January 23 – 24, 1865
The James River approach to Richmond, Va., had been heavily fortified during the first years of the war. Powerful shore batteries and a line of obstructions had so thoroughly repulsed a May 1862 Union navy excursion up the river that the Yankees were reluctant to venture again toward Richmond.
By the beginning of 1865, three new powerful Southern ironclads had been added to the river defenses and Confederate authorities decided to use them to make an offensive movement down the river. The large Union army besieging Richmond and Petersburg at the time relied on a tremendous supply depot at City Point, where the Appomattox River empties into the James. Union naval defenses at City Point were at an all time low because so many ships had been dispatched to North Carolina for an attack on Fort Fisher. Several days of heavy rain had caused the river to rise and would make it easier for the Southern ships to pass a Union line of obstructions across the river.
The plan was ambitious but simple. One of the Rebel officers wrote that the object of the expedition was “nothing less than the division of Grant’s army into three parts and the destruction of his water base at City Point.” They were to go through the Union line of obstructions (placed there to prevent just such a Southern excursion) in a section of the river known as Trent’s Reach. One ironclad would remain to steam up and down the James and keep the Union soldiers on each side of the river separated, while the other two ironclads went to City Point. There they would shell and burn the Union supply depot and sink all the Northern ships they found. While one ironclad continued the destruction, the other would sail up the Appomattox and further divide the Union army.
The Confederate flotilla set out just after dark on January 23, 1865, and arrived at Trent’s Reach around 10:30 P.M. Two of them anchored upstream, while the other worked to clear a way through the barrier.
On the cold, dark night of January 23, 1865, three Confederate ironclads and several small wooden vessels steamed down the James River to attack the great Union supply depot at City Point, Va. At about 10:30 P.M. they reached the section known as Trent’s Reach, where the Union had placed obstructions across the river. Two of the powerful ironclads anchored upstream while the other, the CSS Fredericksburg, and two of the smaller ships worked to remove the barrier.
Union batteries fired at the Southern ships while they worked but scored few hits in the darkness, and a passage was cleared by 1:00 A.M. But when the Fredericksburg returned upriver to bring down the other ironclads, it was discovered that the tide had ebbed and the CSS Virginia II and the Richmond were stranded and would not be able to refloat until the next high tide at 11:00 A.M.
As daylight brightened, the fire of the Union guns on shore became much more accurate and deadly. The unarmored Southern vessels were particularly vulnerable to the Yankee shells. The crew of the battered Confederate ship Drewry was evacuated onto one of the ironclads just 15 minutes before a Union shell struck the Drewry’s magazine and blew the wooden ship to bits. The debris from the Drewry killed two crew members on the nearby CSS Scorpion and caused damage to some of the other ships.
The situation of the Southern flotilla became worse when the ironclad USS Onondaga steamed upriver and began firing massive 15-inch shells at them. But the Union ship was so late in appearing at Trent’s Reach that the rising tide refloated the Southern ironclads before much damage had been sustained. The Rebels quickly retreated back upriver. They decided to attempt the mission again that night, but turned back when it was discovered that powerful calcium lights had been placed to illuminate Trent’s Reach and the Southern ships would be clearly visible to Union artillerymen.
Fascinating Fact: The Union captain of the Onondaga was court-martialed for not contesting the Rebel ships sooner. The commander of the Confederate flotilla, John K. Mitchell, was relieved of command for not making another attempt at Trent’s Reach.