During the Civil War, one of the biggest threats for plantations along the Rappahannock River was the Union Gunboats that patrolled the waterway.
According to Wikipedia:
“A gunboat was usually a small undecked vessel caring single smoothbore cannon in the bow, or just two or three such cannons. A gunboat could carry one or two masts or be oar-powered only, but the single-masted version of about 15m (49ft) length was most typical. Some types of gunboats carried tow cannons, or else mounted a number of swivel guns on the railings.
The advantage of this type of gunboat were that since it only carried a single cannon, that cannon could be quite heavy- for instance, a 32-pounder- and that the boat could be maneuvered in shallow or restricted waters, where sailing was difficult for larger ships. A single hit from a frigate would demolish a gunboat, but a frigate facing six gunboats in as estuary would likely be seriously damaged before it could manage to sink all of them. Gunboats were also easy and quick to build.
During the Civil War, armed side-wheel steamers were quickly converted from existing passenger-caring boats by Union and Confederate forces. Later, some boats were purposely built, such as the USS Miami. They all frequently mounted 12 or more guns, sometimes of rather large caliber, and were usually armored to some degree.”
Many of the plantations in and around Port Conway and Port Royal would fall victim to Union gunboats as they patrolled the river. During restoration of these homes, scars from shots fired at the home were found. Hazelwood Plantation located just across the river from Belle Grove Plantation was completely destroyed by fire during the Civil War.
One notable event between a gunboat and plantation was that of Camden Plantation and the gunboat, USS Thomas Freeborn. The USS Freeborn was a 269-ton side-wheel steam gunboat that was built in Brooklyn, New York in 1860 as a commercial steamship. It was chartered by the Navy in April 1861 and purchased early in May. The USS Freeborn saw service with the Union Navy in the Hampton Roads area, Alexandria, Virginia and along the shore batteries at Aquia Creek on the Potomac River. The Commanding Officer during the latter part of her action was James H. Ward. He would later be shot and was mortally wounded.
The USS Freeborn was part of the Potomac Flotilla where she would capture or destroy several would-be blockade runners and would take part in a number of combat actions. Two of these actions were a February 1863 fight with a shore battery near Fort Lowry, Virginia where she was hit by enemy gunfire and a raid up the Rappahannock River in April 1864.
It was during this raid that the USS Freeborn stopped in front of Camden Plantation. Camden Plantation is located on the Port Royal side of the Rappahannock River, just down river from Port Royal. It is an Italian Villa-style home that was built in 1857 to 1859. The house is clad with flush siding that was treated to resemble stone. The house was built with two stories and a tower in the front of the house. (Remember the front of the house here is the side that faces the river) The property dates back to 1760 and has been in the Pratt family from that time to now. Before 1760, this site was the home to a Native American family thought to be Portabago Indians.
This plantation also has connections to Belle Grove. It was from this family that John Hipkins found his wife, Elizabeth Pratt Hipkins. John Hipkins purchased Belle Grove in 1791 for their only daughter, Fannie Hipkins Bernard. During the Civil War, the mistress of the house was Eliza Hooe Turner Pratt. Eliza was married to William Carter Pratt and was the cousin of Carolinus Turner of Belle Grove.
The story of Camden and the USS Thomas Freeborn was passed down from Eliza to her children and grandchildren. One of these grandchildren was Beverley Crump Pratt. He had heard the story from his Grandmother until her death in 1927 when Beverley was thirteen. Sadly Beverley Pratt passed away in 2005. Before he passed, he wrote a book of all his memories of the area called “Places I Have Known Along The Rappahannock River.” In January 2012, I had the honor of being able to visit this plantation on my birthday. This plantation is closed to the public, but the current owner was kind enough to allow me access.
Also in my research, I uncovered a video from a website about steamboat called “Steamboat Explorer”. In this video, you can see Beverley Crump Pratt tell about this event. What a great treasure to see the man himself!
The story is that the USS Thomas Freeborn pulled up to the dock in front of Camden. Several of the officers walked up to the front door of Camden and inquired if any Confederate soldiers or men were home. Eliza had answered the door with her sick child and told the officers that no one other than herself, her child and the servants were there. The officer reassured her that no harm would come to them or the house and returned to the boat.
When the officer reported to the Commanding Officer that no one was there except the mistress of the house, her child and the servants, the Commanding Officer gave an order to fire on the tower. The Commanding Officer was concern that the tower was being used as a lookout for the Confederate Army.
The first shot was fired and entered the house through the nursery to the left side of the front of the house. Eliza had just walked back into the nursery with her sick child and had just leaned over to place that child into the cradle when the shot came through the wall. Had she been standing over the cradle as she would have been just moments before, she would have been killed. The rest of the shots hit the tower and destroyed it. It has never been replaced. Eliza survived the event, but sadly her child died just days later from its illness.
During the war, local residence and the Confederate Army came up with a way to signal information about the gunboats and troop movement. I found this information at the King George Historic Society’s History Museum in King George. They would use flags to send signals up and down the river so everyone would know where the gunboats were and what to expect.
While most plantations along the river were shot at or destroyed, during the restoration of Belle Grove from 1997 to 2003, no one scar was found on the house or frame. It is believed that Belle Grove was never fired upon. Brett and I have two theories as to why. First, Brett thought that it could have been general knowledge that this property was the born place of James Madison, Father of the Constitution and that out of respect for him it was not fired upon. The second theory is that the house was used as headquarters for one or both sides. I have recently uncovered the 1870 Federal Census and it states that Carolinus Turner and his family had two properties within King George County. My thought is that they were more than likely forced out of their home by the Union army and the Union army held the house and property as head quarters. We have not verified it yet, but maybe one day we will find it. The Turners would have returned once the Union army moved out of Port Conway and Port Royal.