(Ironclad Ram: length 172’ 6”; beam 34’; draft 12’; speed 6 knots; complement 150; armament 4 rifled guns, 2 shell guns, 1 spar torpedo; type Richmond)
Richmond, an ironclad ram, was laid down in March 1862 at the Gosport (Norfolk) Navy Yard from the design of John Lucas Porter with funding and scrap-iron collected by the citizens of Virginia after their imagination had been captured by the ironclad Virginia. Consequently she was sometimes referred to as Virginia II, Virginia No. 2 or Young Virginia in the South months before the actual Virginia II was ever laid down.
She was launched 6 May 1862 and towed up to the Confederate Capital that evening in order to escape Federal forces that were again in possession of Norfolk Navy Yard and the lower James River. Richmond was therefore completed at Rocketts in Richmond, Va. in July 1862 and placed in commission by Cmdr. Robert B. Pegram, CSN, as part of the James River Squadron. 22” of yellow pine and oak plus 4” of iron protected her roof and “she is ironed 3 ½ feet below her load lines,” stated shipyard Superintendent John Henry Burroughs.
Although Richmond was designed by John L. Porter, who would go on to serve as the Chief Naval Constructor for the Confederacy, she was completed under the supervision of Chief Carpenter James Meads. She embodied many of the basic design elements that were used many times over in other casemate ironclads built across the South throughout the war.
The loss of Norfolk shifted the squadron’s base of operations which included shipyards, supply depots, hospitals and industrial facilities to the Confederate Capital at Richmond. The James River Squadron had been established as a part of the Virginia State Navy shortly after it’s secession from the Union on 17 April 1861 and commanded by Capt. French Forrest. Although it began as a modest collection of ships, most of them wooden, the squadron later became a part of the Confederate States Navy. Protected by a strong line of obstructions, torpedoes (mines), and land fortifications, the squadron operated at Chaffin’s and Drewry’s Bluffs, eight miles downstream from the capital.
Between May 1862 and May 1864, the squadron enjoyed a long respite from battle, during which its strength was augmented by three ironclads based on the general design of Virginia and built at the Richmond yards. Richmond was commissioned in November 1862 and Fredericksburg and Virginia II were commissioned in May 1864. A fourth, Texas, was launched but not commissioned when hostilities came to a close.
In May 1864, 37 year-old Lt. William Harwar Parker, CSN, took command of Richmond. Parker was born on 8 October 1826 in New York City and became a US Navy midshipman at the age of 15. After the Southern states began seceding in 1861, he joined the Virginia State Navy and, in June 1861, the Confederate States Navy. He commanded the gunboat Beaufort in 1862 and took part in the Battles of Roanoke Island on 7-8 February and Hampton Roads 8-9 March 1862. In mid-May, he served at Drewry’s Bluff when the batteries there were attacked by Union warships. After several months of shore duty, Lt. Parker was ordered to Charleston, S.C., where he served as executive officer aboard the ironclad Palmetto State and participated in her attack on Union blockade vessels in January 1863. In October of that year he returned to Richmond, Va. and became superintendent of the Confederate States Naval Academy based onboard Patrick Henry in the James River.
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 Confederate James River Squadron, now under the command of 53 year-old Commodore John K. Mitchell, 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 Richmond 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, Richmond 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.
Soon after the action at New Market Heights and Fort Harrison, Cmdr. William A. Webb became Richmond’s new captain. Webb had resigned his US Navy commission on 17 May 1861 and joined the Confederate Navy as a Lieutenant in June. He served at Fernandina, Fla. in mid-1861 and then in Richmond, Va. from 1861 to 1862. After being attacked by the Federal vessel Weehawken, Webb was forced to surrender the ironclad Atlanta at Wassaw Sound, Ga. On 17 June 1863 and was taken as a prisoner of war to Fort Warren, Mass. He was paroled on 28 September 1864 and exchanged at Cox’s Wharf, Va. on 18 October 1864.
Webb was in command of Richmond four days later when 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, and in the case of Richmond, the results were favorable although she lost her smokestack.
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. 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, Virginia II, along with Fredericksburg 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.
Her final action took place on 23-24 January 1865 when the Confederate 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 the Union 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.
The Federals seemed particularly focused on destroying Richmond, which was still stuck fast against the shoreline. Drewry’s crew, knowing that their wooden vessel was doomed, abandoned ship and then struggled desperately to get Richmond afloat. Managing to board their sister vessel just in time, Drewry’s crew watched as an enemy shell struck the warship’s magazine and ignited a tremendous explosion that claimed the lives of two men still trapped within the burning ship. When it seemed that things couldn’t get worse for the stranded Confederates, they watched two Union ships appear and start to close in.
Just when it looked like all was 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. They found Virginia II unmanageable once again, this time due to damages sustained during the first engagement. 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 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. 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.
Richmond’s grave lays nearly two thirds across the river to the west of Chaffin’s Bluff and at twenty-six to thirty-six feet deep. She is mostly buried by silt; however one side of her is open to the channel.
Paul J. Marcello
18 September 2015