With the loss of the Virginia and of Gosport Navy Yard, the James River Command dwindled in importance. Except for a brief and hopeless flurry of activity in the fall of 1864, the area remained quiet.
Three more ironclads were completed, all on the same Brooke-Porter plan.
The first of these was the Richmond. On March 17, 1862, a Colonel Blanton Duncan appealed for contributions to a fund for building a second ironclad. A "Ladies Defense Association" was formed as a result of this appeal, and not only money but scrap iron was collected from all over southeastern Virginia for the project. The Navy Department approved the idea, and appointed an officer to superintend the project. The Richmond was completed and in commission by July, 1862, record time for an ironclad. Once completed, nothing much was done with her until the appearance of Grant's forces before Petersburg, in the fall of 1864, turned the James River once again into an active theater of operations.
By this time two more ironclads of the same class as the Richmond had been built: the Virginia II and the Fredericksburg. These three together constituted the most powerful naval force the Confederate Navy ever assembled and sent into action. Each one was 160 feet long, of 16foot draft, carried 4 to 6 inches of armor and 4 Brooke rifles. However, they had only 20 miles of the James River above City Point in which to operate. Union General Butler's forces had completely blocked the river at Trent's Reach, above City Point, by sinking hulks and planting mine fields. This was done to the intense disgust of the United States Navy which had a force of monitors in the river - the Tecumseh, the Canonicus, the Saugus, and the Onondaga, plus the USS Atlanta, captured off Savannah the previous year from the Confederates.
On June 21, 1864, the Virginia and the Fredericksburg exchanged salvos with the Saugus across the barrier, and throughout the summer and fall the squadron made occasional forays, mostly against Union troop concentrations along the river. About all that this accomplished was to keep four of the most powerful ironclads in the Federal Navy from being used at Charleston and/or Mobile.
By the third week in January, 1865, all the monitors, except the hulking Onondaga, had been sent to other commands. On January 22, a flood had raised the level of the James to a point where it was believed that the Richmond, the Fredericksburg, and the Virginia II could pass the obstructions and get to the Union transports at City Point. An officer was sent to Richmond to inform Mallory. He at once notified General Lee of the opportunity, whereupon Lee asked for a sortie that very night.
The Fredericksburg, with a few feet less draft than her consorts, passed the obstructions safely; the others grounded in the swift current. At dawn on the 23rd, the monitor Onondaga was sighted on the river below them, heading downstream! At length she reversed engines and came back firing. For this her captain was court-martialed and sentenced to be dismissed from the service, although he maintained that he had only retreated to give himself room in which to maneuver.
[Secretary Welles set aside the verdict on technical grounds and the captain merely was relieved of command and retired.]
The helpless ironclads remained under the fire of the monitor until about 9 P.M., when a rising tide finally enabled them to get off and proceed downstream, battered but still battleworthy. At this point the pilot of the flagship lost his nerve and said that he could not see well enough to pilot the squadron any farther. He had some justification, for not only had he been fired upon by parties of Federal infantry onshore, and been forced into the armored pilothouse, but the Federals had a calcium searchlight focused on the ships. Upon the pilot's refusal to go any farther, the squadron returned to its moorings above Drewry's Bluff. Soon afterward two more monitors were added to the Union squadron.
This was the last attempt at offensive action on the part of the Confederate ironclads of the James. Eventually the crews were formed into an artillery battalion and used in the defense of Petersburg. With the fall of Richmond in April, the ships were burned to prevent capture, and the sailors, together with survivors of the debacles in North and South Carolina, were formed in the Naval Artillery Brigade. Under the leadership of Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes of Alabama fame, the brigade was sent by train to Danville where it was disbanded in a few weeks.
As any map so clearly shows, the geography of the North Carolina coast offered tremendous possibilities to whoever could hold the chain of islands bordering the sounds. In Confederate hands they not only made the Union blockade all but impossible, but they guaranteed the security of the largest body of navigable water in the Confederacy. On the inland coast of the sounds lay a group of towns which housed a respectable shipbuilding industry and a population of good seamen. Rail communications with Atlanta and the interior of North Carolina were good, and communications with Richmond and the James River were enhanced by the presence of the Dismal Swamp Canal. Here was one place where ships could be built in security and the crews trained. Then the fleet could be moved north to the James, or could sally forth from any of a number of channels to harass the Union blockading force, as well as the Union supply line south to Charleston and the Gulf.
The Union naval command could appreciate the strategic possibilities of the coast, too. Once in control of the outer chain of islands, Roanoke Island could be taken and control of the sounds secured. The Canal could be blocked, and Norfolk threatened from the rear.
The Federals lost no time in seizing the initiative. In a series of brilliant moves which were little appreciated at the time, Union forces cracked the island barrier and gained control of the sounds. This was accomplished by the capture of Forts Hatteras and Clark in August, 1861, followed by the capture of Roanoke Island in February of 1862. Traffic by water between the cities bordering the sound thus was made all but impossible. The following month saw the occupation of New Berne, and before long, of Elizabeth City and Plymouth.
These moves constituted a disaster of major proportions for the Confederate Navy. The Confederate response to the ominous developments in the sounds was slow and somewhat hesitant. On April 16, 1862, a contract for the construction of one ironclad gunboat was awarded to Gilbert Elliott, agent for J. C. Martin of Elizabeth City. While stipulating delivery within four months from the date of contract, the contract provided that "if work is interrupted by the enemy, the party of the first part (Elliott) is to receive compensation for work done on the boat to the time of such interruption."
Further reports on this ironclad are lacking, and presumably the work was interrupted by the enemy.
Elliott and Martin received a second contract for the construction of an ironclad gunboat on September 17, 1862. This ship (never named ) was built at Tarboro, North Carolina, on the Tar River, and was to be delivered before March 1, 1863. Construction progressed slowly; Flag Officer W. F. Lynch, C.S.N., Commanding Naval Forces in North Carolina, in a letter dated April 6, 1863, to Senator Davis of North Carolina, reported that only her framing had been completed. All work on this ship ceased on August 17, 1863, when a Union cavalry force came up from New Berne and added her to the already long list of Confederate ironclads "burned on the stocks."
Another contract was awarded to the firm of Howard and Ellis of New Berne, for an ironclad gunboat to be completed on or before March 1, 1863, at White Hall, on the Neuse River above New Berne. This ship, the Neuse, lived long enough to be completed and commissioned, late in 1864, only to be burned by the Confederates when Hardee's forces withdrew before the advancing armies of Sherman in the spring of 1865.
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