Lost on the Rappahannock
The Reliance & Satellite Affair

     On July 24, 1863 the United States Navy Department sent a message out to Commodore Andrew. A. Harwood, commanding the Potomac Flotilla warning him of a large body of men, perhaps five hundred in number, about to engage in operations against his small fleet on the Rappahannock River. Word was sent down the chain of command to Lieutenant Commander Samuel Magaw, the senior officer afloat to be on the alert. All of his vessels then present near the mouth of the river were duly notified of the danger.

     A month later on the morning of the 23rd of August as the U.S. Steamers Satellite and Reliance were at anchor near the river's mouth, a rebel party of about forty men lead by a lieutenant approached the vessels in two small boats. The forward lookout hailed the party but having no success after three warnings, fired upon them.

     Forward to aft, one sailor ran off to wake the remainder of the crew; the ship was being boarded by rebels. Commander Henry Walters, commanding Reliance leaped from his hammock and bolted forward screaming for an available hand to slip the cable. A rifle ball was fired into his abdomen, and passing out his back, sank to his knees while blowing his whistle for Satellite anchored two hundred yards off, to come assist.

     It was Thomas Brown, acting Master's Mate and ship's executive officer, who went forward from the starboard side of the ship, passing the arm's locker and taking no weapon to himself, cried out to the boarding party that he'd surrender the ship. Resistance continued only for a short time afterwards, when a third boat boarded from the port side of the ship and the few sailors making an effort to resist, realized it was futile to go on.

     The Satellite was likewise boarded about twenty minutes past midnight having been hailed but managing to give the lookout on duty the slip. The invaders had already boarded by scores before the crew was able to respond satisfactorily.

     The ship's captain, Master John F. D. Robinson, issued orders to his crew from the security of his cabin and refused to come topside, while Randolph Sommers, part of the ship's company fought with the rebels without a weapon, attempting to take a few down with his fists, wounded several times he was forces to give up and later died as a result. Many more who tried to resist fell wounded by the strikes of a cutlass. The crew surrendered after all hope was lost, the captain being taken prisoner from his cabin.

     The crews of both ships were sent south to Richmond as prisoners of war, while an inquiry later found the captain of the Reliance to lack experience in such a case, he received vindication for his ship's anchored status. The captain of the Satellite and executive officer of the Reliance were both found guilty of cowardice while engaged.

     No early warning would have overcome inexperience and cowardice. Reliance and Satellite were lost due to inappropriate measures taken while on alert, its crew taken for a personalized tour of the Richmond Prison System, and a lesson learned that even the seaborne are vulnerable when the normally vigilant become seemingly overconfident.

Dan (Aldie) Daniel Moran
© 2003

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-civilwar.net