The Battle of Trent’s Reach

This entry is part 19 of 21 in the series Petersburg Campaign

The Battle of Trent’s Reach was the Confederate Navy’s last, desperate attempt to break the Federal army’s stranglehold on the Confederate capital of Richmond.

The importance of the James River to Richmond and the Confederacy cannot be overstated. The James is a broad, tidal river up to Richmond, making that city a port. From colonial times ocean vessels were able to reach the city using the James.

Drewry's Bluff view of the James RiverAt the start of the war Confederate authorities were concerned that Union blockading ships would sail upriver to bombard the city. The mere rumor of the Union ship Pawnee spread fear and panic throughout the city. From that point forward the authorities sought to insure that Union vessels could not approach the city by water.

The Confederates mounted powerful batteries at Drewry’s Bluff and in May 1862 they pounded a Federal squadron so badly that they hesitated afterward to approach the city by water.

The Confederates also built a formidable squadron of three ironclads to impede any Federal attack. The flagship was the CSS Virginia II which was built in Richmond in 1864. It drew 13 feet of water and mounted 4 guns. The CSS Richmond was similar in design to the Virginia II. It was 180 feet long, drew 16 feet of water and also carried 4 guns. The CSS Fredericksburg was a ram that drew 11 feet of water and mounted 4 guns. In addition this fleet was accompanied by a number of lesser warships that include torpedo boats, gunboats and tugs.

By January 1864 the Confederate fleet had sat idle on the James for some time. In the meantime the Union navy had been diverted to the assault on Fort Fisher on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. Naval units from all over were sent to the area. The Union Squadron was no exception.

The Confederates sensed an opportunity to strike a blow at the Union navy. Their target was the massive Federal supply base at City Point. All of the supplies for the large Federal army around Richmond and Petersburg moved through this base. To defend the base the Federals had built a river barrier at Trent’s Reach that was made from sunken vessels, torpedo mines, a net and other obstructions.

The Confederate fleets left its anchorage at Chaffin’s Bluff after dark on January 23, 1865 and headed to City Point. The Confederate fleet easily passed through the gauntlet of Federal shore batteries and rifle fire. By 10:30 PM the Confederates were at Trent’s Reach.

CSS Fredericksburg at Trent's ReachThe two Confederate ironclads stopped while the Fredericksburg tried to clear the obstructions so the fleet could pass through. Confederate gunboats cruised around reconnoitering the area.

There were three Federal gun batteries at Trent’s Reach and the kept up a steady fire on the Confederates. Sharpshooters joined in, firing on anything that moved on the water. Despite the steady fire, the obstructions were cleared by 1:00 AM and the Confederate fleet sailed through.

The Federal force that was mustered to stop the powerful enemy fleet was ill-prepared for combat. The USS Onondaga was a twin-turreted monitor-class ironclad. The other two vessels were wooden ships: the USS Massasoit, a double-ender, and the USS Hunchback, a converted ferryboat.

Instead of meeting the Confederates at the barrier, Commodore William Parker ordered his small force to fall back several miles to the bridge near Deep Bottom. General Grant realized the danger the Confederate fleet posed to his supply base and complained to the Navy Department about Parker’s tactics. Parker was relieved of command and replaced by Commodore William Radford, the commander of the USS New Ironsides in Norfolk.

This did very little for the immediate crisis and Grant agreed that the squadron’s second-in-command, Commander E.T. Nichols, would do for the moment.

Meanwhile, the Confederates, rather than striking immediately, were delayed by the falling tide. When they had anchored at 10:30 PM there was 5USS Onondaga fathoms (30 feet) of water under their keels. By 1:45 AM the tide had fallen and the Virginia II was aground. By 3:30 AM the Richmond, the wooden gunboat Drewry and one of the torpedo boats, the Scorpion, were also aground. They were aground under the tide came in at about 11:00 AM in the morning.

As the sun came up the Federal artillery and rifle fire became increasingly more effective. It began to have a devastating effect on the Confederate fleet. The ironclad Richmond was able to withstand the fire but the wooden vessels were torn apart.

At 6:55 AM the Drewry’s crew was evacuated to the Richmond. It was not a moment too soon. Fifteen minutes later, the Drewry’s magazine was hit and the vessel exploded. The explosion caused severe damage aboard the other Confederate ships. The Scorpion was hit and suffered so much damage that it began to sink. It was abandoned by its crew.

At 10:30 AM in the engagement the monitor USS Onondaga, the double-ender the USS Massasoit, the converted ferry USS Hunchback and a torpedo boat USS Spuyten Duyvil entered the fight. The Onondaga began to engage the enemy ship at a range of about ½ mile at 10:45 AM. The Confederate ships were helpless. Aground, they were unable to maneuver to aim their guns.

Within 15 minutes the Confederate ironclads refloated and began to return fire. After a brief duel the two fleets withdrew, the Confederates returning upriver and the Federals downriver.

The Confederates had lost the Drewry and the Scorpion with a second torpedo boat being disabled. The CSS Virginia II was badly damaged having taken 70 hits.

The Confederate commander, Commodore John K. Mitchell, decided to make a second attempt downriver as soon as there was a favorable tide. However, the CSS Virginia II had suffered a hit to their propulsion system and a steam leak prevented the pilot from seeing to maneuver.

The Federals had also installed Drummond lights on the southern shore near the obstruction, allowing the Federal gunners to see “almost as well at night as by day”. After conferring with the other skippers, Mitchell elected to return to the anchorage at Chaffin’s Bluff.

Neither commander fared very well afterward. Commodore William Parker was court-martialed and although the sentence was dismissed on a technicality by Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, he was placed on the retirement list.

Commodore John K. Mitchell was relieved of his command of the James River Squadron within three weeks. He was replaced by Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, the former commander of the Confederate commerce raider Alabama.

The following month the Federal squadron was reinforced by the powerful ironclads the USS New Ironsides and the USS Atlanta. The Confederate James River Squadron never ventured downriver again. Within two months Richmond had fallen and Lee had surrendered. The Confederacy was no more.

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