Howdy folks, and welcome back to the good ol’ blog! Today’s tidbit about me is: in high school, my friends and I once made the mistake of going to an Awful House. Oh I’m sorry – did I say “awful?” Well, that’s exactly what I meant, but it’s technically called “Waffle” House. Everyone who has been to one knows I need not say any more about it.
150 years ago, the Seven Days battles were erupting. General Lee was beginning his attacks on General McClellan’s northern wing, and Richmond would soon be freed from the specter of a lengthy siege. The thing is, most people are familiar with the Seven Days battles. What people are NOT so much aware of is the fact that there were many other interesting events occurring during this time – events like the Appomattox River Raid! Remember that post on the USS Alligator from May 22nd? Well, today was the day it joined the Appomattox River Raid squadron under the command of Commander John Rogers in order to help destroy the railroad supply lines to Richmond. A large raiding party, including the USS Monitor, would sail after sunset and steam within range of the railroad, then launch sappers under cover of night right next to the bridge to destroy it. The other warships would bombard the river banks to disperse Confederate troops, and the USS Alligator would slip back under the water without anyone knowing she was there. At least, that’s what was SUPPOSED to happen.
As for what ACTUALLY happened, well…
Let’s just say that almost everything went awry. First and foremost, the USS Alligator was told at the last minute that she couldn’t join the raid. The water levels in the river were too shallow and river itself was too bendy to allow her to pass – even if she could make some of the more unforgiving turns, she would not be able to submerge completely, and the chance of her capture by the Confederates was too great a hazard to risk. This was a big problem, because the plan was to sneak up the river to the railroad bridge near Petersburg and use the USS Alligator to launch sappers undetected at night. Since the USS Alligator couldn’t make the trip, Rogers decided to just try and use rowboats from the USS Port Royal for the sapping task.
The second problem was that, even though heavy rains had raised the water level of the river, it turned out to not run deep enough for most of the raiding squadron. Shallow waters, the pitch black night and river obstructions compounded each other, and most of the ships ran aground within a few hours of the start of the raid. Some vessels made it upriver, including the USS Monitor, but the USS Port Royal ran aground over five miles from the target.
Lastly, there were swarms of Confederates on either bank, constantly shooting at the ships with small arms. This may not seem like a big deal, since ships are technically impervious to little bullets, but the whole point of the new plan was to launch rowboats filled with MEN to destroy the bridge. Men don’t react well to bullets. Mostly, they die – especially when they have to row over five miles upriver, destroy a guarded bridge, then row back, all in the black of night. True, the ships were supposed to use cannons to disperse the Confederates, but there were so many bullets flying through the air that Union sailors couldn’t even go on deck to man their guns, much less work any of the rowboats. This was the nail in the coffin of the Appomattox River Raid. Unable even to launch their rowboats, and with no hope of completing their mission before the sun rose, the raiding force turned back – the US Navy had been defeated by rifle bullets.
Well, that about does it for the Appomattox River Raid: tune in next time for news on what was happening during the Seven Days during this time, and how long it took the raiding squadron to actually leave the James River!