150 Years Ago Today: Rebel Ironclads Make One Last Sortie
On January 23, 1865 the last and most powerful fleet the Confederacy ever assembled made a gallant attempt to break through the Union blockade and destroy General Grant's supply base at City Point. From the mighty ironclad CSS Fredericksburg, Commodore John K. Mitchell led his James River Squadron of 11 ships into battle first against Union batteries at Fort Brady and then into action against a smaller but smartly led flotilla of four Yankee warships. The engagement, which lasted for three days, would become known as the Battle of Trent's Reach.
For once the Confederates had not only the numbers but also the quality of ships in a naval action. In addition to his flagship, Mitchell had two other ironclads, CSS Virginia II and CSS Richmond, with five gunboats and three torpedo boats in support. Among them they mounted more than 20 guns, The Union James River Flotilla under Captain William Parker boasted 18 guns among its four vessels, which included the monitor USS Onondaga, two gunboats and a torpedo boat. To reach the Yankee ships, however, Mitchell had to first navigate through the maze of sunken wrecks, nets, naval mines and other obstructions, most of the time under the fire of the 30 guns of Fort Brady and four lesser shore batteries manned by Colonel Henry Pierce and his 1st Connecticut Artillery.
Despite the odds and what one Rebel officer described as "a perfect rain of missiles," the Confederates bulled their way down the James - with a little help from two Confederate batteries which bombarded the Union positions. As the Rebel fleet came on, Parker retreated - much to the anger and surprise of General Ulysses Grant. The Rebels anchored for the night, ready to move on toward the big supply base at City Point with the morning tide. Grant and Rear Admiral David Porter, however, ordered Parker to go back and engage and sink the Confederates.
When dawn came on January 24, four of Mitchell's 11 ships were stuck in the mud. They were easy targets for the Union batteries, which wreaked havoc on the wooden gunboats. When Parker's flotilla arrived, the Union ships were able to maneuver and bring fire upon the Rebels, most of whom were still stuck and could not bring their guns to bear. As the tide rose, however, CSS Virginia II managed to work herself free - enough to fire a single round at the Union monitor. The Confederate warship scored a hit - but took 70 in return from the Union army and navy gunners. The flagship was hit 150 times or more. The ironclads were battered and leaking but fight on they did. One gunboat and a torpedo boat were sunk and Mitchell, realizing he could not break through, turned about and fought his way back past the Union batteries to bring his fleet home.
It was the last ride for the Rebel fleet - and for Mitchell, who in mid-February was relieved of command and replaced by Admiral Raphael Semmes, who had led the raider CSS Alabama.
Confederate ironclads are powerful weapons in the arsenal of the Southern player in GMT's strategic naval game of the Civil War, Rebel Raiders on the High Seas. Although more frequently used to defend ports than to attack, they can sortie out to attempt to break the Union inshore blockade and clear the way for those blockade runners fortunate enough to sneak past the screw sloops that patrol farther out off the coast.