Sailors of Confederacy Played Big Part
in Noted Land Battles
This is the second of three articles on little told incidents
concerning the Confederate States Navy.
By David G. George
Every school boy knows the story of the capture of the Dutch fleet, frozen in the texel, by Napoleon's cavalry. But how many have heard of the "inland voyages" of the Confederate naval forces after the fall of Richmond? And who remembers that the South's largest force of sailors and marines surrendered after fighting their last battle, at Sailor's Creek, in Prince Edward County, Virginia.
Almost from outset of the War of Secession a considerable proportion of the officers and men of the Confederate navy served their country on shore duty, rather than afloat. There were never enough ships for the many well-trained officers or the thousands who volunteered as sailors. Consequently, they were employed in the construction of dozens of shore batteries and other defensive positions which, to an ever increasing extent, they manned.
Early in the war, Confederate naval guns and sailors played a prominent part in the action at Drewry's Bluff, when the first Federal attempt to take Richmond by water was severely repulsed. Captain John Randolph Tucker, of the warship Patrick Henry had landed the heavy guns from his ship and others of the James River Squadron, constructing a powerful naval battery which routed the Northern ironclads with a skillful punging fire.
As the small Confederate fleets in varous rivers and harbors were broken or rendered useless, their crews generally reported to Richmond, where they were assigned to a regularly constituted naval brigade, charged with the manning of the city's defenses. Even as early as the first battle of Drewry's Bluff, which occurred in May, 1862, a few men of the fleet which had been dispersed below New Orleans a few weeks earlier had been transferred to the river batteries of the capital's fortifications.
As the war dragged on the naval brigade received many accessions of strength. Sailors and marines were brought from port after port until, in the early spring of 1865, after more than 300 officers and men had been brought up from Charleston and Wilmington, the brigade numbered approximately 2,000 men. Besides these there were some 500 sailors on board the ships of the James River Squadron, and about 60 midshipmen of the young naval academy on board the Patrick Henry, which had been converted into a schoolship.
On February 18, 1865, Admiral Raphael Semmes, formerly captain of the renowned cruiser Alabama, assumed command of the river fleet, which consisted of the iron-clads Virginia, Richmond and Fredericksburg, and five wooden vessels. Captain--or Commodore--Tucker returned to Richmond about the same time and assumed command of the naval brigade on shore. His forces manned the powerful positions at Drewry's Bluff, battery Brooke, Battery Wood, and Battery Semmes, as well as some lesser places.
Despite the heavy concentration of Northern vessels in the lower James after the fall of Wilmington and Charleston, the Southern naval officers were supremely confident of their ability to repel any approach to Richmond by water. In the words of Admiral Semmes: "No fleet of the enemy could have passed my three iron-clads, moored across the stream in the only available channel, with obstructions below me, which would hold it under my fire and that of the naval batteries on shore by which I was flanked. Indeed, the enemy, seeing the hopelessness of approach by water, had long since given up the idea."
But as the admiral sat in his cabin of the flagship Virginia, poring over maps of North Carolina, during the brisk weeks of March, the full seriousness of the situation was impressed upon him. Sherman was steadily advancing through North Carolina, threatening a speedy junction with Grand's forces below Petersburg. It was obvious that, barring a miracle, Richmond could not long be held, and that the navy would be compelled to abandon the water altogether.
Late in the afternoon of April 2 the long-feared blow fell. Admiral Semmes was just sitting down to dinner, in complete ignorance of what had happened at Petersburg, when a special messenger arrived with a sealed packet from the Navy Department. It read as follows:
"Confederate State of America,
Executive Office, Richmond, Va.
April 2, 1865
"Rear-Admiral Raphael Semmes,
Commanding James River Squadron
Sir: General Lee advises the Government to withdraw from this city, and the officers will leave this evening, accordingly. I presume that General Lee has advised you of this, and of his movements, and made suggestions as to the disposition of your squadron. He withdraws upon his lines toward Danville, this night; and unless otherwise directed by General Lee. Upon you is devolved the duty of destroying your ships, this night, and with all the forces under your command, joining General Lee. Confer with him, if practicable, before destroying them. Let your people be rationed, as far as possible, for the march, and armed and equipped for duty in the field.
Very respectfully, your obediant servant,
S. R. MALLORY,
Secretary of the Navy
Though rather astonished by the short notice, Semmes proceeded with arrangments to comply with the orders from Richmond. All efforts to contact General Lee proving to be of no avail, he was compelled to rely upon his own discretion, plus a considerable amount of guess-work. Officers and men toiled for hours without pause, in an effort to equip themselves for marching on land. Finally, after 2 o'clock in the morning of April 3, all the men had been removed from the iron-clads and they had been set afire in the channel. The wooden vessels, carrying the personnel of the entire fleet, steamed upstream.
Due to various delays, the fleet did not reach Richmond until after sunrise. The city was in flames. The rear-guard of the Confederate army had just crossed the river and set fire to the bridges when Semmes landed his fleet on the Manchester side. After the last sailor had come ashore, the ships were fired and shoved into the channel.
Semmes had been instructed to join General Lee in the field, but he had not the slightest idea where Lee or the "field" was. He marched his command to the railroad station, but was told that the last train had left at daylight. For a moment it looked as though the little band of sailors might not get away.
Abandoned Engines Aid Maneuver
But the officers soon located two abandoned engines and some cars. Breaking up picket fences for fuel, they managed to raise enough steam to get out of sight of the Federal forces whom they could now see, through clouds of smoke, streaming towards the capitol square in the heart of Richmond. Refueling at wood piles along the way, the sailors of the fleet "cruised" thunderously on towards Danville, passing Burkeville little more than an hour before the Federal cavalry cut the road there. Arrived in Danville, Semmes was given the rank of brigadier-general, and his little band was reorganized as an artillery brigade, assigned to the defense of the temporary capital. They were later included in Johnston's surrender at Greensboro.
As for the midshipmen of the naval academy, after setting fire to their schoolship, they had entrained for Danville much earlier on the night of evacuation, being entrusted with the guardianship of the government's archives and national treasury. Towards the latter part of April they arrived in the lower part of South Carolina, where they "lost" the government. For a week or more they wandered around Abbeville, S. C. and Augusta, Ga., in search of President Davis or some responsible official to whom they could hand over the Confederacy's precious store of gold and silver. They finally ran into the fugitive government at Abbeville on April 29 and delivered the treasury intact. On May 2 the 60 boys were each issued 10 days' rations and $40 in gold, and directed to return to their home.
Meanwhile, what of the other--and largest-- naval force? While Admiral Semmes and the sailors of his fleet were "cruising" inland by train in search of General Lee; and while the midshipmen were evacuating the treasury, the naval brigade--the principal naval force of the Confederacy--met with far different experiences.
General Lee had ordered all his forces to withdraw from their lines as quietly as possible on the night of April 2, and make their way by various routes to Amelia Courthouse. The forces around Petersburg were to retire up both banks of the Appomattox. Mahone's men on the "Howlett line" were to cut straight across Chesterfield County to Goode's Bridge. General Ewell, in command of all the forces around Richmond, was to make his way to the Genito Bridge. Lee hoped to reassemble all his troops at Amelia and continue from there down the railroad towards Danville.
Commodore Tucker's naval brigade was attached to General Custis Lee's division, which formed the rear-guard of the force retreating from Richmond. This corps, commanded by Ewell, was a motley outfit. It included regular troops, reservists, convalescents, government clerks, heavy artillerists from the Richmond forts, and the sailors and marines. Fully half of the men were unaccustomed to marching. All were impeded with baggage and the road was thronged with refugees and littered with wrecked or abandoned equipment.
Wagons, guns, caissons, horses and men mired deep in the mud of the roads, softened by spring rains. But Ewell's corps floundered painfully across Chesterfield County and reached Appomattox River on April 4--only to find no bridge at Genito's, the designated crossing place! However, Ewell passed on down to Mattoax, where he effected a crossing by laying planks on the railroad bridge. He arrived at Amelia the next day, but found that, despite all the delays he had encountered, his troops had marched ahead of the wagon train, with its supplies of food. As there was no food at Amelia, the arrival of more hungry men, including the foot-sore sailors, aggravated an extremely serious problem which, in the end, spelled the doom of the retreating forces.
Lee Veers Toward Farmville
Finding the direct road to Danville blocked by powerful Northern forces, General Lee veered away towards Farmville, where he hoped to get supplies sent down from Lynchburg. To beat the Federals to the railroad required forced marching under cover of darkness--and his men were already dropping out by thousands from hunger and exhaustion. But he made his dispositions according to the necessities of the moment. Through the night and well into the next day the army dragged on through the mud, sometimes getting into well-nigh hopeless tangles of wagons, artillery and troops, and having to stop frequently to fend off raids by the enemy's cavalry.
No portion of Lee's ragged legions suffered more than the naval brigade, which was near the rear of the marching columns. But, while the sailors must have longed for the comparative ease of their former ships, none responded to orders more readily than they did or bore their misfortunes with less complaint. Weary, and starving, they seemed to welcome the repeated Federal attacks, which gave them respite from marching, though sometimes calling for desperate fighting.
Around noon of April 6 the column of which the naval brigade was a part passed over the significantly named Sailor's Creek (sometimes spelled Sayler's). Due to a series of misunderstandings the troops under Generals Anderson and Ewell were, at this point, cut off from the balance of the Confederate army. Anderson found the road ahead blocked, while Ewell was attacked in the rear and on his flanks. Failing to clear the road, Anderson's corps was broken asunder. Ewell was then surrounded.
The troops from Richmond put up a spirited defense, in which the sailors and marines joined heartily. With immovable formation and a steady, rapid fire, the naval brigade repulsed two assaults by cavalry and one by infantry on the section of the line it was holding. Soon, however, Generals Ewell and Custis Lee were captured in a counter-attack and, seeing the hopelessness of the struggle, Ewell sent orders for the corps to surrender. But Commodore Tucker could see no reason for giving up the fight, and refusing to believe that Ewell had sent any such message, continued his resistance for 15 minutes after the other troops had ceased firing.
Sailors Didn't Know When They Were Whipped
It was only when Lieutenant Staunton, a naval officer on staff duty, brought the order for the second time that Tucker commanded his men to lay down their arms. The brave defense of the sailors had been observed by the enemy and as the Confederate naval flag was lowered the Federals cheered them heartily. Commodore Tucker explained later that it was his battle on land, and he had been unable to see any occasion for surrender. In the words of the Yankees, the sailors "didn't know when they were whipped."
With this final engagement and the resultant capture of the bulk of the Confederate naval forces at the appropriately named battlefield of Sailor's Creek, another startling link was added to the long chain of coincidences which characterized the War of Secession from beginning to end. The action brought to a close the illustrious history of the navy in Virginia, but the bold stand of the sailors gave final proof of their resolution and unfailing devotion to the Southern cause in the last dreary hour of irretrievable ruin.
For four years they had battled determinedly against hopeless odds, both on land and sea. Some had sailed on the dreaded cruisers: others had participated in the first battle between iron-clads, in Hampton Roads: some had fought on little river gunboats, while still others had occupied shore fortifications. Wherever they had been detailed to serve they had throughout the unequal contest, maintained a remarkable record as cheerful, patriotic and sturdy fighters. Considering the fact that they were compelled to bring their career to a conclusion in hand battle, fully 150 miles from the sea, it was indeed fitting that the field of this final conflict should have been previously named for them, long before the war. Undoubtedly there are many believers in prophecy who will insist that the person responsible for the naming of Sailor's Creek foresaw what would occur there on that dark Thursday, April 6, 1865.