Fort Brady Helped Keep Confederate Gunboats From Attacking Union Supply Bases During the Siege of Petersburg
In the summer of 1864, the Union Army settled into siege operations against Petersburg Virginia. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant established his headquarters at City Point at the confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers. This location, about eight miles from Petersburg, was also developed into an enormous Union supply base. At its peak, over 100 ships a day would arrive at the City Point wharves with supplies that were shipped to the front via railroad.
Although a land based attack on the supply base was unlikely, it was possible that Richmond based Confederate gunboats could steam down the James River and attack Union supply ships or shell the base itself. In late September 1864, Union forces captured Confederate Fort Harrison, part of Richmond’s southern defenses. Union engineers then constructed an earthen fort overlooking the James River south of Fort Harrison to anchor the new Union line that ran south from Fort Harrison (renamed Fort Burnham) south to the James. This new fort was named Fort Brady, and it not only strengthened the flank of the Union line, it also presented a formidable obstacle to any Confederate gunboats trying to reach City Point from Richmond.
Fort Brady was primarily garrisoned by Company C of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, under the command of Captain H.H. Pierce. The 107th United States Colored Troops (USCT) were also stationed there for a time. As part of the Union line, this was no idyllic assignment away from the action. Pierce frequently reported that the fort took enemy mortar and artillery fire, and the 1st Connecticut returned fire. Fort Brady’s armament included Parrot Rifles ranging from 10 pounders all the way up to 100 pounders, as well as Coehorn and large caliber mortars.
The Confederates finally tried to run gunboats down the James to attack City Point on January 23rd, 1865, in a battle called the Battle of Trent’s Reach, named after an area downriver from Fort Brady. Although the guns of Fort Brady fired at the eight vessel squadron, both as they headed up river and as they headed back to Richmond after being defeated, Union gunboats and shore batteries at Trent’s Reach inflicted most of the damage on the Confederate ships in this Union victory. Captain Pierce submitted this report on the Battle of Trent’s Reach:
FORT BRADY, VA.,
January 26, 1865.
SIR: I have the honor to report that, pursuant to written instructions from headquarters Department of Virginia and North Carolina, dated January 21,1865, every available officer and man in my command was put hard at work to get my fort, then much damaged by recent rains, in readiness to receive the rebel rams. All hands worked with a will, and, as far as possible, everything was in good and seasonable order. Previous to their coming had verbal notification from the same source as the written.
About 8 p.m. January 23 my lookout man, stationed on the parapet, discovered the rams approaching, floating, not steaming, down the river. Thanks to the vigilance of my own officers and men and those of Captain Bach, commanding colored supports, I was not taken by surprise, as no alarm was given by our pickets on the opposite shore nearly a mile above, and the first shot fired at the enemy’s boats was from my own heavy guns. Gave them in the neighborhood of twenty-five shots while floating a distance of thirty or forty rods; should have given them more had my best gun, left 100-pounder, not been dismounted at the second shot by one of the enemy’s shell and my two left 30-pounders been run off the platforms, owing to their (platforms) being too narrow to admit of any but direct fire. Put the latter pieces in position again and fired them; also moved my right 30-pounder, previously so placed as not to bear on the river, by hand, outside the fort into the ditch, but, owing to the extreme difficulty of moving it in the mud, was unable to get it there in season to use before the boats had passed; this gun, however, did good service on their return.
In consequence of the real construction of Fort Brady, was unable to fire down the river; and by reason of the embrasures having been built with special reference to the enemy’s land batteries, my left 100-pounder being destroyed, was prevented from injuring the boats after passing a certain point, and that point above my work.
The rams came down by twos, lashed together, which was the cause of my mistaking, in the obscurity of the night, the actual number for three, as I reported by orderly to department headquarters.
The construction and position of my battery with regard to the crest of the river-bank renders it little adapted for protection against gunboats, and my parapet is so low on the down-river side that they could completely enfilade me with their stern guns without receiving a shot in return. Filled and placed sand-bags there during the night of the 23d to form a slight barrier.
During all this time the enemy were incessantly annoying us from their land batteries, comprising sixteen or more heavy guns, making good shots all the while. Did not pay much attention to them until the next day morning, when they opened one gun from Semmes in direction of our Sawyer battery. As I could get a good range, opened and dismounted it; all the enemy’s guns replied to my fire, but should not have stopped had I not received orders from department headquarters to cease: dismounted another of their pieces before the order reached here.
After the boats went down, apparently somewhat crippled, had verbal and written instructions from General Turner, chief of staff, to be on the watch for their return. Had all my serviceable pieces loaded and pointed, and threw out pickets as far down as Dutch Gap. Am greatly indebted to Captain Bach and the officers under him for their coolness and willingness to take every pains to give me timely warning. About 3 a.m. January 25 was apprised by Captain Bach’s pickets of the return of the boats; was on the lookout and had all prepared; waited until they came directly opposite, fired, and knocked over the smoke-stack of the leading one (this was accomplished by the gun in the ditch); thought she was sinking, but the next boat took her in tow. Sent one shot at each of the rams and iron-clads, five in all, from the same piece as they passed by, then had to wait until they arrived in front of my three remaining pieces. Worked them as rapidly and surely as possible, and succeeded in sending some 125 solid shot at them before steaming out of range. Struck them time after time, as the sound showed, but the shots crumbled or glanced off. All this was under a terrific fire; the enemy putting from 1,000 to 1,500 heavy shell in and around my battery. Was at no time silenced by their guns. Consider the rebel boats to have been much crippled in their passage down and up.
Looking at the caliber and position of my guns, the weakness of my parapet, and the severity of the enemy’s fire, cannot but deem it fortunate that the affair turned out so favorably.
But three men–two engineers and one colored support–were killed inside the work; upward of forty of my company were knocked down by splinters, &c., and slightly scratched, but none so injured as to be unfitted for immediate duty.
Cannot help speaking again and again of the splendid behavior of my officers, Lieutenants Deming and Miller, and of my men. Am accountable in a great measure to them for the entire success of the whole affair.
Since writing the above, have discovered that my other and only 100-pounder was cracked at the muzzle by one of the enemy’s shell; can use it in case of necessity.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
H. H. PIERCE,
Captain, First Connecticut Artillery.
First Lieut. C. A. TRUESDELL,
Adjutant First Connecticut Artillery.
Fort Brady’s earthworks have been preserved and the site is now part of Richmond National Battlefield Park.
“Closing Operations in the James River” by James Russell Soley. In Battle and Leaders of the Civil War Volume IV, edited by Robert U. Underwood and Clarence C. Buel.
“Desperate Ironclad Assault at Trent’s Reach” by John D. Pelzer. America’s Civil War, September 1995.
History of the First Connecticut Artillery and of the Siege Trains Operating Against Richmond 1862-1865 by John C. Taylor.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XLII Parts 1 and 3; Volume XLVI Part 1.