160 Years Ago: Engagement at Aquia Creek

By the end of May, there was no longer any doubt as to which side Virginia would take in the American Civil War. On May 23rd, Virginia voters ratified secession by a large majority, and the next day, Union troops crossed the Potomac River and seized Arlington Heights and Alexandria, Virginia. Several small fleets of U.S. Navy ships and converted civilian vessels had been enforcing an economic and military blockade on Virginia ports since April 27th.

Farther down the Potomac River lay Aquia Landing, the terminus point of the Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. In mid-May, the Virginia Provisional Army and Navy erected a battery of 13 cannon at the landing and, later, on nearby Split Rock Bluff. Capt. William F. Lynch was in immediate command of the battery. They hoped to prevent Union ships from moving up the Potomac to support Washington, DC.

On Wednesday, May 30, 1861, the USS Thomas Freeborn commanded by James H. Ward approached the battery at Aquia Landing and fired 14 shots, to little effect. The next day, it returned supported by the smaller, 2-gun USS Anacostia and USS Resolute. The three ships exchanged fire with the battery for an hour before retiring. Commander Ward reported:

“We cannonaded for an hour before the same batteries the day before yesterday, but the tide being out, neither party reached with any con­siderable certainty. I doubt if it is possible to reduce the batteries now established on the heights from ships; nor is it at all important, considering that they are remote from the ship channel of the river and command only the railroad terminus.”

Friday, June 1st, the sloop-of-war USS Pawnee reinforced the flotilla and pounded the shore battery with its ten guns. The USS Pawnee was hit nine times during the exchange, suffering minor damage and no casualties except its commander, whose face was scratched by a splinter.

Describing the third day’s action, Capt. Lynch reported:

“Our sand banks not being en barbette, we could only fire as the enemy came within range through the embrasures. This, added to the long distance at which he kept, and the necessity of occasionally repairing damages to the breastwork, combined with my desire to save ammunition, constrained me to withhold fire except when something like a fair shot presented.”

After three days of bombardment, suffering from minor damage, and running low on ammunition, the Union ships withdrew to fight another day. The USS Pawnee remained at a distance to keep an eye on the battery.

Read primary sources from this dramatic event in American history:

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