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The Confederate Steamship Patrick Henry

By Captain James H. Rochelle, CSN 
From: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XIV, Richmond, Va., January to December, 1886, Pages 126-136. 

During the winter of 1864-'65, Commodore Lynch was detailed by the Navy Department at Richmond to write a report on the battles and combats fought or participated in by the Confederate States Navy. Commodore Lynch wrote to Flag-Officer Tucker, then commanding the Confederate States Naval Forces at Charleston, for information in relation to the battle of Hampton Roads and the subsequent repulse of the United States squadron at Drewry's Bluff. Flag-Officer Tucker having, as Commander Tucker of the Confederate steamship Patrick Henry, been present at both these engagements. I was in command of the Confederate steamship Palmetto State, one of the iron-clads of Flag-Officer Tucker's squadron at Charleston, when he received Commodore Lynch's letter, and as I had been executive officer of the Patrick Henry, the Flag-Officer requested me to give him my recollection of the principal events connected with that vessel. The letter which follows is my reply to that request.


August 23, 1886.


Flag-Officer JOHN R. TUCKER, Commanding Afloat at Charleston, S.C.:

DEAR SIR,-I am glad to learn from you that Commodore Lynch has been directed by the Department to prepare a narrative of the memorable and gallant deeds of the Confederate Navy; judging from the former works of the Commodore, I think we may congratulate ourselves that the navy has fallen into good hands and feel confidence that the proposed book will not only be a valuable contribution to the history of this giant war, but also a pleasant addition to the literature of the day. Hitherto there has been no effort made to popularize the navy, our officers, trained in an illustrious and exclusive service, have looked with a feeling akin to contempt on both the praise and blame of the periodical press, hence the only records of the navy are to be found in dry and terse official dispatches, exceedingly uninteresting to unprofessional readers, and unintelligible to the great mass of the people. Let us hope that the forthcoming work will be popular with the people, remove many of the prejudices against our service, and assist the present generation to the just conclusion that the Confederate navy has done well its part, notwithstanding the almost complete lack in the Confederate States of all the necessary constituents of naval strength. Among the naval events that Commodore Lynch will be called upon to relate, the career of the Confederate steamship Patrick Henry will, per haps, claim a prominent place, and if you think there is anything in this letter which will aid the Commodore to a fuller understanding of the service of that vessel, you are quite at liberty to send it to him.

The Patrick Henry, a side-wheel steamer of beautiful model and of about fourteen hundred tons burden, was called the Yorktown before the war, and was one of the line of steamers running between Richmond and New York. She was considered a fast boat, and deserved the reputation. When the Commonwealth of Virginia seceded from the Union this vessel was, fortunately, in James river. She was seized by the State, and the Governor and Council determined to fit her out as a man-of-war. She was taken up to the wharf at Rocketts, Richmond, and the command conferred upon Commander John Randolph Tucker, late an officer of the United States Navy, who had resigned his commission in that service in consequence of the secession of Virginia, his native State. Naval Constructor, Joseph Pearce, with a number of mechanics from the Norfolk Navy Yard, commenced the necessary alterations, and in a short time the passenger steamer, Yorktown, was converted into the very creditable man of-war steamer, Patrick Henry, of ten guns and one hundred and fifty officers and men. The vessel being properly equipped, so far as the limited resources at hand could be used, proceeded down James river and took a position off Mulberry Island, on which point rested the right of the Army of the Peninsula under Magruder. It was dull work laying at anchor off Mulberry Island; the officers and crew very rarely went on shore, the steamer being kept always with banked fires, and prepared to repel an attack which might have been made at any moment, the Federal batteries at Newport News and the guard vessels stationed there, the Congress, Cumberland, and several gunboats being plainly in sight. After awhile the monotony became so irksome that Commander Tucker took the Patrick Henry down the river to within long range of the Federal squadron and opened on them with his two heavy guns, with the hope of inducing a single gunboat to ascend the river and engage vessel to vessel. The challenge was not accepted, and the enemy having moved a field battery of rifled guns up the bank of the river, and taken a secure position from which they opened an annoying fire, the vessel was steamed slowly back to her station off Mulberry Island. The Northern papers stated that in this little affair, which took place on September 13, 1861, the fire of the Patrick Henry did considerable damage to the frigate Congress. About this time intelligence was received that one or two of the Federal gunboats came up the river every night on picket duty and anchored about a mile and a half above their squadron at Newport News. Here was a chance; so on the night of the 1st of December, 1861, the Patrick Henry again went down the river, keeping a sharp lookout for the expected picket boat. Not a sign of a vessel was seen, and when day broke there were the Federal squadron and batteries looming up against the dawn with all the gunboats quietly at anchor near the larger vessels. As the Patrick Henry could not have returned unseen, Commander Tucker opened fire. The Federals were evidently taken by surprise, and it was some minutes before they replied to the fire. They soon got to their guns however, and the sun as it rose was greeted with a roar of artillery that shook the windows in Norfolk and roused the people of that then gay city from their slumbers at a most inconvenient hour.

The Federal fire was well directed, and one officer and several men were wounded on board the Patrick Henry. One gunboat in particular, commanded by Lieutenant H. K.

Davenport, was noted for the precision with which she used her rifled guns. The old sailing master of the Patrick Henry, a seaman of sixty winters and many gales, was much pleased with the manner in which Davenport used his guns. He said to some one standing near him, "look at that black, ugly little craft yonder, well, whenever you see a puff of smoke go up from her, look out, for, as sure as you are born, there will be a blue pigeon about." The skirmish having continued for an hour or more, and nothing to be gained by prolonging it, the Patrick Henry returned to her usual anchorage.

In February, 1862, the ladies of Charles City, a county bordering on James river, desired to present to the Patrick Henry a flag which they had made for her, as an evidence of their confidence in the vessel, and their appreciation of the services she had done them by keeping marauding expeditions from ascending the river to pillage, plunder, and perhaps destroy the famous old country seats that are to be found on its banks. But the flag was destined never to be presented, such stirring times were at hand that the few hours necessary for the ceremony could not be spared. The iron-clad, Virginia, was about to make an attack upon the Federal batteries and vessels at Newport News, and the Patrick Henry was ordered to participate in the battle.

The day before the attack was to be made, the Patrick Henry was moved down to Day's Neck, and an anchorage taken, from which any vessel coming out from Norfolk could be seen.

The 8th of March, 1862, was a bright, placid, beautiful day, more like a May than a March day. All eyes on board the Patrick Henry were watching for the Virginia. About one o'clock in the afternoon she came steaming out from behind Craney Island, attended by her satellites-the gunboats Beaufort and Raleigh. Grand, and strong, and confident, a Hercules of the waters, she moved straight upon the enemy.

It was not necessary to "call all hands up anchor" on board the Patrick Henry, the anchor was "raised with a run," and under a full head of steam the vessel sped on her way to aid her powerful friend.

The Confederate vessels in James river formed "in line ahead" as they approached the batteries at Newport News. The Patrick Henry, 10, Commander Tucker, leading; next came the Jamestown, 2, Lieutenant-Commanding Barney; and next the Teaser, 2, Lieutenant-Commanding Webb. The Virginia reached the scene of action first; amidst the iron hail which fell harmlessly on her armour, she ran into and sank the Cumberland; a hearty cheer from the James River vessels greeted her success, but there was no time to give up to exultation, the long line of the Newport News batteries were close at hand, and in order to reach the naval combat it was necessary to pass them. The guns of the Patrick Henry were elevated for a range of eight hundred yards, that being the distance at which the pilots expected to pass the batteries.

And now the hush which precedes the shock of battle settled alike on Federal and Confederate. Through the embrasures of the Federal batteries glimpses could be caught of the men at their guns, but not a sound came from them. As the Patrick Henry ranged up abreast of the first battery she delivered her fire, and the flash from her guns had scarcely vanished when the Federal works were wrapped in smoke, and their projectiles came hissing through the air. The first shots from the Patrick Henry went over the batteries, her guns having been elevated for a range of eight hundred yards, consequently she was passing the batteries at less than that distance, and to this circumstance is to be attributed her not having been sunk or disabled by them. The enemy supposed she would pass as far from them as the channel would allow, and had elevated their guns for that range; the vessel passing closer than they thought she would, their shot for the most part passed over her. She was struck, however, several times during the passage; one shot passed through the crew of No. 3 gun, wounding two men and killing one, a volunteer from the army, who had come on board to serve only for the fight. His last words as he fell were, "Never mind me, boys."

Having passed the batteries with less damage than was expected, the Patrick Henry became engaged in the thick of the fight; whilst the forward guns were engaging one enemy, the after-guns were firing at another. The situation of the Confederate wooden vessels at this time seemed desperate. The Newport News batteries were on one side; on the other, the frigates Minnesota, St. Lawrence and Roanoke were coming up from Old Point Comfort, and, in front, the beach was lined with field batteries and sharpshooters. Fortunately for the Confederate wooden vessels, the Minnesota, St. Lawrence and Roanoke grounded, and the smaller vessels which accompanied them, warned by the fate of the Cumberland, returned to Old Point. The Minnesota, though aground, was near enough to take part in the action, and opened a heavy fire on the Confederate squadron.

About this time Flag-Officer Buchanan hailed the Patrick Henry, and directed Commander Tucker to burn the Congress, which vessel had run ashore, hauled down her ensign, and hoisted a white flag. The gunboats, Raleigh, Beaufort and Teaser, had attempted to burn her, but had been driven off by a heavy artillery and infantry fire from the Federal troops on the beach. The pilots of the Patrick Henry declared that vessel could not get alongside the Congress in consequence of an intervening shoal. This determined Commander Tucker (1) to approach the Congress as near as the shoal would permit, and then to send his boats and burn her; the boats were prepared for the service, and the boat's crews and officers to command them held ready, whilst the vessel was steaming in to the Congress. This movement of the Patrick Henry placed her in the most imminent peril; she was brought under the continuous and concentrated fire of three points; on her port-quarter were the batteries of Newport News, on her port-bow were the field batteries and sharpshooters on the beach, and on her starboard-bow the Minnesota. It soon became evident that no wooden vessel could long float under such a fire; several shots struck the hull; a piece was shot out of the walking beam; as the sponge of the after pivot gun was being inserted in the piece the handle was cut in two by a shot-half in prayer and half in despair at being unable to perform his duty, the sponger exclaimed, "Oh, Lord! how is the gun to be sponged?" and he was much relieved when the quarter gunner of his division handed him a spare sponge. This state of things could not last long; a rifle shot from the field batteries penetrated the steam chest, the engine room and fire room were filled with steam, five or six of the firemen were scalded to death, the engineers were driven up on deck, and the engines stopped working. The vessel was enveloped in a cloud of escaped steam, and the enemy, seeing that some disaster to the engines or boilers had occurred, increased his fire. At the moment, no one knew what had happened, the general impression being that the boiler had exploded; and it is an unmistakable evidence of the courage and discipline of the crew that the fire from the Patrick Henry did not slacken, but went on as regularly as before the damage. As the vessel was drifting towards the enemy, the jib was hoisted to pay her head around, and the Jamestown, Lieutenant-Commanding Barney, gallantly and promptly came to her assistance and towed her from her perilous position. The engineers soon got one boiler to work, the other was so badly damaged that they were unable to repair it at the time, and with the steam of one boiler alone the Patrick Henry returned to the conflict. Night, however, soon closed in, and as in the darkness it was impossible to distinguish friend from foe hostilities ceased, the victory of this day being without dispute with the Confederates.

During the battle the shores of the Confederate side of the "Roads were lined with spectators from Norfolk and the adjacent camps, who seemed greatly to enjoy the "historical piece" that was enacted before them.

The night after the battle the Confederate squadron anchored under Seawell's Point, at the mouth of the harbor of Norfolk. There was little time for sleep that night, for the conflict was to be renewed the next morning, and it was necessary to make many repairs and preparations. Soon after midnight a column of fire ascended in the darkness, followed by a terrific explosion. The Federal frigate Congress, which had been on fire all the evening, had blown up, the fire having reached her magazine.

At the first peep of dawn on the 9th of March the Confederate squadron was underway, it having been determined to destroy the Minnesota, that frigate being still aground near Newport News. As the daylight increased the Minnesota was discovered in her old position, but the Minnesota was not the only thing to attract attention; close alongside of her there lay such a craft as the eyes of a seaman does not delight in; an immense shingle floating on the water with a gigantic cheese box rising from its centre; no sails, no wheels, no smokestack, no guns, at least, none that could be seen. What could it be? On board the Patrick Henry many were the surmises as to the strange craft; some thought it a water tank sent to supply the Minnesota with water, others that it was a floating magazine replenishing her exhausted stock of ammunition, but few were of the opinion that it was the Monitor which the Northern papers had been boasting about for a long time.

All doubts about the strangers were soon dispelled; as the Virginia steamed down upon the Minnesota the cheese box and shingle steamed out to meet her. It was, indeed, the Monitor, and then and there commenced the first combat that had ever taken place between iron-clads."(2)

The Patrick Henry and the other Confederate wooden vessels took little part in the events of the day, except to fire one shot at the Monitor, at very long range, as she passed and repassed at one time during her maneuvering with the Virginia. At one time the Virginia did not seem to move, and apprehensions were entertained that she had got aground or that some part of her machinery was damaged. Signal flags were run up on board of her, but the flags did not blow out clear, and it was some minutes before the signal officer of the Patrick Henry could make out the numbers. At length he reported the signal to be, as well as he was able to read it, "disabled my propeller is."(3)

No wooden vessel could have floated twenty minutes under the fire that the Virginia was then undergoing from the Monitor and the Minnesota, but if her propeller was disabled it was necessary to attempt to tow her back to the cover of the Confederate batteries. So the Patrick Henry and Jamestown started to make the attempt, but they had gone only a short distance when the Virginia was seen to move and her propeller to turn, showing that she required no assistance. That evening all the Confederate vessels went into the harbor of Norfolk.

Flag-Officer Tattnall having relieved Flag Officer Buchanan, who had been seriously wounded in the first day's fight in Hampton Roads, and all the vessels having been refitted, on the 13th of April the squadron again sallied out to meet the enemy. In case the Virginia should not be able to capture or destroy the Monitor, the gun-boats Beaufort and Raleigh and two small steamers were assigned the duty of carrying the Monitor by boarding.(4) The squadron steamed about in Hampton Roads for two days in succession, and the Jamestown captured two of the Federal transports, but the Monitor did not leave her anchorage at Fortress Monroe. (5)

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

J. H. ROCHELLE,Lieutenant Commanding Confederate steamship Palmetto State.


1.The name of my dear and deeply-lamented friend, Admiral John Randolph Tucker, has been necessarily so frequently mentioned in this letter as commander of the Patrick Henry, that it will not be out of place to say a few words as to his career.

During the course of his honorable and eventful life Admiral Tucker served in three navies, rendering gallant, faithful and important services to each of them, but probably the most brilliant, if not the most important, of all his services was rendered whilst he commanded the Patrick Henry.

Born in Alexandria, Virginia, in the year 1812, he entered the navy of the United States as a midshipman in 1826, and made his first cruise in the frigate Brandywine. In 1837 he was promoted to the  rank of lieutenant, and in 1855 to that of commander. During the Mexican war he commanded the bomb brig Stromboli. In 1861, when commanded so to do by the Virginia Convention, he resigned his commission in the United States navy and entered the Confederate service, with the rank of commander. He commanded the Confederate States steamer Patrick Henry at the naval conflict in Hampton Roads; and at Drewry's Bluff, having landed his crew and mounted the principal guns of his vessel on the bluff, he materially aided in repulsing the Federal squadron. Soon after the battle of Drewry's Bluff he was promoted to the rank of captain, and ordered to Charleston, where he commanded the Confederate naval forces as flag-officer of the station. When Charleston was evacuated he returned to Drewry's Bluff, which station he commanded until Richmond was evacuated, when he reported with his command to General Lee. His services in the civil war ended at Sailor's Creek, where, after a most gallant resistance, he surrendered to General Keifer, who some years after the close of the war returned him his sword.

During the war between the Republics of Peru and Chili and Spain, Admiral Tucker commanded, with the commission of rear admiral, the combined fleets of the two Republics. His last service was the exploration and survey of the upper Amazon and its tributaries, being president of the Peruvian Hydrographic Commission of the Amazon.

He died of disease of the heart, at his residence in Petersburg, Virginia, on the 12th of June, 1883, and was buried by the side of his wife, in the cemetery at Norfolk.

It would require a volume to do anything like justice to the character and career of this most noble and gallant man. His firmness on all occasions of duty was of proof, though no one was more gentle in the ordinary intercourse of private life. None served with him without feeling that he was a man fitted for high destinies, for he was of a nature, an experience, and a professional skill, well calculated to command respect and inspire confidence. In the course of my life I have had many opportunities of hearing character discussed among sea officers; few escape criticism of some sort or other for their professional acts, and fewer still as men, yet I do not remember a single instance in which I have ever heard a whisper of complaint against the professional or private conduct of John Randolph Tucker.- J. H. R., 1886.

2.The combat between the Virginia and the Monitor was an indecisive action so far as those two vessels were concerned; at least such was my opinion after witnessing the fight from the distance of about a mile. Both vessels were skillfully and gallantly fought, and neither could claim a victory over the other. If the Monitor had been silenced, the Minnesota would have been destroyed, and probably much other damage done to the Federal forces. If the Virginia had been defeated, the city of Norfolk would have been at the mercy of the Monitor.- J.H.R., 1886.

3.Some years after the conclusion of the war I showed a copy of this letter to my friend, Captain Catesby ap Roger Jones, who was in command of the Virginia during her fight with the Monitor. Captain Jones informed me that the signal officer of the Patrick Henry did not read the Virginia's signal correctly; I forget what Captain Jones said the signal was, but it did not indicate that the Virginia was in distress, or that she desired assistance.- J.H.R., 1886.

4.One of these small steamers was the tender of the Norfolk navy yard. She was manned for the occasion by officers and men of the Patrick Henry, under the command of the executive officer of that vessel, and was christened by the men Patrick Henry, Junior.-J.H.R., 1886.

5. The conclusion of this letter has been lost. It went on to relate the services of the Patrick Henry up to the date of the letter. These services may be briefly recounted: When the Confederate authorities determined upon the evacuation of Norfolk, the Patrick Henry was employed to remove what public property could be saved from the navy yard to Richmond. The hulls of several uncompleted vessels were towed past the Federal batteries at Newport News. The running past the batteries was always done in the middle of the night, moonless nights being chosen; so far as we ever knew, we were not once discovered by the enemy.

When the Federal squadron entered James river, the Patrick Henry ran up to Drewry's Bluff, and her officers and crew aided materially in getting that position ready for defence. The Confederate steamship, Jamestown, was sunk to complete the obstructions of the river, her guns having been previously landed and placed in battery on the Bluff. One solid shot 8-inch gun and two rifle 32-pounders were landed from the Patrick Henry, mounted in pits dug in the brow of the Bluff, and manned by the officers and crew of the vessel.

On the 15th of May, 1862, the Federal squadron, consisting of the Galena, Monitor, Naugatuck, Port Royal and Aroostook, made the well-known attack on the Confederate batteries at Drewry's Bluff, which was the only defensible position between the squadron and Richmond. The Galena and the Monitor were the only vessels which engaged the batteries at effective range. The Galena was managed with great skill and daring. She steamed up to about eight hundred yards of the batteries, deliberately and swiftly more ship, sprung her broadside on the batteries, and opened with much precision a most damaging fire. After a hot action of about four hours duration, the Federal squadron was beaten off, and steamed away down the river. The guns on the Bluff were worked by the officers and crews of the Patrick Henry, Jamestown, Virginia, and a battalion of artillery. The most effective gun on the Bluff was the Patrick Henry's 8-inch solid shot gun; the working of this gun was personally directed by Captain John R. Tucker, and the execution done by it was manifest.

After the action at Drewry's Bluff, the Patrick Henry's officers and crew were permanently attached to the naval batteries at that place. The vessel herself became the school-ship of the Confederate States naval school, and was destroyed when Richmond was evacuated by the Confederates, to prevent her from falling into the hands of the enemy.-J.H.R., 1886.

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