In spring of 1865 General Robert E. Lee was searching for a way to provide his army with supplies. A proposal was presented to capture a steamer near the Northern Neck, unload the supplies, and move them to Petersburg under the direction of Colonel Mosby. Captain Thaddeus Fitzhugh was selected to head up this mission.
On March 31, 1865, under the cover of darkness, Captain Fitzhugh, and 29 men left Windmill Point in three open boats with sails and oars. Near the mouth of the Potomac the winds and strong currents kept the party on shore – a three-day delay.
On April 3rd they were able to continue up the Bay to Cedar Point, where they hid. Captain Fitzhugh selected nine of his best men and headed for the wharf. Posing as wood choppers who wanted passage to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the group was able to gain passage on the Harriet De Ford.
The Harriet De Ford was less than a year old. She was a one-masted propeller-driven vessel, considered one of the fastest steamers on the Bay.
When the De Ford was five miles away from the dock, Fitzhugh took over the pilot house and signaled his men to secure all of the boat’s passengers and crew. The steamer returned to Fair Haven where Fitzhugh picked up the rest of his men. They cut the telegraph line, released the passengers, and headed down the Bay toward the Northern Neck.
Two days later Union Commander F.A. Parker, stationed at St. Mary’s, Maryland, was informed by a telegraph about the capture of the De Ford. Parker was instructed to “use your best exertions to recapture the steamer or overtake the rebel party”. Parker immediately set out with a fleet of ten gunboats.
After learning of Lee’s defeat at Petersburg, Captain Fitzhugh turned the De Ford into Dymer Creek. His men, under the direction of Confederate Captain Henderson, unloaded the ship’s supplies plus some contraband, and headed with the goods to Kilmarnock where they sold what they could. The money was then to be sent to General Lee.
After unloading, the Confederate troops set fire to the De Ford. Around 4:00 PM Union gunboats were sighted coming up Dymer Creek. The Union gunboats at first headed for Indian Creek where they hoped to recapture the De Ford. When they learned that the De Ford was in fact in Dymer Creek they began to shell that shoreline from a distance to prevent counterattacks.
Residents along Dymer Creek thought it was the most exciting and perilous time of their lives. Many homes and outbuildings were shelled, causing residents to flee into nearby fields and ravines.
In 1996 Brainard Edmonds, 93, recorded this “second person” oral history about the shelling and burning of the steamboat Harriet De Ford on Dymer Creek as it was told to him by “Aunt Betsy” Brown, who was a 12-yr-old slave girl at the time of the attack. Credit: Steamboat Era Museum, Irvington, VA
Upon reaching the Harriet De Ford, union troops found that she was burned to the waterline. They finished her off by firing a large number of rounds into her. The residents of Kilmarnock returned the goods they had bought after being threatened with their lives. On April 9, 1865, the same day that General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Captain Henderson was captured and sent to the prisoner-of-war camp at Point Lookout.
And the fate of Captain Fitzhugh? On the April 16, 1865, he wrote his report outlining the attack. At that time he was in Fredericksburg. It is believed that he escaped the area and moved to Kansas, where died in the early 1900s.
Addendum: from a Comment August 23, 2014:
Very nice article. I am a great grandson of Thaddeus Fitzhugh and wanted to add some clarification to the statement, “It is believed that he [Thaddeus] escaped the area and moved to Kansas, where died in the early 1900s.” Thaddeus was placed under house arrest by the US government for a short time after the war and his signing the oath required of other confederate soldiers. After several years as a physician in Virginia, he lived in Indianapolis IN, Fort Worth TX, then Kansaa City until his death in 1914. ~ Kirk FitzhughNote from David Herndon: In the mid-1990′s, Dymer resident Jeff Chase found an unexploded artillery shell in his field at Chase Farm. Explosive experts were brought in to detonate the shell. The explosion was could be heard miles away. It also shook the ground for at least a mile away. The shell is believed to have come from the Union gunboats shelling the De Ford. Many historians believe that this was the last naval battle of the civil war on the east coast. Lee surrendered to Grant a few days after this naval action. Contact Jeff Chase to get additional information on the artillery shell. Contact Stuart Painter to obtain information on the exact location of the sunken Harriet De Ford. Stuart found some of the ribs of the vessel in the mud near his home.
[Many thanks to the students at Lancaster High School and to the Steamboat Era Museum for the research and artwork that went into this article. More stories can be found on the Museum’s website]
Addendum from Dymer resident Mickey Kendrick, September 5, 2014
Joy: That’s really cool having the Confederate capture of the Yankee ship Harriet DeFord on the DCEPA web page. Stuart (Painter, resident of Dymer Creek) gave me the file that he has on this, including a number of military telegrams that were sent regarding the engagement.
Some of the information on our web is not quite accurate. As an example, it was not Colonel Mosby who transported the goods off the DeFord but a Major Robinson of the quartermaster’s department who handle that part of the operation.
In addition, the telegrams provide some interesting stories where private land owners asked Union naval officer Lt. Cmdr. Edward Hooker not to bombard his house. Hooker agreed but he told the owner:
“You will distinctly understand, however, that when scoundrels commit depredations innocent people are liable to be made to suffer and that when Fitzhugh and other rascals of his stamp get the opportunity to bring Federal vengeance upon innocent persons they are only too greatly rejoiced to do so, hoping thereby to alienate some neutral-minded persons from the old flag. If necessity requires that I should punish a community, I shall do so without regard to age or sex or any other consideration.”
~ Mickey Kendrick