The Civil War Connections Blog

The Patrick Henry

She was not meant for war.

Yet war found the passenger steamer Yorktown in April of 1861 while she was anchored in the James River. The Virginia State Navy seized the vessel, which eventually became part of the Confederate States Navy in June, 1861.


Our good friend John Quarstein wrote the following for us concerning the vessel:

While the Yorktown was not designed as a warship, she was quickly transformed into a gunboat.  Her cabins were removed and decks strengthened.  Lieutenant William Llewellyn Powell, the vessel’s executive officer, supervised this work and advocated that the steamer be shielded with iron.  One-inch iron plates were placed abreast the ship’s boilers, extending below the waterline.  Iron shields, in the form of a V, were placed on the spar deck forward and abaft the ship’s exposed engines, which when fighting head- or stern-on, protected the walking beam from raking shots.  The CSS Patrick Henry, as the Yorktown was renamed, became the flagship of Commander John Randolph Tucker’s James River Squadron.  Tucker decided to take the Patrick Henry into action as quickly as possible to stop Union gunboat excursions up the James River.  Operating from his anchorage off Mulberry Island, Tucker attacked the Union squadron off Newport News Point on September 13, 1861.  The Patrick Henry engaged shore batteries, and the Federal warships including the U.S.S. Cumberland, USS. Savannah, and USS. Louisiana.  No ships were damaged in this exchange, however, when the Patrick Henry attacked Newport News Point again on December 2, 1861, the gunboat was struck by one Union shell during the two-hour engagement.  Two crew members were slightly injured and some minor damage was inflicted upon the Union’s fleet.

Here she is by the numbers:

Length:                                    250 Feet

Beam:                                       34 Feet

Draft:                                          17 Feet

Displacement:                         1,300 Tons

Propulsion:                              Brigantine rig with side-wheels and two vertical beam engines and two Morgan glass tube boilers.

Armament:                              One 10-inch shellgun, one 64-pounder, six 8-inch shellguns, two 32-pounder rifles.