Although “tactically inconclusive”, as the Wikipedia site calls it, the Battle of Aquia Creek was the first time the Confederates used naval mines.  Even though the attempt failed, later attempts did not.

But that is getting a little ahead of us right now.  Let’s start at the beginning.  The Virginia state convention voted to leave the Union on April 17, 1861, three days after the surrender of Fort Sumter.  On April 22, 1861 the governor gave the command of the state forces to Robert E. Lee.  Lee sent Captain William F. Lynch to decide where the Union navy would try to attack on the Potomac River and build defenses in those places.  Two days after Lee was appointed, it was decided to build a defense to protect Aquia Creek landing.  The landing the northernmost station that ended the Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad route.  If the Union got a hold of one of the stations, the Virgina leadership feared it would be very easy for the Union to take the train straight through Virginia.  On May 8, 1861 the fortifications started to go up.  By six days later the battery had 13 guns to protect the station.  It was on May 14, 1861 that the Union first saw the new defenses when the USS Mount Vernon saw it on patrol.  With the first defense nearing completion, the Virginia men started a second defensive position on Split Rock Bluff nearby.  That way they had a river-level defense for the train station and a higher-ground position to defend the entrance to the Potomac River.

On May 29, 1861 the USS Thomas Freeborn, a converted paddle-wheel steamer with 3 guns, fired on the defenses at Aquia Creek.  The Confederate captain reported the Union boat only fired 14 shots and wounded one man in the hand.  The next day, The Thomas Freeborn returned with two other ships and attacked the land batteries for several hours with very little damage done.  The next day, on June 1, the ships returned with another and the four Union ships attacked for about five hours, spending over 500 rounds, resulting in the death of a chicken and a horse but no Confederate soldiers.  Captain Lynch reported that the Confederates didn’t fire a lot of rounds.  The big guns in the batteries were too big to turn so they had to wait for a union ship to position itself just right or the round would have been wasted.  Even so, the Union ships did get damaged enough to need repairs while no lives were lost.

After the attack, the Confederates created two more batteries to protect the area and on July 7, the Confederates placed mines in the water.  The mines were big enough to sink a small ship but they bobbed in the water rather obviously and were sighted by the Union ships before any damage was done.  Most of the mines were picked up safely by the Union ships although on mine sunk to the bottom of the river.  While the Confederates kept the batteries operational, the Union navy soon realized that the Confederates could barely hit anything.  The technology available to the Confederacy at that time and the distance the guns had to shoot made the batteries nearly harmless but the Union leadership still kept all the civilian traffic off the Potomac River while the Confederates held the batteries in case the Aquia Creek batteries ever got a lucky hit.

When General McClellan too over command of the Union forces, President Lincoln wanted him to take the positions at Aquia Creek and up the Potomac but the general refused to move.  In March 1862 Lincoln finally officially ordered the supply-focused general to move and the Peninsula Campaign started.  On March 9, 1862 Union sailors noticed odd fires and explosions occurring at the Aquia Creek batteries.  When they investigated, it was discovered that the Confederates had been recalled to protect Richmond, leaving the batteries empty.  The Union moved in and used the area for supplies until July 1863 and again in 1864 for the Overland Campaign.

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