Thursday, June 19, 2014

U.S. Navy Gunboats at Deep Bottom, James River, 1864

This is an Alfred Waud sketch of the Deep Bottom/Jones Neck section of the James River during the 1864 Bermuda Hundred Campaign. The sketch is currently in the collection of the Library of Congress. We are currently working on a major article about the U.S. Navy's role in the campaign for the next issue of the Daybook.

Shown in this sketch is one of the pontoon bridges constructed across the James River, set up to establish a communications and supply link between the Army of the Potomac, approaching from the north, and the Army of the James, which was approaching from the east. Soldiers forming the 2nd Division of the 10th Corps are crossing the bridge. In the center of the image stands Major General Robert Sandford Foster. At the time (the Army gave him many roles throughout the war), Foster was the 2nd Division's commanding officer.

In the upper right corner are USS Mendota and Mackinaw, two of the U.S. Navy's "double-ender" gunboats. The two ships are at anchor where Fourmile Creek (correctly spelled as one word) empties into the James, and they are keeping watch to the north for Confederate ground forces. The ships' presence in many ways represents the U.S. Navy's role in the campaign. While General Grant and his lieutenants tried to figure out how to defeat Robert E. Lee's ground forces, Acting Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee's units stood on alert ready to assist Union ground forces (in many cases, bailing them out of a tough fight). Lee wanted to use his ships more aggressively, but Grant worried about Confederate naval forces severing the Army's bridges and requested that the Navy play a more defensive role.

Did you notice that, on the left side of this sketch, Waud has drawn a man fishing near the gunboat? Even with all the activity going on, and both U.S. Naval and Army forces preparing for battle, one man apparently made his decision about he was going to spend the day. As Waud's sketches are considered to accurate and reliable depictions, there is no reason to think that the artist made up the subject.

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