Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January 27, 1865: Starvation and Desertion in the Army of Northern Virginia

If you have ever seen an encampment of Civil War re-enactors, you have probably noticed that a majority are middle-aged and pot-bellied. The reality was very different. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was overwhelmingly composed of quite young men, and they were starving during the winter of 1864-1865. On this day 150 years ago, Robert E. Lee appealed for a better supply of food for his army.



SIR: I have the honor to call your attention to the alarming frequency of desertions from this army. You will perceive, from the accompanying papers, that fifty-six deserted from Hill's corps in three days. I have endeavored to ascertain the causes, and think that the insufficiency of food and non-payment of the troops have more to do with the dissatisfaction among the troops than anything else. All commanding officers concur in this opinion. I have no doubt that there is suffering for want of food. The ration is too small for men who have to undergo so much exposure and labor as ours. I know there are great difficulties in procuring supplies, but I cannot help thinking that with proper energy, intelligence, and experience on the part of the Commissary Department a great deal more could be accomplished. There is enough in the country, I believe, if it was properly sought for. I do not see why the supplies that are collected from day to day could not, by intelligent effort, be collected in such a manner as to have more on hand at a given time. The fact that they are collected at all is proof that they exist, and it must be possible to gather more in a given time than is now done. It will not answer to reduce the ration in order to make up for deficiencies in the subsistence department. The proper remedy is increased effort, greater experience in business, and intelligent management. It may be that all is done that can be, but I am not satisfied that we cannot do more. I think the efficiency of the army demands an increase of the ration, and I trust that no measure will be neglected that offers a chance of improvement.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R. E. LEE,


Monday, January 26, 2015

January 26, 1865: Slamming the door on the rebel fleet

On this day 150 years ago, Homer C. Blake, the new commander of the Onondaga and the 5th Division of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, reported on the steps he had taken to ensure that the Confederate James River Squadron would never be able to descend the James River again.
James River, Virginia, January 26, 1865.

SIR: I respectfully submit the following report for your information:

At daylight on the morning of the 25th instant Commander William A. Parker, U. S. Navy, came alongside the Eutaw, then at anchor at Varina bridge, and informed me that he had been removed from the command of the division by the honorable Secretary of the Navy. "You being the senior officer present, I turn the command over to you," and immediately left for City Point.

As I was ignorant of the stations of the vessels of the division and of the location of the rebel rams, but learning that the rebels had destroyed the obstructions placed in the channel at Trents Reach, I presumed it was their intention to force their way down the river. I immediately left the Eutaw in charge of Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Simmons, went on board the Onondaga, gave orders to get the ship underway as soon as possible, and telegraphed to Lieutenant-General Grant that I had assumed command of the division, and would go up the river and meet the rams at the obstructions.

A short time after coming on board the Onondaga, Chief Engineer Henderson reported to me that he would be able to use the port engines (having succeeded in clearing the obstruction which had fouled the propeller while moving the night previous). I anchored the Onondaga just below the obstructions and directed the Hunchback to take a position just ahead of me, to protect the vessel against torpedo boats, and the other vessels of the squadron out of the direct range of the rebel batteries; giving the commanders orders that the moment the rebel rams made their appearance they were immediately to come up to the support of the Onondaga, at the same time impressing upon them the vital importance of preventing the rams from passing down the river; that they were to run foul of the rams and try to force them aground under the fire of our batteries. I then turned my attention to the torpedo boats; not a torpedo on board of them could be exploded; the powder in them was renewed and, on trial, we found them in working order. I found that both of the officers having charge of these boats were absent, and was informed that Captain Parker had telegraphed for their immediate return. At Aiken's Landing I found two schooners filled with coal, which had been sent np by Lieutenant General Grant for the purpose of being sunk in that part of the channel which had been used by the rebel rams. As directed, they were sunk between obstructions Nos. 2 and 4, north passage, which I now think completely obstructs that channel. Three torpedoes, of 150 pounds of powder each, were placed in line a short distance above Dutch Gap Canal and Fort Brady. I directed that the large iron torpedoes sunk by the rebels at Aiken's Landing should be raised and immediately prepared for use. At 7 p. m. I received a message from Commander Nichols, of the Mendota, that he had arrived at Aiken's Landing, "Understand the situation; go on with your arrangements; I will see you in the morning." He came on board at 9 a.m., when I turned over the command to him. I take great pleasure in bringing to your notice the ability and energy with which Chief Engineer Henderson, of this vessel, got her engine in working order, and the valuable assistance he gave me in getting the torpedo vessels and torpedoes ready for use. I am confident that I should have received the most hearty cooperation of the other commanding officers. I was confident that by engaging the rams at the obstructions we could either destroy them or prevent their passing down the river.

Hoping that my actions during the short period that I was in charge of the division will meet with your approval, I am,

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Lieutenant-Commander, U.S. Navy.

Rear-Admiral, Commanding North Atlantic Squadron.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

January 25, 1865: Robert E. Lee needs weapons

One of the great myths of the American Civil War perpetuated by Southern historians is that the Blockade never really had much effect and the South's armies were always well provided with sufficient arms. On this day 150 years ago, Robert E. Lee sent out a plea for donations of weapons and equipment for his cavalry. At a time when Union cavalry was being equipped with Spencer carbines, Henry rifles, and Colt and Remington revolvers, Robert E. Lee was compelled to beg for donations.

To arm and equip an additional force of cavalry there is need of carbines, revolvers, pistols, saddles, and other accouterment of mounted held by citizens in sufficient number to supply our wants. Many keep them as trophies, and some with the expectation of using them in their own defense. But it should be remembered that arms are now required for use, and that they cannot be made so effectual for the defense of the country in any way as in the hands of organized troops. They are needed to enable our cavalry to cope with the well armed and equipped cavalry of the enemy, not only in the general service, but in resisting those predatory expeditions which have inflicted so much loss upon the people of the interior. To the patriotic I need make no other appeal than the wants of the service; but I beg to remind those who are reluctant to part with the arms and equipments in their possession that by keeping them they diminish the ability of the army to defend their property without themselves receiving any benefit form them. I therefore urge all persons not in the service to deliver promptly to some of the officers, designated below, such arms and equipments, especially those suitable for cavalry, as they may have, and to report to those officers the names of such persons as neglect to surrender those in their possession. Every citizen who prevents a carbine or pistol form remaining unused will render a service to his country. While no valid title can be acquired to public arms and equipments, except form the Government, it is reported that many persons have ignorantly purchased them from private parties. a fair compensation will, therefore, by made to all who deliver such arms and equipments to any ordnance officers, officer commanding at a post, officers and agents of the quartermaster and commissary departments, at any station, or officers in the enrolling service, or connected with the niter and mining bureau. All these officers are requested, and those connected with this army are directed, to receive and receipt for all arms and equipments, whatever their condition, and forward the same, with a duplicate receipt, to the Ordnance Department at Richmond, and report their proceedings to these headquarters. The person holding the receipt will be compensated upon presenting it to the Ordnance bureau.

While it is hoped that no one will disregard this appeal, all officers connected with the army are required, and all others are requested to take possession of any public arms and equipments they may find in the hands of persons unwilling to surrender them to the service of the country, and to give receipts thereof. A reasonable allowance for their expenses and trouble will me made to such patriotic citizens as will collect and deliver to any of the officers above designated such arms and equipments as they may find in the hands of persons not in the service, or who will report the same to those officers. A prompt compliance with this call with greatly promote the efficiency and strength of the army, particularly of the cavalry, and render it better able to protect the homes and property of the people from outrage.

R. E. LEE,


Saturday, January 24, 2015

January 24, 1865: Ulysses S. Grant is displeased

On this day 150 years ago, an irate Ulysses S. Grant requested the removal of William A. Parker from the command of the James River Flotilla. Grant was angry that Parker had allowed the Confederate ironclads to escape from Trent's Reach.
CITY POINT, VA., January 24, 1865-4.30 p. m.


Secretary of War:

I respectfully request that the Secretary of the Navy remove Captain Parker, U. S. Navy, from command of the James River Flotilla to-night by telegraph. With three days' notice of his danger, and a large fleet at his command, when I sent a staff officer to him this morning before daylight, on hearing that the rebel rams were coming down the river and that two of them had passed the obstructions, he had but one gun-boat, that a wooden one, and a torpedo-boat above the pontoon bridge at Aiken' Landing. On my arrival here yesterday from Washington, I requested him to get to the front every boat he had in the river within reach. This he should have done two days, before without notice. The rebels have suffered severely in to-day's operations, but with a, no doubt, gallant sent of commanders for the vessels, they have been allowed to contribute but little to this result. One rebel gun-boat was blown up by a shell from Battery Parsons, one other sunk, and a third disabled; the fourth, the Virginia, was hit a great many times, but I do not know that she was injured. It is the judgment of officers who were present that had the monitor been in her place, on learning that the Virginia and Fredericksburg were aground, both vessels would have been destroyed before they could have been got off. As it is, only the weaker vessel of the two was disabled. The rebels still have five gun-boats above us.




January 24, 1865-9.10 p. m.

Lieutenant-General GRANT:

Admiral Farragut is ordered to City Point, and will start for Annapolis as soon as an extra train can be had. In the meantime Parker has been removed, and Radford ordered to take command of the fleet.


Secretary of War.

January 24, 1865: The Battle of Trent's Reach - Confederate Report

The wreck of CSS Drewry or CSS Scorpion.
On this day 150 years ago, the Confederate James River Squadron tried to break through the Union obstructions in the James River in order to raid the Union supply depot at City Point, Virginia. The attempt failed due to falling water and Union opposition. On February 3, 1865, Confederate Flag-Officer John K. Mitchell filed the following report of the action (presented here a week early because it is such a good summary of the battle).
James River Squadron, below Chaffin's Bluff, February 3, 1865.

SIR: On the 25th ultimo I had the honor to report to you the return of this squadron to its present anchorage, with a brief notice of the unfortunate failure of the enterprise and the reason for relinquishing the attempt of its prosecution beyond Trent's Reach.

On the evening of the 23d ultimo, the squadron moved down from its present anchorage soon after dark, consisting of the ironclad Fredericksburg leading, with the gunboat Hampton and torpedo boat Hornet secured alongside; the Virginia, ironclad, next with the gunboat Nansemond, tug Torpedo, and torpedo boat Scorpion secured alongside, and the ironclad Richmond last, with the gunboats Drewry and Beaufort and the torpedo boat Wasp secured alongside.

In this order they passed the fire of the enemy's batteries and sharpshooters on Signal Hill and vicinity, which opened upon them in Devil's Reach and continued until they had passed the Dutch Gap. On arriving in Trent's Reach, the Virginia and the Richmond anchored, at 10:40 p.m., about half a mile above the obstructions, in 5 fathoms of water, with a kedge by the stern. The Fredericksburg proceeded at once near to the obstructions at the north channel, while a sounding and reconnoitering party in charge of Lieutenant C. W. Read examined them. He soon after reported the obstructions practicable on the removal of a spar which was anchored diagonally across a gap between two sunken hulks, about two-thirds from No. 3 hulk to No. 2, counting from the north bank. While the moorings of this spar were being cut, in company with Lieutenant C. W. Read I sounded the channel about two cables length below the obstructions. We did not find less than 2.5 fathoms water; a slight freshet in the river probably raised it about a foot above its ordinary level.

At 1 a. m. (24th) I went on board the Fredericksburg and immediately after she passed through the obstructions with the loss of her port outriggers for torpedo defenses by their coming in contact with No. 2 hulk.

After seeing the Fredericksburg through, I directed a light to be placed on the obstructions to guide the squadron through, and returned to the Virginia at 1:45 a.m. To my inexpressible mortification I found her aground; ineffectual efforts were made with the aid of gunboats and kedges to get her afloat. At 3: 30 o'clock it was reported to me that the Richmond, Drewry, and torpedo boat Scorpion also were aground. The ironclads had been anchored in 5 fathoms water by the stern with kedges and were unfortunately allowed to drag unobserved aground. The reports of the commanding officers of those vessels explain the circumstances of their grounding.

The tide having been at ebb for some hours, and it therefore being impossible to get the vessels afloat before the next flood, I directed the wooden vessels and torpedo boats to take up their anchorage before daylight opposite Battery Dantzler, under cover of a wooded point of land, which would secure them from the observation of the enemy, or at least afford some protection from his fire.

The Fredericksburg was now recalled and ordered to take up a position above the Richmond to cover, if practicable, the grounded vessels with her broadside.

As anticipated, at daylight the enemy's batteries and sharpshooters on the south side of Trent's Reach, that had been firing upon the squadron without effect from the time of its arriving in the reach, were now enabled to take deliberate aim. Their fire (the nearest about 800 yards) was chiefly directed at the Richmond and the Drewry, lying close together and in line. At 7:10 a.m. a shell exploded the magazine of the Drewry, blowing her to pieces and covering the deck of the Richmond with the fragments. Fortunately, for fear of such a disaster, the crew had been taken on board of the Richmond about 15 minutes before the explosion took place, and were thus all saved except two, who were killed, having gone to the torpedo boat Scorpion, lying alongside of the Drewry. The Scorpion was badly damaged by the explosion and was not brought off when the Richmond floated, but she subsequently drifted off with the high tide down to the obstructions,where she fell into the hands of the enemy a day or two after.

The first night after the return of the squadron to its present anchorage a party was sent to recover the Scorpion, if possible, but the approach to her was guarded by an enemy's gunboat above the obstructions, and our boats could not proceed.

After blowing up the Drewry the enemy concentrated the fire of his batteries upon the Virginia, and about 10:30 a.m. a double-turreted monitor and a double ender appeared in the lower part of the reach and opened fire at the distance of about 1,600 yards upon the Virginia. About this time the Virginia and the Richmond commenced floating, and by 12:15 p.m. rounded the point above and anchored with the rest of the squadron. The Richmond received little or no damage, but the Virginia was struck upward of 70 times, many of them blows from the heaviest rifle projectiles and 2 from the monitor; one of the latter, probably a XV-inch solid shot, and another, a rifle 200 pounder; the effect of the last two broke and crushed in the iron, the wooden backing, clamp, stanchions on port side of shield, and on the port quarter made a hole entirely through, 2 feet by 2.5 in diameter. The splinter netting no doubt prevented many casualties, only 1 being killed and 2 wounded. The monitor fired about 7 times before we passed from her sight. The Virginia received much other damage in shield deck, beams, and carlines, knuckle forward, port lanyards, a gun-deck beam, and in the starting of bolts and armor plates in various parts of the vessel. The smokestack was so badly cut up and the exhaust pipe cut in two as to allow the steam to escape on the spar and gun decks, but it did not prevent the raising of steam. A small Rodman projectile entered her open port quarter port, striking its side, broke a clamp of the forward gun (8-inch rifle), and, passing through the cheek of the carriage, exploded, wounding Lieutenant W. P. Mason and 7 men. None of the enemy's projectiles actually penetrated her shield. The 2 boat howitzers mounted on her shield deck were struck and disabled from indentations.

During the whole time while aground neither the Richmond nor the Virginia could get a gun to bear upon the enemy. The latter, in rounding head upstream obtained one shot at the monitor with her XI-inch, which was observed to take effect upon her. During the afternoon the monitor retired down the river below the Dutch Gap and disappeared from sight toward Varina.

Although our force was diminished by the loss of the Drewry and 1 torpedo boat, and the disabling of another, and the Virginia considerably damaged, yet, as her battery, except the 2 howitzers, was not materially injured, preparations and dispositions were at once made to move down the river as early in the night as the tide would serve.

Soon after dark the enemy exhibited a brilliant Drummond light on the south side of Trent's Reach, near the obstructions, which, illuminating the reach, would enable him to direct his fire almost as well at night as by day.

At 9 p. m. the squadron was underway, the Virginia leading, down Trent's Reach, when her pilots (Messrs. Edward Moore and Samuel Wood) declared it was impossible to direct the movements of the ship in consequence of the escape of the steam on deck from the (damaged exhaust pipe and smokestack, together with the dazzling effect of the Driunmond light. The squadron was at once brought to and efforts made by Chief Engineer H.X. Wright to remedy the trouble complained of, in which he only partially succeeded by diminishing somewhat the escape of steam on the upper deck, while it was rendered more dense on the gun deck.

A council of war was called, composed of Commander Kell, of the Richmond, Lieutenant Commanding John W. Dunnington, of the Virginia, and Lieutenant Commanding F. E. Shepperd, of the Fredericksburq, who advised the return of the squadron to its anchorage below Chaffin's Bluff for the following reasons, viz: The escape of steam on deck and the Drummond light blinding the pilots, the loss of the gunboat Drewry and a torpedo boat, and the disabling of another and the gunboat Hampton, and the enemy being now fully apprised of our movements diminished so much our prospects of success as to render it advisable to abandon the enterprise. Entertaining the same views, I at once made the necessary dispositions to return that night, in reverse order, sending the Hampton, disabled by having a piece of chain wound round her propeller, ahead, towed by the Nansemond and the Torpedo.

At 2:45 a.m. of the 25th the squadron started back and ran the gantlet of the enemy's batteries and sharpshooters from Battery Garnett to near the head of Devil's Reach. No serious damage appears to have been sustained by any of the vessels, although the Virginia was struck several times with heavy projectiles, nor were there any casualties, though exposed to showers of Minie balls, upward of 800 reported as having been picked up on the deck of the Hampton. The Virginia, the rear vessel of the line, reached her anchorage at 7:30 a.m.

The leak of the Virginia is now about twice the quantity it was previous to the late movement, having increased from about 2 to about 4 inches in 12 hours.

The Fredericksburg since her return leaks badly, requiring the almost incessant working of the ships pumps to keep her free, making, as she does, from 2 to 3 inches per hour. The ship received a hard blow from a projectile on the fantail forward, which carried away the chain cable and caused the loss of an anchor, but this blow of itself it is scarcely possible could have caused so considerable a leak. Pilots Parrish and Barnes state that they felt the vessels bottom strike something as she passed through the obstructions and one of them saw pieces of timber rise to the surface alongside; if they are not mistaken, the leak may be traced to this cause.

The safe passage of the squadron twice over the beds of the torpedoes, placed by Lieutenant Kennon, C. S. Navy, at Bishop's and at Howlett's, shows that they must have been washed away by the late high freshet or that they are harmless. If the enemy has torpedoes placed, they were rendered harmless from similar causes, or, if electric, our movement must have been so unexpected as to find him unprepared to use them.

A demonstration was made against the enemy's right by General Pickett, and our batteries keeping up a fire on those of the enemy, operated, no doubt, for our benefit, although the enemy's batteries in Trent's Reach were steadily and continuously directed against our vessels while exposed to their fire.

Our first-class pilots have given cause for complaint. Lieutenant Commanding Shepperd complains much of his, on board of the Fredericksburq; Lieutenant Commanding C.W. Read complains of Mr. Wood, of this ship, and the Richmond and the Virginia, being allowed to drag aground after being anchored in 5 fathoms water, is well calculated to keep commanding officers ever anxious for the safety of their vessels, and distrustful of the success of any movement depending upon the skill, coolness, and courage of their pilots. The Virginia in going down on the 23d passed so near the south bank as to run the Torpedo, lashed to her starboard side, aground, and in coming up on the morning of the 25th she (the Virginia), when the fire of the enemy had ceased, was run aground and remained fast for twenty minutes or more near the head of Devil's Reach.

In passing Cox's Landing the Torpedo, having been crowded into the south bank, and remaining aground, Lieutenant Commanding W. B. Butt was sent to the Nansemond to haul her off, but having tried without success and reported it impracticable, Lieutenant Commanding W.H. Wall was sent with the Drewry to perform the service. Much to his credit he got her afloat, and though not requiring much effort, yet he was exposed to a heavy fire of the enemy's sharpshooters, and brought her safely to the squadron after she had beemi abandoned by her commanding officer, Lieutenant T.P. Bell, with all her crew except Acting Master P. W. Smith, who, with two men, bravely remaining steadfast to his duty, is worthy of special notice. A letter from Lieutenant T. P. Bell, explanatory of his conduct on the occasion is herewith enclosed; it is not satisfactory to me, and I submit that his conduct be made the subject of investigation.

I am gratified in stating that the commanding officers seconded me with their best efforts, and from their reports of our late movements under the fire of the enemy, the officers and men of their respective commands exhibited the skill and courage the occasion called for. I take pleasure in bearing testimony to the good conduct of my staff, Flag Lieutenant C.J. Graves, Midshipman F.S. Kennett, and my secretary, J.W. Daniel.

Enclosed are the reports of Commander J.M. Kell, of the Richmond; Lieutenants Commanding J.W. Dunnington, of the Virginia; F. E. Shepperd, of the Fredericksburg; W. H. Wall, of the ill-fated gunboat Drewry; J. W. Alexander, of the gunboat Beaufort; W. R. Butt, of the gunboat Nansemond; J. D. Wilson, of the gunboat Hampton; C. W. Read, of the steam torpedo boats Scorpion, Hornet, and Wasp; Acting Master P. W. Smith, of the tug Torpedo, and of Fleet Surgeon W. D. Harrison, of the casualties, which make a total of 5 killed and 14 wounded. A copy of the opinion of the council of war held on the evening of the 24th, near Howlett's, is also enclosed. From the examination of the obstructions and the north channel in Trent's Reach, though hastily made, I felt reasonably assured that, but for the unfortunate grounding of the two ironclads, Virginia and Richmond, the whole squadron would have passed below that night, and, as the enemy was unprepared for the movement, there was every reason to indulge the hope that it would have been successful. As the result has proved so unfortunate for the public interests, I invite the closest scrutiny into the manner of conducting the enterprise committed to me. 
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Flag-Officer James River Squadron.

Secretary of the Navy, Richmond, Va.

The shrapnel-ridden funnel of CSS Virginia II, seen in Richmond after the war.

January 24, 1865: Confederates aground

Early this morning, 150 years ago, the Confederate James River Squadron ran into a snag, literally. Two out of three of the squadron's ironclads had run aground, and when the sun came up, they would be in full view of Union shore batteries.
Trent's Reach, Tuesday, January 24, 1865--3:30 a.m.

GENERAL: I thank you for the cooperation tendered in your letter just received. This vessel is aground and must remain so until she floats off in the forenoon, say at 10:30 o'clock. At daylight we shall be exposed to the fire of the enemy without being able to return a shot, in all probability.

The Richmond (ironclad), now near me, will take up a position to return this fire; the Fredericksburg (ironclad) has passed the obstructions, but will have to be recalled for our mutual protection. The gunboats will be ordered to take cover under the trees opposite Dantzler, where I hope they may escape the observation of the enemy, or, at least, find some protection from his fire.

The obstructions are practicable for our large ironclads, and I think that I will be able to run his batteries as soon as the Virginia floats again. The gunboats, I fear, will mostly be sadly crippled, if not sunk, in the attempt, if not before it is made. Your batteries, I hope, however, may afford us some protection. As we can not pass before daylight, you will see us if we succeed, and no signals will be necessary.

At present the enemy does not annoy us, but at daylight he no doubt will open directly upon us.

I accept your offer to cooperate, and have no doubt it will aid much in protecting us.

In great haste, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Flag-Officer James River Squadron.

Major-General GEORGE E. PICKETT, C. S. Army,
Headquarters, Hancock's House.

P.S. I have just learned that the Richmond is aground also.