Civil War: African Americans
Virginia's Augustus Freeman
Briefs the Union Navy on the James
C. V. Brooks
Names on Record: A Journal Featuring Virginians of African Descent
(Civil War Sailors)
I did hear them say that if they got their blow up invention to work they would whip you all out of the river directly --
-- Augustus Freeman, USS Agawam,
James River, June 1, 1864
I heard it said that Beauregard was to whip the land forces here while Pegram whipped the fleet -- that they were to attack together. Pegram was not to stop after whipping the fleet but keep right on to City Point and attack the transports -- and Beauregard was to push the army and capture or destroy them -
-- Augustus Freeman, USS Agawam,
James River, June 1, 1864
Less than a month before Augustus Freeman gave a statement to the U.S. Civil War Navy on Virginia's James River, Union sailors captured two Confederates ready to blow up the first U.S. Navy vessel crossing a specific unexploded torpedo (now called a mine). That mine in the James River was directly in front of a gunboat which is of great personal interest to this researcher, who (in Names on Record: A Journal Featuring Virginians of African Descent) describes this event and many others. According to Commander J. C. Beaumont of the USS Mackinaw, contrabands had warned of Confederate torpedoes (mines) at the site. That warning saved the gunboat obeying orders. Disobedience, according to Commander Beaumont, sealed the fate of the Commodore Jones.
Free blacks added their knowledge of Confederate affairs. Curving its way up the James River toward Richmond, the Confederate capital, the U.S. Navy welcomed credible military and naval intelligence.
Augustus Freeman, who reportedly left Richmond at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, May 30, 1864, brought with him "useful" information. Such was the opinion of Acting Rear Admiral S. P. Lee, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron from the USS Agawam. Sent to the U.S. Navy by Major General Benjamin F. Butler, Augustus Freeman made a statement on Wednesday, June 1--the same day as did Archy Jenkins, another "colored" man with news of Confederate naval affairs. "I have run on the river on a tow boat," states Freeman, who describes Confederate vessels and their capabilities. Freeman told the U.S. Navy that he was heading to Bermuda Hundred because of the scarcity of food in Richmond and Confederate plans to blow up the federal fleet in the James River. Freeman said he had lived on a barge "which had furniture and tobacco on laying out in the stream, and could easily see all that was going on."
Enclosing Freeman's statement, the Jenkins assessment, and that of a white arrival from the C.S. Navy, Acting Real Admiral S. P. Lee sent a letter to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells in Washington. The Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library holds this letter and its enclosures (National Archives Publication M89, roll 176, RG 45, NA).
Although the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion mentions Augustus Freeman's statement, it does not print it. The following passage, without modifications in grammar or punctuation, transcribes most of the Freeman statement found in the Naval Records Collection.
Augustus Freeman, USS Agawam, June 1, 1864
(Material in bold type inserted by the writer)
I left because I wanted to see my family at Bermuda Hundreds [Bermuda Hundred] -- and we had little to eat and saw the invention they were getting up to blow up the Federal fleet -- There was two barges and an old sloop with the masts taken out, all fast together side by side -- they were putting rosin and shavings in them, and then fix torpedoes either under or inside them I don't know which, and put a lot of powder inside them, and when they get it to the right distance, they were to set fire to it, so that when it reached the fleet it would blow up -- this was to precede the gun-boats which were to follow -- The way I found it out, was I saw them fixing it, two (2) boats, the "Nansemond" and "Hampton" was awaiting for them to get ready to tow them down, and I asked one (1) of the soldiers near by and he told me he belonged aboard the "Raleigh" -- These boats were at the Rockets [Rocketts] along side the wharf -- The barges were canal boats.
Freeman names various Confederate vessels:
Raleigh, 1 gun;
Beaufort, 1 gun;
Hampton, 2 guns;
Nansemond, 2 guns;
Torpedo, 2 "guns rifles"; and
Patrick Henry, "about 4 -- don't know exactly."
The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (ORN), Series II, Volume 1, gives the following battery information about the vessels Freeman mentions:
Raleigh, 2 guns (on April 30, 1864);
Beaufort, 2 guns (on April 30 and November 5, 1864);
Torpedo, 1 gun (on April 30 and November 5, 1864); and
Patrick Henry, 4 guns (on April 30 and November 5, 1864, as Freeman supposed).
Hampton and Nansemond each had 2 guns on April 30 and November 5, 1864, according to the ORN statistics.
The guns on these vessels are small Iron guns Those on the "Patrick Henry" are a size smaller than the IX in guns. These were at the Bluff the channel is opened so they can come through
-- The "Hampton" & "Nansemond" were at Richmond waiting for the blow up machine.
The Iron clads are at Chapins Bluff [Chappin's Bluff] below the fort. The "Richmond" draws from 12 to 14 feet.
I have run on the river on a tow boat, the Iron Clads can Come over at high tide -- The "Richmond" was below Warrick (Warwick ?) before she got her guns also the "Virginia" [not the former "Merrimack"]. The "Fredericksburg" came down over the rocks, guns and all it was a good tide -- There are no other fire ships that I know of -- The small boats run from the Bluff to Richmond every day. The wooden boats are small tugs. The "Beaufort" "Raleigh" and "Hampton" have iron about 1/2 in. on them -- They draw from 4 to 5 feet not very fast. - they steer tolerably well -- They are fitted with torpedoes to their bows -- a clamp on the bow with an eye, and a chain to trice up and lower down the pole -- upon which is the torpedo. The little torpedo boat is at the Bluff also.
I was living on board the barge which had furniture and tobacco on lying out in the stream, and could easily see all that was going on. They say that the iron clads have 8 in of iron -- all have four guns they are slow. They will have no trouble in coming down on a flood tide or ebb either, night or day -- they can come down as well at night as by day. The Iron Clads have to keep plumb in the channel. I did not hear when they were coming down -- I did hear them say that if they got their blow up invention to work they would whip you all out of the river directly -- When I left Richmond it was reported that Lee was within five miles of Richmond and Grant within 7 miles. The firing that evening was on the Mechanicsville turnpike just to left of where Lee was reported to be. It was reported that 60,000 men came to Genl Lee from the South -- but Lee was calling for more reinforcements when I left. I heard it said that Grant imposed on Lee more than any other General ever had. There was very few soldiers in Richmond none but the Naval Brigade. I heard it said that Beauregard was to whip the land forces here while Pegram whipped the fleet -- that they were to attack together. Pegram was not to stop after whipping the fleet but keep right on to City Point and attack the transports -- and Beauregard was to push the army and capture or destroy them -- This was report I heard the Capt of the "Bonita" say so -- and he then said after they whip the Yankees out of the river we will go to running again -- I heard there was a torpedo with 800 lbs of powder in it at devils reach I know Jeffries Johnson and Capt Smith. Smith is the chief one of the torpedo men[.]
On May 5, 1864 (according to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume 10), directly after a Confederate torpedo blew up the Commodore Jones at Deep Bottom, U.S. sailors captured Private Jeffries Johnson and Acting Master P. W. Smith, both members of the Confederate Submarine Battery Service, headed by Hunter Davidson.
To retain C. V. Brooks for organization or individual research, write to P.O. Box 23827, Washington, DC 20026-3827.
Return to Union Navy
Return to "Freedom Fighters" -- http://www.lwfaam.net/cw/