then asked the range of her Dahlgrens. “About eighteen hundred yards,” replied Commander Parker. From their vantage point atop the forward turret, Grant pointed upriver to an enemy battery near that distance and said, “Suppose you take a shot at it, and see what you can do.”
The turret rumbled and revolved; the gun was laid. “There was a tremendous concussion,” continued Porter, “followed by a deafening roar as the enormous shell passed through the air; and then all eyes were strained to see what execution would be done.” The round burst directly within the battery raising a cloud of smoke; earth and splintered logs flew as men tumbled over the parapet. With another puff at his cigar, Grant nodded and said, “Good shot!”[iii]
Rebels observed that a “freshet”—a sudden flooding of the river from heavy rain—had carried away the enemy’s cross-channel net at Trent’s Reach, shifted sunken boats, and perhaps opened a channel through the barrier. Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory wrote to Flag Officer John K. Mitchell, commander of the James River Squadron, January 15: “I deem the opportunity a favorable one for striking a blow at the enemy. . . . If we can block the river at or below City Point, General Grant might be compelled to evacuate his position.” An attack to cut off Union supplies was “a movement of the first importance to the country.”[iv]
Mitchell needed a couple days until the flood receded and the moon waned to sneak a boat down for close inspection of the obstructions. He telegraphed General Lee, requesting a demonstration by Major General George E. Pickett against enemy pickets at Trent’s Reach “as a preliminary measure to my movement.” General Pickett agreed and said his heavy guns would “concentrate on any of the enemy’s batteries [across the river] which might annoy you” but would fire only when the ironclads were fired upon so they could proceed undetected in the dark as long as possible. Pickett also would consult General Lee for orders concerning his movements should Mitchell be successful, “which I have no doubt you will.”[v]
By January 21, an anxious Mallory issued preemptory orders for Mitchell to start the next day before his plans became known. Meanwhile, Grant’s chief of staff, Brigadier General John A. Rawlins, wrote to Commander Parker on Onondaga: Intelligence reports indicated that the rebel squadron would “come down the river, either pass or attack our ironclads, and attempt the destruction of City Point.” They sensed an opportunity, Rawlins noted, perhaps their last. When the Union fleet returned from Wilmington, their squadron could be confined upriver by superior numbers. The Confederacy would be no worse off attacking now even if losing their ironclads, and they might inflict incalculable damage. “It would be well that you exercise more than usual vigilance.”[vi]
Parker telegraphed XXIV Corps commander Major General John Gibbon: “I do not consider our naval forces sufficient to prevent . . . the enemy’s gunboats coming down.” He recommended the army move up additional heavy weapons and sink more vessels. “The rams will no doubt make a desperate attack on our vessels at the next freshet.” He ordered additional torpedoes positioned and dispatched reports to Adm. Porter down south requesting more ironclads.[vii]
Flag Officer Mitchell’s attempts at boat reconnaissance of the Trent’s Reach obstructions were driven back by cannon and musket fire. Then fog rolled in, again postponing movement. The James River Squadron finally weighed anchor and slid downriver in line just after dark, 6:30 p.m., January 23. Fredericksburg led followed by Virginia and Richmond. Each ironclad had two or three gun and torpedo steamboats lashed alongside to push and tow the cumbersome behemoths in tight waters or to extract them if their engines failed. The wooden boats also enjoyed some protection in an iron shadow.
“All hands were then called to quarters and ship cleared for action,” reported Commander John M. Kell, captain of Richmond. “To avoid drawing the fire of the enemy I had the battery run in, port shutters closed, and rammer holes stopped up on board the gunboats and torpedo boat Wasp. I had all lights covered, and their crews lying close under the bulwarks.”[viii]
About 8 o’clock, Union pickets at Fort Brady spotted the squadron four curvy river miles from the reach. Colonel Henry L. Abbot, First Connecticut Artillery, let loose his two 100-pound and three 30-pound Parrott rifles firing 25 rounds along with volumes of musketry as the ironclads slipped by. “[Fort Brady] was instantly opened upon by the rebel land batteries,” reported Abbot, “mounting some dozen guns, and their fire soon disabled one of the 100-pounder guns.”[ix] According to Commander Kell in Richmond, heavy shots passed over and small arms made no impression.
In Part 2, Rebel ironclads steam on downriver to take on Union barricades, batteries, and the USS Onondaga at Trent’s Reach.
[i] Sinews of War: How Technology, Industry, and Transportation Won the Civil War (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1997), 191; National Park Service website, City Point (https://www.nps.gov/pete/learn/historyculture/city-point.htm), accessed July 24, 2021.
[ii] Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant (Annotated) (Big Byte Books, 2016) Kindle Edition, 298-299.
[iii] Ibid., 296.
[iv] Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, 29 vols. (Washington, DC, 1894-1921), Series 1, vol. 11, 797-798. Hereafter cited as ORN. All references are to Series 1, Vol. 11.
[v] Ibid., 804, 806.
[vi] Ibid., 632.
[vii] Ibid., 634.
[viii] Ibid., 673.
[ix] Ibid., 659.