The squadron's first commander was Captain French Forrest, who also commanded the Norfolk Navy Yard for the Virginia State Navy and the Confederate Navy. He commanded the squadron again from 1863 until 1864. Six other officers also took turns at command during the war: Captain (later Admiral) Franklin Buchanan, Captain Josiah Tattnall, Captain Sidney Smith Lee, Captain Samuel Barron, Captain John K. Mitchell, and Admiral Raphael Semmes. Like Forrest, they were senior officers who had long pre-war service in the U.S. Navy.
Hampton Roads and Its Aftermath
During the fight, Buchanan was wounded in the leg, and command of the James River Squadron transferred to Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, a Virginian who had served on the Merrimack before the war. (The "ap" in Jones's name is Welsh and means "son of.") When he resumed the fight on March 9, he discovered that the Union now had its own ironclad ship, the USS Monitor. The two ironclads dueled for four hours, with neither ship gaining an advantage, but with the Virginia ultimately unable to dislodge the Monitor and finish off the Federal fleet. The Virginia steamed into Hampton Roads again on April 11 and May 8, but the Monitor declined battle. The Confederate army's abandonment of Norfolk on May 10, 1862, compelled the navy to destroy the Virginia, which drew too much water to navigate up the James. The officers, men, and Confederate Marines assigned to the squadron helped man the guns that turned back the Union fleet at Drewry's Bluff on May 15.
From late in May 1864 to early in April 1865, the opposing naval forces faced each other across barriers of obstructions and torpedoes and dramatic bends in the James River below Chaffin's Bluff—a situation mirroring the armies' confrontations within trench lines. Acting in concert with the land batteries (several of which were manned by naval personnel), the squadron worked to prevent Union forces from crossing the river behind Confederate lines and looked for opportunities to move against the enemy.
That opportunity came on the night of January 23–24, 1865, when high water apparently broke a hole through Union obstructions. Mitchell hoped that his squadron could fight its way through a weakened Union fleet (several warships had been transferred to North Carolina for the attack on Fort Fisher), destroy the Union supply base at City Point (now Hopewell), and force Grant to abandon his investment of Petersburg. The desperate plan went awry immediately as all the warships but the Fredericksburg and Hampton grounded in the shallow waters. Dawn found the Richmond, Virginia, and Drewry particularly vulnerable to Union batteries and to the double-turreted monitor USS Onondaga. All but the Drewry escaped, but the "battle" of Trent's Reach was a one-sided affair. Mitchell contemplated renewing the effort on the night of January 24, but the squadron was too crippled to allow it.
Aside from the legendary accomplishments of the Virginia at Hampton Roads, the James River Squadron did not have any readily apparent impact on the course of the war. One of its own officers, Lieutenant Francis Shepperd, in 1864 warned that history would judge harshly a navy that "took no active part" in the defense of the capital and ask "why so much money and so much valuable time has been devoted to the building of three formidable ironclads, two of which can barely … navigate the river." Union admiral David Dixon Porter dismissed the James River Squadron as "the most useless force the Confederates had ever put afloat" because he deemed the "forts, torpedoes, and obstructions on the river" to have been adequate defenses.
June 1861 - The Confederate Navy's James River Squadron is created out of the state navy bequeathed to the Confederacy by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The force initially consists of a converted tugboat and two passenger vessels seized in Virginia waters and converted into warships.
November 1862 - The ironclad CSS Richmond is commissioned and joins the James River Squadron.
May 1864 - The ironclad CSS Virginia II, named for the first ironclad ship that battled the USS Monitor at Hampton Roads in 1862, is commissioned and joins the James River Squadron.
January 23–24, 1865 - At the Battle of Trent's Reach, Union artillery and naval units heavily rebuff ships of the Confederate James River Squadron after several vessels run aground, including the ironclads CSS Richmond and Virginia II.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
Cite This EntryAPA Citation:
First published: December 16, 2009 | Last modified: March 4, 2011