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Battle of Drewry’s Bluff

May 15, 1862

Fought on May 15, 1862, the Confederate victory at Battle of Drewry's Bluff spared Richmond from the threat of being reduced by U.S. Naval artillery.

On the night of May 3-4, 1862, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston (commanding, the Army of Northern Virginia) ordered the evacuation of the Warwick Line across the Virginia Peninsula. Johnston and Major General John Bankhead Magruder had held the line from April 5, 1862, while under siege during the initial stages of Major General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, which aimed at capturing Richmond.

The abandonment of the Warwick Line left the Confederate-held Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia vulnerable to a Federal invasion over land. Consequently, on May 9, Major General Benjamin Huger ordered his troops to destroy the naval base and to abandon the city. When the destruction took place, the formidable ironclad CSS Virginia was away from port, thus leaving her stranded. After an unsuccessful attempt to retreat up the James River, the Virginia's captain, Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall, scuttled his ship on May 11, rather than risk having her fall into Union hands.

The Virginia's demise left the U.S. Navy in control of the James River. In a swift attempt to exploit the situation, Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough ordered a small squadron of Federal ships to navigate up the James far enough to bombard Richmond. Under the command of Commodore John Rodgers, the James River Squadron consisted of two wooden warships, the Aroostook and Port Royal, two ironclads, the Monitor and Galena, and a Revenue Cutter Service gunboat, the E.A. Stevens (originally the USS Naugatuck), which had been refitted with iron plating.

The only major obstacle between Rodgers's squadron and Richmond was Fort Darling, a Confederate fortification situated atop Drewry's Bluff, a ninety-foot-high cliff that overlooked a sharp bend in the river approximately seven miles south of the Confederate capital. Anticipating a Union naval assault, the Rebels began shoring up the position in March, constructing artillery emplacements featuring three large-caliber cannons. In addition, Commander Ebeneezer Farrand ordered the sinking of numerous vessels in the river beneath the bluff to obstruct any Union forays up the river.

On the morning of May 15, 1862, Rodgers's squadron steamed around the bend at Drewry's Bluff. At approximately 7:30 AM, the crew of the Galena and the Rebel defenders at Fort Darling began exchanging fire. The Monitor moved forward and joined the fray at about 9 AM, but her crew soon discovered that their gun would not elevate enough to reach the top of the cliff. As the Monitor withdrew, the E.A. Stevens moved into position and began shelling the Confederate fort. Like the Monitor, however, her shells proved ineffective. Being no match for the firepower of the large Confederate guns, the two wooden ships remained downstream, out of range.

Augmented by infantry sharpshooters on the shore, the Rebel defenders proceeded to inflict punishing damage on the Galena. During the battle, most of her gun crew was killed or wounded. Led by Corporal John F. Mackie a group of Marines took over operation of the guns for the remainder of the battle. Mackie later became the first U.S. Marine to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor during the battle. With the Galena's ammunition nearly depleted, Rodgers ordered his squadron to withdraw at 11:30 AM.

During the four-hour engagement, the Galena suffered severe damage from approximately forty direct hits, eighteen of which penetrated her armor. In addition, fourteen members of her crew were killed, and another thirteen were wounded. The Monitor also received numerous hits, but her heavier armor better absorbed the blows. The E.A. Stevens suffered only minor damage. The Confederate defenders reported seven killed and eight wounded during the battle.

The Battle of Drewry's Bluff was a resounding and significant Confederate victory. Richmond had been spared the possibility of being reduced by U.S. Naval artillery. Unable to vanquish the Confederate capital by water, Union officials were forced to continue their attempt to do so by land—a challenge that would prove to be beyond General McClellan's ability.

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