Naval History and Heritage Command

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(Ironclad Ram: length 188; beam 40’ 3”; draft 13’ 6”; speed 5 knots; complement 150; armament 11-inch smoothbore, 8-inch rifle, 2 6.4-inch rifle; class Albemarle)

Fredericksburg, an ironclad ram, was laid down at the Confederate Navy Yard at Rockett’s in Richmond, Va. during 1862. On 30 November 1863 she was reported completed and awaiting armament. In March 1864 she was taken eight miles down the James River to Drewry's Bluff in order to be fitted out and then placed in the command of Comdr. Thomas R. Rootes, CSN.

Prior to the building of the ironclads Fredericksburg and Virginia II in 1862, the Confederates sank the steamers Jamestown, Northampton, and Curtis Peck off Drewry’s Bluff as obstructions in order to prevent the Union fleet from making an assault on Richmond. At this time the James River Squadron was quite feeble; however by May of 1864 the fleet was enhanced considerably and consisted of Virginia II, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Hampton, Nansemond, Roanoke, Beaufort, Patrick Henry, Torpedo, Drewry, Wasp and Shrapnel. Therefore, Rootes took command of Fredericksburg when the squadron was at its greatest strength.

55 year-old Virginian Thomas R. Rootes was born 10 December 1809. Upon the secession of the Commonwealth on 17 April 1861, he resigned his commission as a captain in the US Navy and offered his services to his native state. After briefly serving in the Virginia State Navy, Rootes accepted a commission as a commander in the Confederate States Navy. In the spring of 1864 as he stepped aboard Fredericksburg, the squadron was actively engaged in the river and under the leadership of Commodore John K. Mitchell, CSN.

Between May 1862 and May 1864, the James River Squadron enjoyed a long respite from battle. However control of the river became crucial in 1864, when Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant reversed his northern approach to Richmond, crossed the James and based his communications center and supply depot at City Point. The squadron helped check Grant’s right flank advancing up the James and threatened his center by bombarding Federal monitors at Trent’s Reach on 21 June 1864.

On 13 August 1864 Fredericksburg participated in the attack on Union forces beginning to construct a larger canal at Dutch Gap. The Federal vessel Maugus and her gunboats joined in the battle, but they could not effectively train their guns due to the angle of the ironclad’s casemates.

From 29 September through 1 October 1864, Fredericksburg and the entire squadron attacked Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James at New Market Heights and Fort Harrison in conjunction with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The operation was the largest engagement north of the James since the 31 May-12 June Battle of Cold Harbor and it remained so until the close of the war.

On 22 October the James River Squadron, during a routine patrol of the river, was surprised by a new Union battery near Boulware House two miles from Chaffin’s Bluff. In order to cover the retreat of the wooden vessels of the fleet, the flagship Virginia II approached the battery, followed by Richmond and Fredericksburg and then affected a retreat upstream to Chaffin’s Bluff. Though they were caught off-guard, the encounter helped determine the effectiveness of the ironclad’s casemates against close-range rifled cannon fire.

The opposing naval forces continued to face each other across barriers of obstructions and torpedoes as well as the dramatic bends of the James River below Chaffin’s Bluff. It was a situation that mirrored the armies’ operations between trench lines around Richmond and Petersburg. Acting in concert with the land batteries, which were partially 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.

On 7 December 1864, Fredericksburg, along with Virginia II and Richmond, steamed down to Fort Brady near Trent’s Reach and near sunset exchanged cannon fire with the fort’s batteries until darkness fell.

By the early months of 1865 circumstances were bleak for the Confederacy. Gen. Lee’s Army had dwindled to a shadow of its former strength, Savannah had fallen and Hood’s Army in Nashville had been shattered. The South desperately needed an important victory or all could be lost. Confederate leaders thought that an excellent move would be to break up the Union blockading fleet in the James River and to destroy the supplies at the Union Army’s City Point supply depot.

Those thoughts brought the fleet their final action on 23-24 January 1865 when the James River Squadron, including ironclads Virginia II, Richmond and flagship Fredericksburg, in company with five smaller vessels, made a second attempt to circumvent the obstructions and mines at Trent’s Reach. Unusually high waters had caused significant damage to Union barriers therefore Commodore Mitchell seized this opportunity to attack. The timing was especially opportune since several ships in the Union fleet had recently been transferred to North Carolina in order to support attacks against Fort Fisher. Mitchell and his fleet planned to break through the remaining Union vessels and destroy their supply line from City Point. The ensuing conflict became the Battle of Trent’s Reach.

As the squadron crept under the cover of darkness past the Union batteries on Signal Hill and Fort Brady, Mitchell and his fleet were spotted by Union lookouts. Although they immediately opened fire, the Confederate ships made it through virtually unharmed due to their angular casemates and continued towards the naval mine field at Trent’s Reach. As Virginia II and Richmond anchored above the Federal barriers, Fredericksburg led a smaller fleet to clear the way.

Despite the fact that the Union obstruction had been damaged by high waters, removing it proved to be quite a difficult task. The blockage was found to be a spar mounted between two hulks. The water level then began to recede as the Fredericksburg crew worked to clear the river and sent other boats ahead in order to prepare the way for the ironclads.

It was a dangerous operation that the Confederates undertook since their position removing the barrier was virtually unshielded from three Federal artillery batteries on shore at Trent’s Reach. Despite the Union sharpshooters firing at them throughout the night, the sailors managed to clear the river by the early morning hours of 24 January and they were ready to move towards City Point.

By this point in time, Mitchell’s squadron had lost any advantage of surprise. The Confederates were met by Union warships poised to attack. Worse yet, the ironclads were struggling to maneuver through the now shallow river. Added to this disadvantage, the sun began rising as ironclad after ironclad ran aground. As a result, the Union batteries relentlessly shelled the grounded ships, including the torpedo boat Scorpion along with Richmond, Virginia II, and Drewry.

When all looked lost, the water level began to rise once again and the Confederate gunboats dislodged themselves from the shallow waters. Both forces then hurriedly retreated. Despite the fact that the James River Squadron was severely weakened, Mitchell regrouped and launched a second attack against Trent’s Reach. It fared no better than the first. Mitchell and his commanders then met to discuss their available options and decided to abandon the second assault effort. Instead, they moved upriver to a refuge below Chaffin’s Bluff.

Both Commodore Mitchell and the Union commander, Capt. William A. Parker, lost their leadership positions shortly thereafter due to decisions made during the engagement on the James River. The Battle of Trent’s Reach became the last major naval engagement of the Civil War. By February 1865, the Union had reinforced their naval presence on the river and successfully prevented any future Confederate offensives. With their failure on the river came the realization that the Confederates had lost the opportunity to break the siege at Petersburg. 

Mitchell’s successor as squadron commander was 55 year-old Admiral Raphael Semmes, former commander of the acclaimed commerce raider Alabama. Semmes found his new assignment “dreary, weary, and lonely”. In the early morning hours of 3 April 1865, he belatedly learned that the Confederacy was abandoning Richmond and he was ordered to destroy the ships of the James River Squadron.

Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, Commanding James River Squadron

Sir: General Lee advises the Government to withdraw from this city, and the officers will leave this evening, accordingly. I presume that General Lee has advised you of this, and of his movements, and made suggestions as to the disposition to be made of your squadron. He withdraws upon lines toward Danville this night; and unless otherwise directed by General Lee, upon you is devolved the duty of destroying your ships this night, and with all the forces under your command joining General Lee. Confer with him, if practicable, before destroying them. Let your people be rationed, as far as possible, for the march, and armed and equipped for duty in the field.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

S . R . Mallory, Secretary of the Navy.

Semmes carried out his orders and then transformed the squadron’s officers, sailors and marines into a land force that accompanied the Confederate Government to Danville, Va. and eventually surrendered at Greensboro, N.C. Naval personnel manning the shore batteries around Richmond became a “Naval Brigade” under the command of Commodore John Randolph Tucker and accompanied the Army of Northern Virginia during the Appomattox Campaign and eventually surrendered during the Battle of Sailor’s Creek on 6 April 1865.

Fredericksburg’s grave lays fifty yards up river from her sister ship Richmond and rests in a parallel position with the river six to fifteen deep under the silt and mud, opposite Drewry’s Bluff.

Paul J. Marcello

5 October 2015

Published: Wed Mar 02 09:05:52 EST 2016