It is not clear when the James River Squadron was formally established, but it was created out of the Virginia State Navy that the Commonwealth bequeathed to the Confederacy in June 1861. That force initially consisted of a converted tugboat, Teaser, and two passenger vessels seized in Virginia waters and converted into warships: the ten-gun flagship Patrick Henry (formerly Yorktown) and Jamestown. In addition, two small converted gunboats, Raleigh and Beaufort (the latter of which was renamed Roanoke), joined the squadron from North Carolina early in 1862. In the meantime, at the suggestion of Matthew Fontaine Maury, a Virginia-born naval commander who helped to develop torpedoes, the Confederate Congress appropriated $2 million for a large fleet of small gunboats. Two of them, Hampton and Nansemond, were completed and joined the squadron.
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, 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
The squadron won naval immortality during the Battle of Hampton Roads. The formidable ironclad ram CSS Virginia, built on the hull of the steam frigate USS Merrimack, was commissioned on February 24, 1862. Its commander, the squadron’s new flag officer, Captain Franklin Buchanan, determined to take the experimental ship into action as soon as possible and, on March 8, 1862, engaged the U.S. blockading squadron at Newport News. Although the Virginia dominated the battle, the other ships in the James River Squadron, particularly the Patrick Henry, Jamestown, Teaser, and Beaufort, also participated in the destruction of the U.S. wooden warships.
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.
The loss of Norfolk shifted the squadron’s base of operations—including shipyards, supply depots, hospitals, and industrial facilities—to the Confederate capital at. Protected by a strong line of obstructions, torpedoes (submarine mines), and land fortifications, the squadron operated at Chaffin’s and Drewry’s bluffs, nine 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 the Virginia and built at the Richmond yards: CSS Richmond (commissioned in November 1862), CSS Fredericksburg (commissioned May 1864), and CSS Virginia II (commissioned May 1864). A fourth ironclad, the CSS Texas, was launched but not commissioned when the war ended.
The squadron’s respite ended in May 1864 when a formidable naval flotilla steamed up the James along with the Union. (The offensive was part of the new Union general-in-chief ‘s Overland Campaign against Richmond that eventually stalled in a ten-month .) A Confederate torpedo destroyed the Union gunboat, the USS Commodore Jones, on May 6 and stalled the Union flotilla. Confederate Navy secretary Stephen Mallory ordered James River Squadron commander Captain John K. Mitchell to engage the enemy, but Mitchell had little confidence in his chances and declined to act.
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 thebelow 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. 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.
Mitchell’s successor as squadron commander was Admiral Raphael Semmes, late commander of the celebrated commerce raider Alabama. Semmes found his new assignment “dreary, weary, and lonely.” In the early morning hours of April 3, 1865, Semmes belatedly learned that the Confederacy was abandoning Richmond and he was ordered to destroy the ships of the James River Squadron. He carried out his orders, then transformed the squadron’s officers, sailors, and marines into a land force that accompanied the Confederate government to, Virginia, and eventually to surrender at Greensboro, North Carolina. Naval personnel manning the land batteries around Richmond became a “Naval Brigade” under command of Captain John Randolph Tucker and accompanied the during the and its eventual at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
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.
But, flawed as they were, the James River ironclads were impressive achievements for an agrarian economy. Furthermore, their presence—and their potential for wreaking havoc on Union supply bases—preoccupied U.S. naval forces. Confederate Navy secretary Stephen R. Mallory exaggerated when he insisted that “Our Navy alone kept that of the U.S. from reaching Richmond by the James River,” but it was the collapse of Confederate armies, not navies, that forced the destruction of the James River Squadron and of other Confederate naval forces.