Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Porter's Mortar Fleet in Hampton Roads

Many historians and enthusiasts agree that the U.S. Navy's James River Flotilla was ill-equipped to attack the Confederate garrison at Fort Darling along Drewry's Bluff in May 1862.  Besides the lack of Union Army units nearby, the Flotilla's ships were designed for ship to ship action.  They were not designed to tackle a fort sitting far above the river.  Why didn't the Navy use mortar boats on the James River as in the Mississippi?  Even if they were less than effective at engagements like Island No. 10, their involvement might have inflicted some damage on the approach to Richmond.  Although this was intended to occur, the ships did not arrive in time. 

On July 9, 1862, Secretary Welles, ordered Porter and most of the mortar fleet to transfer from the Mississippi River to the James.  The mortar ships were used against Vicksburg for much of June in preparation for an assault on the fortress city.  However, Welles received reports that Union ground forces under General Halleck were not ready to attack and the water level in the Mississippi was beginning to drop.  Seeing that the mortar ships could be better used in the East and with the endorsement of Assisstant Secretary Fox, Welles ordered the transfer.

The move took four weeks.  The first ships began to filter into Hampton Roads in the beginning of August.  En route to Hampton Roads, Porter's flagship USS Octorara captured the blockade runner Tubal Cain off the east coast of Key West.  That was the only postive development of the transfer.

Leaving aside the fact that the fleet arrived a full month after the Army of the Potomac ended the Peninsula Campaign, the mortar fleet and its sailors were in no shape for action.   Flag officer Goldsborough reported that many of the sailors were suffering from what we now call relapsing fever (older term: "bilious remittent"/ slang term: "camp fever"), which had spread throughout ships serving on the Mississippi.  Welles responded to this issue suggesting the Navy enlist African American men camped around Fort Monore to fill in the ranks, as there were not enough sailors in Northern ports to provide replacements. 

Upon looking at the ships themselves, Goldsborough questioned their seaworthiness to Welles. "Are these vessel to be sent up the James River in their present condition?" he asked.  Commodore Charles Wilkes further questioned Welles, implying that the Secretary was seriously misinformed about the readiness of the ships.  He stated that it would be several months before the ships could see offensive action again, as many of the mounts holding the mortars were in serious disrepair.   Furthermore, Army commanders in Hampton Roads refused to release any African Americans to the Navy. 

Thus, the idea of using mortar ships to capture Richmond was killed.  Furthermore, with Farragut and Porter's pull back from Vicksburg, the siege of the city was effectively lifted.

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