Obstructions on the James
The Navy's Reluctance to Adopt such Policy

     In support of the Army of the Potomac's grand movement south of the James River following their deadly attempt at taking Cold Harbor, Major General Benjamin Butler, commanding Army of the James requested of the fleet their assistance in dropping obstructions along the river in an effort to thwart all attempts by the enemy of resistance against these forward movements.

     Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee was quite reluctant with such a suggestion, writing to the Navy Department that the fleet had never been accustomed to putting down such obstructions and with the ironclad force present upon the river system; taking on more of an offensive roll in securing the James River would suit him much better. Instead, the admiral's idea of fire and exploding rafts, followed up by torpedoes, ironclad vessels and boats proved more beneficial. Lieutenant General Grant had been reliant on crossing the James and operating against Richmond from the south; therefore the advantage to hold the river secure against such casualties, expected of a novel naval engagement, gave the fleet a position of greater strength.

     The Naval officers all wished to get at the enemy, and did not desire to discourage his approach, however; in case of campaign failure, the point of embarrassment with the admiral was the destruction of the monitors should the enemy be successful in their assault. Obstructing the shoal waters on this portion of the river would certainly allow the rebel vessels to come straight down at him through the center of the channel, leaving them little room to maneuver; therefore obstructing the shoals would play to the fleet's advantage. The depth was so terribly shallow that even the tugs could not navigate during low tide; the longer wooden vessels with orders to maintain open communication with the army were simply useless here in the event of a fight.

     From his flagship Agawam, the Commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron requested the presence of General Butler and his Chief Engineer, Brigadier General Godfrey Weitzel; whose expertise in dropping such obstructions would best serve army communications advising where to sink the ships; thus placing the operation upon the shoulders of the army.

     Army of the James was disinclined to give professional opinion as that the confidence of such an undertaking; should rest upon those afloat. It was the general's opinion a naval officer would not undertake giving an army engineer directions regarding earthworks, likewise the army would not interfere providing an engineer with sinking obstructions within the river. More from a sarcastic tone; he voiced his opinion that the usages of such obstructions ought to lie with the admiral commanding the fleet as that the department in Washington couldn't possibly know the exigencies as an operational commander ought to. Not wishing to stop there, he added that he remained aware of the delicacy naval gentlemen felt about depending on anything other than their ships in a contest with their enemy; but of the opinion such should be laid aside by the paramount consideration of protection for the lives of the men and the safety of the valuable vessels of the squadron.

     Had it been policy for such tactics, the fleet would have provided its own vessels, however; the Navy Department would not grant appropriate authority to do so. The admiral was rather perturbed over his counterpart's assumption, reminding him that the loss of life and material was incidental to the contest at hand. In closing, since the fleet commander could not expect the assistance of the army, he wished to have the topographical map which Butler had given him and afterwards borrowed, allowing him all the tools possible to handle the river mission on his own.

     Since Grant's movement south of the James River, the coast survey had re-evaluated Trench's Reach and found it to run ten feet deep during low tide with a three foot rise and fall. If the Navy lightened the monitors in the river they'd be more than capable of crossing the bar. With the assistance of an Andrews Pump and a dredging machine the Navy would be quite useful in deepening the old channel along the reach and sinking obstructions as well as raising them once again making the operation rather effortless.

     On June 15, 1864 the Army of the Potomac crossed the James River in force near Fort Powhatan; and the Navy proceeded to sink the obstructions previously proposed by Major General Butler but now insisted upon by the general in chief. On behalf of Commander, Army of the James; Major General Godfrey Weitzel wrote the commanding officer of the USS Tecumseh thanking him for his zealous cooperation in sinking the obstructions along the eleven foot channel; all of which had been accomplished by the 18th of June. Everything above the line of monitors had been closed off and the area known as Trent's Reach fell in operational control of Admiral Lee's war ships.

     Towards the end of July, two barges had been placed in the south channel of the James, as well as holing up the line of seven foot soundings, too shallow for passage. The boom thus completed and secured at both ends with enough flexibility to provide continued passage to the federal vessels. The naval engineering was now capable of rendered gunfire support to both sides of the river, which ultimately would impart safe passage as the land forces continued to inch their way towards the rebel capital.

     As the federal armies would continue to press the Confederate resistance from Petersburg, as well as north of the James River, the United States Navy continued to inch their way along, not only threatening Richmond from the south, but placed an uncomfortable choke hold on it by a continued federal presence to the east. As General Robert E. Lee had promised, if General Grant were to succeed in getting south of the James River, the loss of the war would be nothing more than a matter of time.

Dan (Aldie) Daniel Moran
© 2006

Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at dmoran@us-civilwars.net