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At Ease: Gunboats on the River?

Gunboats on the Rappahannock


The Rappahannock River in Central Virginia is not a location typically associated with naval warfare in Civil War history. However, Union gunboats did cruise the river occasionally, typically at the lower end where the tidewater meets the Chesapeake Bay, but sometimes all the way up to Fredericksburg.

Today, we've compiled a little history and a unique photograph to highlight these lesser-known stories from the riverbanks.


Four Gunboats at Port Royal, December 1862

In November 1862, the Confederates knew the Union army sat on the north side of the Rappahannock River and likely intended to cross, but they did not know where that crossing would happen. While General James Longstreet occupied the high ground around Fredericksburg, General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps covered about 25 miles of land and crossings downriver from the city. With Jackson, the Confederate cavalry eyed the river, watching for troop movements on the opposite bank or a gunboat advance. At Port Royal, approximately 18 miles south of Fredericksburg, the river spanned nearly 1,000 yards and was easily navigable for Federal gunboats. Would the Union army cross here and try to use gunboats to cover their movement? To counter this possibility, the Stuart Horse Artillery ranged the six miles between Port Royal and Skinker’s Neck where the river narrowed, and fired off occasional warning shots, letting everyone know they were vigilantly watching the area and would defend their side of the riverbank. Their mobile artillery pieces could be the first line of defense, allowing other Confederate guns or infantry to assemble as needed.

Modern Map, showing Fredericksburg (red) and Port Royal (yellow). Click image to view larger.

On December 4, 1862, four Union gunboats arrived at Port Royal. The USS Anacostia, Currituck, Coeur de Lion, and Jacob Bell shelled that town. It didn’t take long for Confederate artillery to respond. First, an imported Whitworth rifle opened fire; this unique cannon shot from about three miles away, plaguing the gunboats who could not reach their adversary. Other shorter range Confederate batteries were not able to fire effectively since the gunboats used Port Royal on their flank, forcing the Confederates to avoid firing into their own civilian town. The Whitworth did enough damage, though, to force the four gunboats to head downriver.

However, once away from the town, the gunboat crews discovered that they were still not safe. Taking two rifled Blakely cannons, Major John Pelham, commander of the Stuart Horse Artillery, pursued the gunboats along the riverbank. At three hundred yards, his personally-directed shots crashed into one of the gunboats. The vessels fired back with grapeshot, wounding some of the horse-artillerymen.

The swift Confederate shots proved too much after a few minutes, and the gunboats quickly wriggled out of range, leaving the river around Port Royal still in Southern hands. A snowstorm ended the attempts at Port Royal, and Union focus on the river centered at Fredericksburg...without the support of gunboats. Major Pelham received multiple commendations for pursuing the gunboats, though this skirmish was overshadowed eleven days later when he fired the opening shots on December 13 and delayed the Union attacks for at least an hour.

The gunboat incident on the Rappahannock River is one of the lesser-known events leading up to the Battle of Fredericksburg. It’s interesting to ponder if that battle might have been different if the Union army had crossed closer to Port Royal or if gunboats had been able to cruise up the river to Fredericksburg.


USS Yankee

Library of Congress.

The USS Yankee was a side-wheel steamer constructed in 1860. It was one of the vessels sent to try to provision Fort Sumter in South Carolina in April 1861 and helped with the evacuation of Norfolk Navy Yard later that same month. The steamer and her crew kept busy patrolling the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia coast and tidewater areas. In May 1864, the USS Yankee was photographed near Fredericksburg, Virginia, after cruising up to this point on the Rappahannock River.


Tobacco for Bacon...Until The Gunboats Arrive

In March 1865, newspapers reported a speculative trade deal gone wrong at Fredericksburg...when gunboats arrived and raided the city and Hamilton's Crossing. Listen to the details in the original reporting in our newest video.


Parting Shot


Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania.

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