Thursday, September 8, 2016

Diary of Sir Arthur James Lyon Fremantle: Friday, June 19, 1863

I embarked at 10 A.M. on board a small steamer to visit Drewry's Bluff on the James River, the scene of the repulse of the ironclads Monitor and Galena. The stream exactly opposite Richmond is very shallow and rocky, but it becomes navigable about a mile below the city. Drewry's Bluff is about eight miles distant, and, before reaching it, we had to pass through two bridges — one of boats, and the other a wooden bridge. I was shown over the fortifications by Captain Chatard, Confederate States navy, who was in command during the absence of Captain Lee. A flotilla of Confederate gunboats was lying just above the obstructions, and nearly opposite to the bluff. Amongst them was the Yorktown, alias Patrick Henry, which, under the command of my friend Captain Tucker, figured in the memorable Merrimac attack. There was also an ironclad called the Richmond, and two or three smaller craft. Beyond Drewry's Bluff, on the opposite side of the river, is Chaffin's Bluff, which mounts heavy guns, and forms the extreme right of the Richmond defences on that side of the river.

At the time of the attack by the two Federal ironclads, assisted by several wooden gunboats, there were only three guns mounted on Drewry's Bluff, which is from 80 to 90 feet high. These had been hastily removed from the Yorktown, and dragged up there by Captain Tucker on the previous day. They were either smooth-bore 32-pounders or 8-inch guns, I forget which. During the contest the Monitor, notwithstanding her recent exploits with the Merrimac, kept herself out of much danger, partly concealed behind the bend of the river; but her consort, the ironclad Galena, approached boldly to within 500 yards of the bluff. The wooden gunboats remained a considerable distance down the river. After the fight had lasted about four hours the Galena withdrew much crippled, and has never, I believe, been known to fame since. The result of the contest goes to confirm the opinion expressed to me by General Beauregard — viz., that ironclads cannot resist the plunging fire of forts, even though that latter can only boast of the old smoothbore guns.

A Captain Maury took me on board the Richmond ironclad, in which vessel I saw a 7-inch treble-banded Brook gun, weighing, they told me, 21,000 lb., and capable of standing a charge of 25 lb. of powder. Amongst my fellow-passengers from Richmond I had observed a very Hibernian-looking prisoner in charge of one soldier. Captain Maury informed me that this individual was being taken to Chaffin's Bluff, where he is to be shot at 12 noon to-morrow for desertion.

Major Norris and I bathed in James River at 7 P.M. from a rocky and very pretty island in the centre of the stream.

I spent another very agreeable evening at Mrs S——’s, and met General Randolph, Mr Butler King, and Mr Conrad there; also Colonel Johnston, aide-de-camp to the President, who told me that they had been forced, in order to stop Bumside's executions in Kentucky, to select two Federal captains, and put them under orders for death. General Randolph looks in weak health. He had for some time filled the post of Secretary of War; but it is supposed that he and the President did not quite hit it off together. Mr Conrad as well as Mr King is a member of Congress, and he explained to me that, at the beginning of the war, each State was most desirous of being put (without the slightest necessity) under military law, which they thought was quite the correct remedy for all evil; but so sick did they soon become of this regime that at the last session Congress had refused the President the power of putting any place under military law, which is just as absurd in the other direction.

I hear every one complaining dreadfully of General Johnston's inactivity in Mississippi, and all now despair of saving Vicksburg. They deplore its loss, more on account of the effect its conquest may have in prolonging the war, than for any other reason. No one seems to fear that its possession, together with Port Hudson, will really enable the Yankees to navigate the Mississippi; nor do they fear that the latter will be able to prevent communication with the trans-Mississippi country.

Many of the Richmond papers seem to me scarcely more respectable than the New York ones. Party spirit runs high. Liberty of the press is carried to its fullest extent.

SOURCE: Sir Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, Three Months in the Southern States: April-June, 1863, p. 221-4

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