James River Squadron


The James River Squadron was one of the eight major forces that the Confederate States Navy created to defend its rivers and waterways during the American Civil War (1861–1865). At its apogee, the squadron consisted of three steam-powered ironclad warships—including the CSS Virginia, which famously dueled the Union’s ironclad USS Monitor at the Battle of Hampton Roads (1862)—and more than a half-dozen small gunboats, converted civilian vessels, and torpedo boats. As was true with the Confederacy’s other naval forces, the James River Squadron saw little action and was destroyed by its own men as a result of the defeat of Confederate land forces.


Confederate States Navy Buttons

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 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

Drewry's Bluff

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.

View of Rocketts and the James River from Libby Hill

The loss of Norfolk shifted the squadron’s base of operations—including shipyards, supply depots, hospitals, and industrial facilities—to the Confederate capital at Richmond. 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.

Union Offensive

Monitor USS Onondaga on the James River

The squadron’s respite ended in May 1864 when a formidable naval flotilla steamed up the James along with the Union Army of the James. (The offensive was part of the new Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant‘s Overland Campaign against Richmond that eventually stalled in a ten-month siege of Petersburg.) 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 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.

War’s End

Chaffin's Bluff on the James River

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 Danville, 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 Army of Northern Virginia during the Appomattox Campaign and its eventual surrender 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.

Torpedo Boats

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.

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.
February 24, 1862
The formidable ironclad ram CSS Virginia, built on the hull of the steam frigate USS Merrimack, is commissioned. Its commander, the James River Squadron's new flag officer, Captain Franklin Buchanan, is determined to take the experimental ship into action as soon as possible.
March 8, 1862
At the Battle of Hampton Roads, the ironclad CSS Virginia experiences combat for the first time at the mouth of the James River at Hampton Roads, where it meets several wooden warships of the Union's North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, sinking one and damaging several others.
March 9, 1862
The CSS Virginia engages with the Union's ironclad, the USS Monitor, at the mouth of the James River. The battle lasts for more than four hours. While neither ship gains a decisive advantage, it is a strategic victory for the Union because the Virginia is unable to destroy any more of the Union's wooden fleet.
April 11, 1862
Almost a month after its battle with the Union warship USS Monitor, the CSS Virginia pulls out of Norfolk to engage the Union navy, but is no longer effective.
May 8, 1862
The CSS Virginia pulls out of Norfolk for the third time in its short life, and again it sees little engagement.
May 10, 1862
Confederate forces abandon Norfolk, after which Richmond becomes Virginia's main port and naval station.
May 11, 1862
Confederates destroy the CSS Virginia after the fall of Yorktown because it draws too much water to navigate up the James River and in order to ensure that it would not fall into Union hands.
May 15, 1862
A force of Confederate soldiers, sailors, and marines at Fort Darling fight a Union naval flotilla at the Battle of Drewry's Bluff. The USS Monitor cannot elevate its guns sufficiently high to fire on Confederate emplacements, while the USS Galena takes heavy punishment. The Union ships turn back.
November 1862
The ironclad CSS Richmond is commissioned and joins the James River Squadron.
May 1864
The ironclad CSS Fredericksburg 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.
May 6, 1864, 2 p.m.
Members of the Confederate Submarine Battery Service detonate a torpedo that sinks the USS Commodore Jones and turns back U.S. ships charged with assaulting positions at Drewry's Bluff on the James River. Union forces opt for a land assault on the Drewry's Bluff—Fort Darling positions.
May 16—17, 1864
Forces under Confederate general Pierre G. T. Beauregard turn back an attempt by divisions of Union general Benjamin F. Butler's Army of the James to capture Fort Darling on the James River.
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.
April 3, 1865
Following the fall of Richmond, Admiral Raphael Semmes destroys the ships of the James River Squadron. He transforms his officers, sailors, and marines into a land force that accompanies the Confederate government to Danville and eventual surrender at Greensboro, North Carolina.
  • Conrad, James L. Rebel Reefers: The Organization and Midshipmen of the Confederate States Naval Academy. Boulder, Colorado: Da Capo Press, 2003.
  • Coski, John M. Capital Navy: The Men, Ships and Operations of the James River Squadron. Campbell, California: Savas Woodbury, 1996.
  • Luraghi, Raimondo. A History of the Confederate Navy. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1996.
APA Citation:
Coski, John. James River Squadron. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/james-river-squadron.
MLA Citation:
Coski, John. "James River Squadron" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.