John K. Mitchell was a commander in the Confederate navy during the American Civil War.

The James River Squadron was one of the eight major forces that the Confederate navy created to defend its rivers and waterways during the American Civil War (1861 - 1865). At its apogee, the squadron consisted of three steam-powered, ironclad warships - including the CSS Virginia, which famously dueled the Union's ironclad USS Monitor at the battle of Hampton Roads (1862) - and more than a half-dozen small gunboats, converted civilian vessels, and torpedo boats. As was true with the Confederacy's other naval forces, the James River Squadron saw little action and was destroyed by its own men as a result of the defeat of Confederate land forces.

It is not clear when the James River Squadron was formally established, but it was created out of the Virginia State Navy that the Commonwealth bequeathed to the Confederacy in June 1861. That force initially consisted of a converted tugboat, Teaser, and two passenger vessels seized in Virginia waters and converted into warships: the ten-gun flagship Patrick Henry (formerly Yorktown) and Jamestown. In addition, two small converted gunboats, Raleigh and Beaufort (the latter of which was renamed Roanoke), joined the squadron from North Carolina early in 1862. In the meantime, at the suggestion of Matthew Fontaine Maury, a Virginia-born naval commander who helped to develop torpedoes, the Confederate Congress appropriated two million dollars for a large fleet of small gunboats. Two of them, Hampton and Nansemond, were completed and joined the squadron.

The squadron's first commander was Capt. French Forrest, who also commanded the Norfolk Navy Yard for Virginia State Navy and the Confederate navy. He commanded the squadron again from 1863 until 1864. Six other officers also took turns at command during the war: Capt. (later Adm.) Franklin Buchanan, Capt. Josiah Tattnall, Capt. Sidney Smith Lee, Capt. Samuel Barron, Capt. John K. Mitchell, and Adm. Raphael Semmes. Like Forrest, they were senior officers who had long prewar service in the US Navy.

The squadron's respite ended in May 1864 when a formidable naval flotilla steamed up the James along with the Union Army of the James. (The offensive was part of the new Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant's overland campaign against Richmond that eventually stalled in a ten-month siege of Petersburg.) A Confederate torpedo destroyed the Union gunboat, the USS Commodore Jones, on May 6 and stalled the Union flotilla. Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory ordered the James River Squadron commander Capt. John K. Mitchell to engage the enemy, but Mitchell had little confidence in his changes and declined to act.

From late in May 1864 to early in April 1865, the opposing naval forces faced each other across barriers of obstructions and torpedoes and dramatic bends in the James River below Chaffin’s Bluff—a situation mirroring the armies’ confrontations within trench lines. Acting in concert with the land batteries (several of which were manned by naval personnel), the squadron worked to prevent Union forces from crossing the river behind Confederate lines and looked for opportunities to move against the enemy.

That opportunity came on the night of January 23–24, 1865, when high water apparently broke a hole through Union obstructions. Mitchell hoped that his squadron could fight its way through a weakened Union fleet (several warships had been transferred to North Carolina for the attack on Fort Fisher), destroy the Union supply base at City Point (now Hopewell), and force Grant to abandon his investment of Petersburg. The desperate plan went awry immediately as all the warships but the Fredericksburg and Hampton grounded in the shallow waters. Dawn found the Richmond, Virginia, and Drewry particularly vulnerable to Union batteries and to the double-turreted monitor USS Onondaga. All but the Drewry escaped, but the “battle” of Trent’s Reach was a one-sided affair. Mitchell contemplated renewing the effort on the night of January 24, but the squadron was too crippled to allow it.

Source of information: Coski, John M. "James River Squadron." Encyclopedia Virginia. Brendan Wolfe, ed. Feb. 10, 2013. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. John M. Coski is a historian and director of library and research at the Museum of the Confederacy.