Battle of Drewry's Bluff: Union Naval Flotilla Repulsed Testing Defenses of Richmond

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Battle of Drewry's Bluff: Union Naval Flotilla Repulsed Testing Defenses of Richmond

Photo of line engraving of the Battle of Drewry's Bluff
From newspaper Harper's Weekly: A Journal of Civilization, May 31, 1862 issue
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: May 15, 1862

For today's stroll through military history, we return to one of the seminal events in our nation's history: the Late Unpleasantness, aka the War Between the States, aka the War of Northern Aggression, aka War of the Rebellion, aka the War for Southern Independence, aka Mr. Lincoln's War. This battle concerns attempts by Union naval units to reconnoiter a possible river route to attack the Confederate capital of Richmond.


As the war entered its second year, a new commanding general began to put his own imprint on the Federal Army of the Potomac. George B. McClellan, West Point Class of 1846 (2nd of 59). He saw action during the Mexican-American War. McClellan also surveyed portions of the American West, in preparation for construction of transcontinental railways. He was sent to Europe as an observer during the Crimean War. He resigned his commission in 1857, eventually taking jobs with two railroad companies. He also continued studying military strategy, perhaps sensing that a national crisis was looming.

Gen. McClellan developed a plan to attack Richmond, which did not involve an overland march south from Washington. [The two capitals were about 100 miles from each other. I imagine the Confederate government viewed the change of capital from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond, Virginia as a finger-in-the-eye of the Federal government, a dare of sorts.] His plan was eventually labeled the "Peninsula Campaign" by historians. It might have worked if McClellan was not so obsessed with having superior numbers of soldiers, or if any other Rebel general but Robert E. Lee had not been appointed to oppose the Union attack.

Peninsula Campaign, spring of 1862; the route of the US Navy flotilla; is indicated by the blue arrow near bottom of map; Image by Hal Jesperson, courtesy of Wikipedia
Peninsula Campaign, spring of 1862; the route of the US Navy flotilla
is indicated by the blue arrow near bottom of map
Image by Hal Jesperson, courtesy of Wikipedia

Probing Richmond's Defenses

Any Union approach to the Confederate capital by water faced one massive obstacle, namely the Rebel ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack). A month after the April 9 battle with the USS Monitor, the Virginia was the only viable naval threat to Federal penetration of the James River toward Richmond. Stationed at Norfolk, VA it was a veritable cork in the bottle of the James River, barring the way to any Federal thrust up that waterway.

This changed on May 10, when Union forces captured Norfolk. The Rebels hatched a plan to sail the Virginia up the James River to guard the approach to Richmond. However, the vessel's deep draft (22 feet) was not conducive to sailing the shallower inland river waters. Attempts to lighten the loan – coal and other supplies were thrown overboard, and six of the ship's guns were transported to Fort Darling on Drewry's Bluff – did not yield the expected result. The unarmored lower portion of Virginia's hull was exposed. Finally, it was decided on May 11 to scuttle the vessel to keep it out of Federal hands.

When word of the Virginia's demise reached Union headquarters, Gen. McClellan sent a request to the U.S. Navy, asking for a reconnaissance up the James River, to see if an attack via that route was practicable.

Confederate Forces

The only obstacle protecting Richmond from a river approach was Fort Darling on Drewry's Bluff, overlooking a sharp bend 7 miles downriver from the city. The Confederate defenders, including marines, sailors (many from the Virginia served in the rifle pits at the foot of Drewry's Bluff), and soldiers, were supervised by Confederate Navy Commander Ebenezer Farrand and by Rebel Army Captain Augustus H. Drewry (the owner of the property that bore his name) of the Southside Heavy Artillery.

The fortification was built in just about 2 months, in the aftermath of the battle of Hampton Roads of March 8-9, 1862. The nine cannons in the fort, including 1 10-inch and 2 8-inch artillery pieces and six naval guns (salvaged from the Virginia) commanded the river for miles in both directions. Guns from CSS Patrick Henry, including an 8 inch smoothbore, were just upriver and sharpshooters were stationed on the river banks. An underwater obstruction of sunken steamers, pilings, debris, and other vessels connected by chains was placed just below the bluff, making it difficult for vessels to maneuver in the narrow river.

One of the 8-inch Columbiad guns in the defenses of Fort Darling, VA; Image courtesy of the Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress
One of the 8-inch Columbiad guns in the defenses of Fort Darling, VA
Image courtesy of the Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Union Naval Forces

The Union naval flotilla consisted of five Federal ships. The most well-known was the USS Monitor, whose heavy armor would be the vessel's greatest asset.

Another ironclad ship in the group was the USS Galena. Known as a "broadside ironclad steamer," Galena had its plans revised several times, until its final version steamed up the James River on May 15. The schooner had what might be termed "light armor (1/2 inches)" in the stern and below its gun ports, with 2-inch thick overlapping armor above the gun ports. In the gun ports were 4 9-inch smoothbore Dahlgren guns, and mounted fore and aft on pivoting mounts were 2 100-lb. Parrott rifled cannon.

Supporting the two ironclads were two wooden gunboats, the Aroostook and the Port Royal. Finally, the USRC Naugatuck (formerly the E.A. Stevens), was on loan to the U.S. Navy from the U.S. Revenue-Marine (forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard). This ship possessed several innovative designs: 1) the vessel had fore and aft compartments below decks that could take on water as ballast to make it semi-submersible to protect vital inside components and to change the ship's draft to allow it to navigate shallower rivers; and, 2) its main armament, a 100-lb Parrott gun – mounted in the ship's foredeck – was partially shielded by the Naugatuck's deck, in addition to 2 10-lb howitzers aft.

USRC Naugatuck, Photograph of line drawing from Harper's Weekly from spring of 1862; Image courtesy of U.S. Naval Historical Center
USRC Naugatuck, Photograph of line drawing from Harper's Weekly from spring of 1862
Image courtesy of U.S. Naval Historical Center

Battle of Drewry's Bluff

On the morning of May 15, 1862 the Union naval flotilla, under the command of Commander John Rogers, left Fort Monroe and steamed up the James River with the Galena in the lead. At about 7:30 am the naval force approached the sharp bend in the waterway guarded by Fort Darling. The Galena dropped anchor about 600 yards offshore, and opened fire on the fort. In an effort to provide some protection to the ironclad steamer, the Monitor positioned itself 400 yards from the shoreline.

The guns of Fort Darling answered the first shots from the Galena almost immediately. However, the Confederate defenders encountered two problems; the gun carriage of the 10-inch Columbiad gun broke with its first shot fired, essentially putting that gun out of action for the balance of the fight. Then, after the bombardment began, one of the casemates of the fort collapsed, putting another Rebel gun out of action. These events, however, did not deter the fort's defenders.

The first Confederate shots struck the Galena, and made large, gaping holes in its lightly ironclad hull. Seeing the damage done to the Yankee vessel, the Rebel gunners concentrated most of their fire on the Galena. The Galena sustained 45 hits to its hull, with 18 penetrating its armor. Due to its heavier armor of the Monitor, most of the Confederate rounds bounced off its hull, thus allowing that ship to escape serious damage.

The two wooden-hulled steamer, seeing the damage being done to the Galena, stayed out of range of the Rebel bombardment. The concussion of the heavy artillery used in this fight was heard seven miles away in Richmond, where windows rattled all over the city.

The Naugatuck positioned itself near the Monitor, where it could bring its 100-lb gun to bear. At some point during the Union bombardment, the Naugatuck's main gun – the massive 100-lb Parrott gun – exploded, shattering its breach and causing damage to the ship's pilot house, just aft of the gun. As a result, the Naugatuck's howitzers continued to shell the rifle pits and fort with shell and canister.

Map of Fort Darling, VA (note river obstructions in upper right of photo); Photo of National Park Service signage at Fort Darling
Map of Fort Darling, VA (note river obstructions in upper right of photo)
Photo of National Park Service signage at Fort Darling

After nearly three hours of Union cannonade, the Galena and the Monitor had nearly run out of ammunition. Seeing the damage done to the Galena – and with negligible damage done to Fort Darling – at about 11:00 am Commander Rogers ordered his flotilla to withdraw back downriver to Fort Monroe. The battle of Drewry's Bluff was over.


Despite the over three hours of the exchanging of artillery fire, casualties were relatively low. Union Commander Rogers reported 24 men killed or wounded, while Confederate losses were reported at 7 killed and 8 wounded.

Footnote #1: In his after-action report, Commander Rogers reported, rather sardonically, "Our experiment with the Galena was fully tried... the Rebels demonstrated fully that she is penetrable. The Galena did most of the fighting – her sides look as though she had an attack of smallpox." The Galena, after receiving repairs, participated in the Union blockade of the Confederate ports and coastline. Her last major fight was the battle of Mobile Bay (August 5, 1864). She was finally decommissioned and broken up for scrap in 1872 at Norfolk.

Footnote #2: Union Commander Rogers was eventually transferred to the Asiatic Squadron. One of his last actions was command of the 1871 Korea Expedition, which sought to force Korea to negotiate treaties to protect American merchants from harm. Though American sailors and marines captured several Korean forts near Seoul, the Koreans refused to negotiate, and the American flotilla left prior to the typhoon season, leaving their objective unfulfilled.

Footnote #3: One of the highlight of the battle saw the first Medal of Honor awarded to a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, Corporal John F. Mackie.

Cpl. John Mackie, USMC, at Battle of Drewry's Bluff; Image courtesy of USMC Historical Division
Cpl. John Mackie, USMC, at Battle of Drewry's Bluff
Image courtesy of USMC Historical Division

Medal of Honor Citation: Corporal John F. Mackie; awarded July 10, 1863


On board the U.S.S. Galena in the attack on Fort Darling at Drewry's Bluff, James River, on May 15, 1862. As enemy shellfire raked the deck of his ship, Corporal Mackie fearlessly maintained his musket fire against the rifle pits along the shore and, when ordered to fill vacancies at guns caused by men wounded and killed in action, manned the weapon with skill and courage.
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