Bermuda Hundred Preliminary to Bermuda Hundred: Graham's Naval Brigade

Mark F. Jenkins

Member of the Year
Mar 31, 2012
Central Ohio
While doing some prep work on my anticipated bit on the naval and amphibious operations during Butler's Bermuda Hundred Campaign of May-June 1864, I encountered something I hadn't expected... Ellet's Mississippi Marine Brigade of the western rivers had an Eastern counterpart!

The following is from Gibson, Charles Dana and E. Kay Gibson. Assault and Logistics: Union Army Coastal and River Operations, 1861-1866. The Army’s Navy Series, Vol. II. Camden, Me.: Ensign Press, 1995, pp. 413-6, with a few additional notes by me [in square brackets]. The scholarship is all the Gibsons'; I reproduce it here in toto.

Graham’s Naval Brigade

The concept for an Army “naval brigade” to be used within the eastern theater originated with Colonel William A. Howard during 1863. Howard had been the commander of an earlier unit, the 1st New York Marine Artillery “Naval Brigade” (also sometimes loosely referred to only as the “naval brigade”). That unit was disbanded in March of 1863, and its men distributed at that time to other organizations. Following the 1st New York Marine Artillery “Naval Brigade’s” disbandment, Howard was sent to New York with authorization to recruit a regiment to be designated as the 13th New York Heavy Artillery. Company A of the 13th New York Heavy Artillery was sworn in during August of 1863 at Elmira, New York. That fall the regiment began moving by increments to its first assigned duty station which was Norfolk, Virginia. Following their recruitment, some companies were immediately forwarded on to New Berne, North Carolina, where they became part of that town’s garrison. Companies I, K, L, and, for a time, Company M would be assigned as part of the permanent crews of the four vessels [the GENERAL BURNSIDE, RENO, PARKE, and GENERAL FOSTER] which Major General J. G. Foster had ordered converted at the Wiard Yard in New York during October 1863 and which appear to have become readied for operational duty beginning in early 1864. The Army gunboats SAVANNAH and AUGUSTA were also manned by men from these companies.

Despite the fact that the concept for a naval brigade had originated with William A. Howard, its command would go instead to a former naval midshipman, Charles K. Graham [Graham had served as a midshipman in the Navy from 1841 to 1848, and had resigned at the end of the Pacific cruise of the ship of the line Columbus for reasons not given]. Graham had joined the Army from civilian life at the outbreak of the war, and by 1864, he had risen to the rank of brigadier general. On February 9, 1864, the following order was issued under the signature of Butler’s adjutant.

Fortress Monroe, Virginia
February 9, 1864​
General Orders No. 18.

Brigadier General Charles K. Graham, USV, is hereby placed in command of all Army gunboats in this department, and will be obeyed and respected accordingly.

By command of Major General B. F. Butler:​
R. S. Davis, Major and Assistant Adjutant General​

From the start, Graham was given a relatively free hand with the employment of his command. Organizationally, it was carried on the roster of the Army of the James as “Graham’s Naval Brigade.” Graham reported directly to General Headquarters, Department of Virginia and North Carolina, the department which had become part of Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James. This chain of command arrangement seems to have pertained to all circumstances in which Graham’s Naval Brigade was involved, whether within the jurisdiction of the Army of the James or on detached duty to any other military jurisdiction. By the summer of 1864, Graham’s Naval Brigade was composed of the detached Companies A, B, F, G of the 3rd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery and the detached Companies I, K, L of the 13th New York Heavy Artillery. There were also a few assignments of individuals and detachments from other regiments, e.g., the 99th New York Infantry. As of mid-year 1864, the troop strength assigned to Graham’s Naval Brigade had reached 845 officers and men. The Brigade was bereft of any regimental structure, being organized solely of infantry companies detached from established regiments. Each company was commanded by either a captain or a lieutenant reporting directly to the brigade’s adjutant regarding the particular company’s activity and location, including any information on vessels for which that company commander held responsibility.

In the summer of 1864, Graham had his eye on six extant Army gunboats. Major General J. G. Foster suggested to Major General Halleck that these be assigned to the duties of a roving amphibious assault force.

Headquarters Department of the South, Hilton Head, South Carolina
June 22, 1864​
Major General H. W. Halleck, Chief of Staff
Armies of the United States, Washington, DC

I beg leave again to refer to the want of light draught vessels for the operations that I contemplate in this department. With several light draught steamers, such as we had at Fortress Monroe and in North Carolina, I could at any time make incursions through the creeks and inland waters of this department that would result in the destruction of much rebel property, bridges, trestle-work, cotton, etc. If I could have the four light draught steamers BURNSIDE, RENO, PARKE, and FOSTER, with the two new ones now built in New York, the SAVANNAH and AUGUSTA, with the 13th New York Volunteers (heavy artillery), Colonel Howard, to man them, I could keep up a small force in constant motion harassing the enemy. For this advantage I would be willing to exchange two or three regiments of the best infantry.

I enclose you [sic] a drawing of these boats [not found]. Each of them has six launches, and is armed with six boat howitzers.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,​
J.G. Foster, Major General, Commanding​

Although this particular request was objected to by the Quartermaster Department on the apparent grounds that the vessels were instead needed as local use transports, all indications are that the request was approved and acted on. Subsequently, all six named vessels were operational in a gunboat/attack transport role as part of Graham’s organization.

Most of the operations of Graham’s Naval Brigade were conducted by one or two gunboats in concert with transports which carried aboard one or more companies of that brigade to serve as landing forces either for reconnaissance or for assault against suspected enemy trouble spots. More often than not, the companies as well as the vessels of the brigade were separated over a wide geographic area. During the first attack against Fort Fisher in North Carolina, which took place during December of 1864, details from Graham’s Naval Brigade accompanied the expedition to man twenty surf boats which were employed in taking the assault troops into the beach.

The evidence is quite clear that some if not all of the Army gunboats in the eastern theater had mixed crews consisting of both enlisted men and civilian employees of the Quartermaster Department. By 1864, the vessel commanders were probably all military officers. Two of the gunboats seem to have had naval officers in command who had been loaned by the Navy for that particular purpose but who while on that assignment reported directly to the adjutant of Graham’s Naval Brigade. SAMUEL L. BREWSTER, was commented upon by some of the Navy people on the James River during 1864 as having considerable firepower and being crewed by “fifty-two souls, all belonging to the Army with the exception of her master (a loaned Navy ensign) and two engineers.”

At least as late as January of 1865, Graham’s Naval Brigade supplied gun crews for quartermaster transports which operated in areas where enemy attacks could be expected. The Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal was one such area upon which the transports GAZELLE and CLINTON each carried gun crews assigned by Graham’s adjutant. These gun crews, consisted of a sergeant and ten men, commonly manning a 6-pounder field howitzer.

Recruitment policies within the eastern commands during the period from 1863 through the end of the war did not allow specific terms of military enlistment for the filling of crew positions on gunboat or attack transports, e.g., pilots, mates or engineers. Once in the Army, though, officers and men could be assigned to fill such crew vacancies. There existed a rather large pay differential between the civilian elements and the military elements on Army combatant craft (often assigned upon the same vessel), but this does not seem to have provoked any serious morale problems.

One particular concern arose from within the civilian element of the gunboat crews over an apprehension of their status should they become prisoners of the enemy. This came into focus when the gunboat SMITH BRIGGS was lost to enemy action on February 1, 1864, while on a mission up the James River. The entire crew, both military and civilian, was made captive. At that time, Graham’s headquarters urged that the Prisoner Exchange Agent for the Union side take a bargaining position with the Confederates making a point that those civilians holding jobs on the Army’s gunboats or attack transports -- while engaged in the senior capacities of pilots, masters, or engineers -- be considered the equivalent of commissioned officers for purposes both of incarceration and for status during prisoner exchanges. Graham’s proposal for officer status for certain civilian categories may not have been necessary since the “Dix-Hill Cartel Agreement for the General Exchange of Prisoners of War,” as it was entered into between the Union and the Confederate governments during 1862, had made it clear that civilian employees of the Army were to be handled in the same fashion as military and naval personnel holding equivalent job assignments. It is not known if Graham’s proposal was ever commented upon by the War Department or if it was endorsed on to the Prisoner Exchange Agent who would have been directly responsible for negotiations.

Although Graham’s Naval Brigade was small in size, it was an active and important factor in operations conducted against Confederate forces in northern Virginia and within the estuaries of the sounds of North Carolina.

Mark F. Jenkins

Member of the Year
Mar 31, 2012
Central Ohio
According to Boatner's Civil War Dictionary, Charles Kinnaird Graham (1824-1889) was (besides serving as a Navy midshipman) a lawyer and an engineer; he was the surveyor for Central Park and built the drydocks and landings for the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He led 400 Navy Yard workmen to enlist into the 74th New York in May 1861 (how's that, Navy?!?) and was named their colonel. He commanded the 74th in the Peninsular Campaign and the Seven Days, including Malvern Hill; he was promoted to brigadier general, USV, and commanded brigades in the Army of the Potomac, seeing service at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, where he was wounded and captured in the Peach Orchard. He was exchanged in September, and then commenced his history with the Naval Brigade. By the end of the war, he'd been brevetted Major General of volunteers, and after the war was the New York state commissioner of Gettysburg monuments. Sounds like quite an accomplished individual!

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nick in NY

Aug 9, 2015
Hello, Thanks for posting OUTSTANDING information on General Graham, Colonel Howard and The Naval Brigade!! SUPER! I have to say early in the war in 1861 Colonel Charles K. Graham led an amphibious assault on Mathias Point Virginia. it was one of the first offensive actions the Union took against the Confederates. It was a successful combined US Navy and US Army operation. Graham did serve with the Excelsior Brigade later in the war and at Gettysburg they really saw alot of action. Interesting the interrelationship that Graham and Howard had- I never knew that until today- Thanks Alot for posting all this information. Nick In NY