A Letter from the Commander of the Naugatuck


A gun battery at Drewery's Bluff overlooking the James River.

A gun battery at Drewery’s Bluff overlooking the James River.

The following letter is taken verbatim from a news clipping that was originally printed by the New York Evening Post, May 23, 1862

The Gunboat Fight on the James River.

The following private letter from Lieutenant Constable, commander of the gunboat Stevens (Naugatuck) addressed to Captain John Faunce, gives an excellent description of the recent fight on James River, and explains the bursting of the heavy gun on board of that vessel during the engagement.


United States Gunboat Stevens,
Hampton Roads, May 19, 1862

My Dear Captain:   We arrived here yesterday from Norfolk, having brought down the killed and part of the wounded in our last action and left that at the hospital there. The squadron to which we were attached, consisting, besides the Stevens, of the Galena, Monitor, Aroostook and Port Royal, worked our way up the James river, and at a battery at a place called Harding’s Bluff, (about five miles above Day’s Point), we saw the rebel steamers Yorktown and Jamestown, but they ran from us, ascending the river. When we arrived at City Point we found the storehouses there, containing tobacco, etc., in flames, and nearly consumed.

13. Drewrys Bluff sketchOn the evening of the 14th instant we arrived about ten miles below Richmond. The Stevens had led the squadron, keeping about two hundred yards ahead of the Galena, sounding out the channel, and looking out for obstructions and torpedoes. We were (on account of our light draught of water and the readiness with which the vessel worked) of great service to the squadron. From information which we had gained we learned that the enemy had, about two miles above us, heavy obstructions across the river, consisting of spiles and sunken vessels, defended by a very strong battery on a high bluff, called Ward’s Hill. This War’s Hill was but eight miles below Richmond, and at council of war held on board the flagship (the Galena), consisting of the commanders of the five vessels, it was arranged that the squadron should the next morning attack the battery, in the order arranged. If successful in shelling them out, the Stevens was to haul out the spiles, while men from the squadron spiked the guns. I was provided with a chain for the purpose, and intended pumping out aft and submerging forward until making fast, and heaving taunt – then pump out forward, and submerge aft to loosen the spile in its hold, and then haul upon it until drawn, etc. etc.

We likewise learned that the enemy had rifle pits well manned, and even while at anchor on the afternoon of the 14th we were fired at several times from musketry in the bushes along the shore. At the request of the Commodore, I threw a shell from our Parrot gun at quite a large force of the enemy on a hill about two miles distant, which start them off at “double quick,” and then threw two or three rounds of canister from our light guns into the bushes where the rifle shots had come from, and during the night we heard nothing further from them.

I fortunately learned that evening that the Galena had several large sheets of boiler iron not in use – (six feet by three feet). Twenty-five of these I procured, and fastened them on the outside of the pilot-house and cabin, and to their protection we were all indebted for our lives in the action of the 15th.

The next morning, on the first of the ebb, the vessels moved up to their positions of attack, under a very annoying fire of rifles from the woods (the river being less than two hundred yards wide).

We opened fire upon the battery with our heavy gun, and threw shell and canister from our broadside ones into the woods. Our station was abreast of their rifle-pits, and was only about forty feet from the shore, so that their sharp-150325-G-ZV557-029shooters had a fair chance at us. During the fight, and while our heavy gun was performing splendidly, it burst; but fortunately disabled but one man. It burst from the vent to the trunnions in two halves, throwing one half overboard on the port side, while the other half was landed on deck on the starboard side. The muzzle forward of the trunnions remained entire, and was thrown forward about two feet. The gun-carriage was destroyed, the pilot-house shattered, part of the upper deck crushed in, and some of the main deck beams started.

How I escaped, God only knows. I was within two feet of the gun when it burst, having just sighted and trained it upon the battery. My speaking trumpet is completely crushed, and a fragment of the gun, weighting about one thousand five hundred weight, fell so closely to me that it tore my coat. I was hit on the head by some part of the gun or carriage (I think it was one of the large rubbers), which stunned me for a moment, although I was able to keep the deck and superintend the fighting or our broadside guns (which were well handled under charge of Wilson), until the squadron fell back for want of ammunition, about an hour and a half after our gun bursted. After heaving up our anchor I fainted away; but after being cupped behind the ears by the surgeon of the Aroostook, who came on board to look out for our wounded, I was able to resume the charge of the deck.

Our little broadside guns did splendid execution, driving the enemy out of their rifle-pits and clearing the shore of every enemy within canister range. By keeping the crew under the protection of our “iron-clad” cabin, and only exposing them for a moment while loading, our loss by their fire was only two wounded.

The Galena was hit forty six times; twenty-eight shot entered her armor and completely penetrated it; five passed through her smoke-stack, and three passed through deck plating. One or two shot passed entirely through her. She lost seventeen killed and about twenty wounded. The other vessels received but slight injury – the Monitor none at all.

The vessels had to fight at anchor on account of the narrowness of the river.

The Stevens did not haul off until the Galena and Monitor set her the example. The Aroostook and Port Royal dropped down half an hour before we hove up; but the Port Royal slipped her moorings. Since I have been in command of the Stevens I have always observed the precaution of having a man on deck to “feel home” the shot or shell after the muzzle of the gun is elevated, for fear that the shot or shell might start while the muzzle is depressed in the berth-deck. At the time the gun burst this precaution was attended to under my own eye, consequently the bursting could not have been caused by the shot not being “home.”

In making my report to the Commodore after the action, I requested him to appoint a board of officers to examine into the cause of the bursting. The board so appointed examined the gun, etc., and report that they find an old flaw extending from the inside of the vent to near the outside surface of the gun, and that, therefore, they consider that the bursting was caused by the gun heretofore having been subjected to severe and protracted tests, etc., and fully clearing me from any want of attention or neglect. This I am glad of.

I am anxious to rejoin the James river squadron at once, although it has been decided that another gun cannot be fitted without considerably delay, and I have therefore offered the Flag-Officer to return as I am, as Commodore Rodgers told me when I left him at City Point that the vessel, even in her present condition, could be of great service to him.

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