Battle of Drewry's Bluff

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Battle of Drewry's Bluff

Other Names: Fort Darling, Fort Drewry

Location: Chesterfield County

Campaign: Peninsula Campaign (March-July 1862)

Date(s): May 15, 1862

Principal Commanders: Cdr. John Rodgers [US]; Cdr. E. Farrand, Brig. Gen. William Mahone, Capt. S. S. Lee, and
Lt. John Taylor Wood [CS]

Forces Engaged: 5 gunboats [US]; battery garrison [CS]

Estimated Casualties: 41 total

Result(s): Confederate victory

Description: With the fall of Yorktown, during the Peninsula Campaign, the Confederate ironclad Virginia at Norfolk was scuttled to prevent her capture. This opened the James River to Federal gunboats. On May 15, five gunboats, including the ironclads Monitor and Galena, steamed up the James to test the Richmond defenses. They encountered submerged obstacles and deadly accurate fire from the batteries at Drewry’s Bluff, which inflicted severe damage on the Galena. The Federal Navy was turned back.

Battle of Drewry's Bluff Map
Battle of Drewry's Bluff Map.gif
Civil War Battle of Drewry's Bluff, Virginia, 1862

Located seven miles below Richmond on the James River, this was a popular spot for Richmonders to visit, as well as the scene of a battle between the defenders on the Bluff, and Union ironclads in the river on May 15, 1862. Two years later, Butler's army was attacked near here - this is known as the Second Battle of Drewry's Bluff. The site is now part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park.

Battle of Drewry's Bluff Historical Marker
Battle of Drewry's Bluff Historical Marker.jpg
Civil War Drewry's Bluff Marker

Peninsula Campaign Map of Battles
Peninsula Campaign Map of Battles.jpg
Civilwartrust.org

Background: During the Civil War, Drewry’s Bluff was known as a “Perfect Gibraltar” along the James River protecting the city of Richmond. In May of 1862, while the defenses at Drewry’s Bluff were still under construction, a Federal fleet including the famous ironclad USS Monitor sailed up the James with plans to shell Richmond into submission. On May 15 that fleet was stopped at Richmond’s last line of defense – Drewry’s Bluff. Throughout the weekend ranger-conducted walking tours will tell the story of how Confederate soldiers, sailors and marines repulsed this Federal fleet.

The Civil War Peninsula Campaign (also known as the Peninsular Campaign), which included the Battle of Drewry's Bluff, was a major Union operation launched in southeastern Virginia from March through July 1862, the first large-scale offensive in the Eastern Theater.

The operation, commanded by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, was an amphibious turning movement intended to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond by circumventing the Confederate States Army in Northern Virginia. McClellan was initially successful against the equally cautious General Joseph E. Johnston, but the emergence of the aggressive General Robert E. Lee, who assumed command immediately following Seven Pines or Fair Oaks, turned the subsequent Seven Days Battles into a humiliating Union defeat.

Although the Battle of Seven Pines was tactically inconclusive, it was the largest battle in the Eastern Theater to date (and second only to Shiloh in terms of casualties to date) and marked the end of the Union offensive, leading to the Seven Days Battles and Union retreat in late June.

Civil War Battle of Drewry's Bluff Map
Peninsula Campaign Map.jpg
Peninsula Campaign Map

The Peninsula Campaign [March-July 1862] consisted of the following battles: Hampton Roads (aka Monitor vs. Virginia [Merrimack], Battle of the Ironclads), Yorktown, Williamsburg (aka Fort Magruder), Eltham's Landing (aka Barhamsville, West Point), Drewry's Bluff (aka Fort Darling, Fort Drewry), Hanover Court House (aka Slash Church), and Seven Pines (aka Fair Oaks, Fair Oaks Station). The following battles (commonly referred to as the Seven Days Battles or Seven Days Battles Around Richmond) completed or concluded the Peninsula Campaign: Oak Grove (aka French’s Field, King’s School House), Beaver Dam Creek (aka Mechanicsville, Ellerson’s Mill), Gaines' Mill (aka First Cold Harbor), Garnetts & Goldings Farm, Savage's Station, Glendale (aka Nelson’s Farm, Frayser’s Farm, Charles City Crossroads, White Oak Swamp, New Market Road, Riddell's Shop), and Malvern Hill (aka Poindexter’s Farm).

 

The second phase of the Peninsula Campaign, consequently, took a negative turn for the Union when Lee launched fierce counterattacks just east of Richmond in the Seven Days Battles (June 25 – July 1, 1862). Although they are formally considered part of the Peninsula Campaign, the final battles of June 25 to July 1, with Lee in command and on the offensive against McClellan, are popularly known as the Seven Days Battles.

Battle of Drewry's Bluff, Virginia
Civil War Drewry's Bluff Map.jpg
Civil War Drewry's Bluff Map

Drewry's Bluff overlooking James River
Drewry's Bluff overlooking James River.jpg
Battle of Drewry's Bluff

Battle: On May 15, a detachment of the U.S. Navy's North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, under the command of Cmdr. John Rodgers steamed up the James River from Fort Monroe to test the Richmond defenses. The flotilla consisted of the ironclad gunboats USS Monitor (commanded by Lt. William N. Jeffers) and Galena (the flagship), the screw gunship Aroostook, the side-wheeler Port Royal, and the twin-screw ironclad Naugatuck.
 
At 07:45, Galena closed to within 600 yd (550 m) of the fort and anchored, but before Rodgers could open fire, two Confederate rounds pierced the lightly armored vessel. The battle lasted over three hours and during that time, Galena remained almost stationary and sustained 45 hits. Her crew reported casualties of 14 dead or mortally wounded and 10 injured. Monitor was a frequent target, but her heavier armor withstood the blows. Unfortunately for her crew, her guns could not elevate high enough to fire on the Confederate batteries, 110 ft (34 m) above the river. Naugatuck withdrew when her 100-pounder Parrott rifle exploded. The two wooden gunboats remained safely out of range of the big guns, but the captain of Port Royal was wounded by a sharpshooter. Around 11:00, the Union ships withdrew to City Point.

Eyewitness Accounts
 
We soon began to see that she (the Galena) was being roughly used as shot & shell went crashing through her sides, still she held out & the thunder of her guns pealed out from the sulphurous cloud that enveloped her sending their iron messengers with remarkable accuracy. We could see large clouds of dirt & sand fly as shell after shell from our vessels exploded in the rebel works....
--William F. Keeler, aboard the Monitor
 
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.
--Commander John Rodgers
 
Acting as sharpshooters we occupied the banks of the James immediately above the Monitor, Galena, and Naugatuck. These vessels so thoroughly protected their men that we could only pick off one occasionally, but [our] battery did terrible execution.
--Lewellen Southgate, 6th Virginia Infantry

Civil War Richmond and Drewry's Bluff
Richmond National Battlefield Park.jpg
Richmond National Battlefield Park

Aftermath: The massive fort on Drewry's Bluff had blunted the Union advance just 7 mi (11 km) short of the Confederate capital, at a loss of seven Confederates killed and eight wounded. Richmond remained safe. Rodgers reported to McClellan that it was feasible for the Navy to land troops as close as 10 mi (16 km) from Richmond, but the Union Army never took advantage of this observation. The area saw action again during the Siege of Petersburg in 1864–65.

Naval Assault at Drewry's Bluff
Navy Bombardment and Drewry's Bluff.jpg
Navy Bombardment and Drewry's Bluff

Fort Darling, aka Fort Drewry
Civil War Battle of Fort Drewry.jpg
Civil War Battle of Fort Drewry

Conclusion: The Battle of Drewry's Bluff, also known as the Battle of Fort Darling, or Fort Drewry, took place on May 15, 1862, in Chesterfield County, Virginia, as part of the Peninsula Campaign of the American Civil War. Five American warships, including the ironclads USS Monitor and Galena, steamed up the James River to test the defenses of Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. They encountered submerged obstacles and deadly accurate fire from the batteries at Drewry's Bluff, which inflicted severe damage on Galena. The Union Navy was forced to turn back.
The garrison at Drewry's Bluff took part in the evacuation of Richmond and Petersburg on April 2-3, 1865. Soldiers, sailors, and marines from the fort joined the movement westward, ultimately surrendering at Appomattox Court House. Many of the sailors served as infantry during the fighting along the way. Union forces quickly cleared a path through the obstructions in the James River beneath Drewry's Bluff. On April 4, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln passed the fort on his way up the James to visit Richmond.

Drewry's Bluff in History and Memory
 
Richmond-Capital of the Confederacy
As capital of the newly formed Confederate States of America, Richmond, Virginia, became the constant target of northern armies. During the four years of the Civil War, Union generals made repeated attempts to capture the city by land. Richmond, however, was vulnerable by water as well as by land. Gunboats could navigate the James River all the way to Richmond. The key to the city's river defenses lay in a small fort only seven miles south of the capital. Known throughout the south as Drewry's Bluff, northern troops referred to it as Fort Darling.

Drewry's Bluff, Virginia, Civil War
Battle Drewrys Bluff Virginia.jpg
Library of Congress

(View from within Fort Darling of the James River taken during the Civil War.)

Drewry's Bluff-Key to the River Defenses
Drewry's Bluff, named for local landowner Captain Augustus H. Drewry, rose 90 feet above the water and commanded a sharp bend in the James River, making it a logical site for defensive fortifications. On March 17,1862, the men of Captain Drewry's Southside Artillery arrived at the bluff and began fortifying the area. They constructed earthworks, erected barracks, dug artillery emplacements, and mounted three large seacoast guns (one 10-inch Columbiad and two 8-inch Columbiads) in the fort.
 
On May 9,1862, Norfolk fell to Union forces. The crew of the CSS Virginia, forced to scuttle their vessel to prevent her capture, joined the Southside Artillery at Drewry's Bluff. Commander Ebeneezer Farrand supervised the defenses of the fort. He ordered numerous steamers, schooners, and sloops to be sunk as obstructions in the river beneath the bluff. Six more large guns occupied pits just upriver from the fort. Men worked around the clock to ensure a full state of readiness when the Union fleet arrived.
 
The Federal squadron steamed around the bend in the river below Drewry's Bluff early on the morning of May 15. The force, under Commander John Rodgers, consisted of five ships. The ironclad Galena and gunboats Port Royal, Aroostook, and Naugatuck joined the famous Monitor to comprise Rodgers' force. At 7:15 a.m. the Galena opened fire on the fort, sending three giant projectiles toward the Confederate position.
 
The five Union ships anchored in the river below the fort. When Confederate batteries in the fort replied, the whole vicinity shook with the concussion of the big guns. Southern infantry lined the banks of the river to harass the sailors. On the Monitor, the rifle balls of the sharpshooters "pattered upon the decks like rain."
On the bluff the defenders encountered several problems. The 10-inch Columbiad recoiled so violently on its first shot that it broke its carriage and remained out of the fight until near the end. A casemate protecting one of the guns outside the fort collapsed, rendering that piece useless.
 
After four long hours of exchanging fire, the "perfect tornado of shot and shell" ended. With his ammunition nearly depleted, Commander Rodgers gave the signal to discontinue the action at 11:30. His sailors suffered at least 14 dead and 13 wounded, while the Confederates admitted to 7 killed and 8 wounded. A visitor wrote that the Galena "looked like a slaughterhouse" after the battle. The massive fort on Drewry's Bluff had blunted the Union advance just seven miles short of the Confederate capital. Richmond remained safe.

Battle of Drewry's Bluff, Virginia
Battle of Drewry's Bluff, Virginia.jpg
Civil War Virginia

Expansion at Drewry's Bluff 1862-1864
Following the repulse of the Union flotilla in May 1862, Drewry's Bluff saw no battle action for two years. Captain Sydney Smith Lee (General Robert E. Lee's brother) took command of the site and supervised its expansion and strengthening into a permanent fort. While some workers constructed an outer line of entrenchments to protect the land approach to Richmond, others built improvements for the fort, including a chapel, barracks, and quarters for the officers.

Map of Fort Drewry (aka Fort Darling)
Drewrys Bluff Civil War.gif
National Park Service

During this time, Drewry's Bluff became an important training ground for the Confederate Naval Academy and the Confederate Marine Corps Camp of Instruction. In May 1864, the fresh threat of an attacking Union force disrupted the daily routine at Drewry's Bluff.
 
Drewry's Bluff in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, 1864
On May 5, 1864, Union Major General Benjamin F. Butler and his Army of the James landed at Bermuda Hundred, a neck of land only 15 miles south of Richmond. Marching overland, they advanced within three miles of Drewry's Bluff by May 9. While several Union regiments did manage to capture the fort's outer defenses, delays by Union generals spoiled the success. Confederate infantry under General P.G.T. Beauregard seized the initiative and successfully counterattacked on May 16. Once again a Union drive on Richmond met defeat at Drewry's Bluff. The area remained an integral part of Richmond's defense until the fall of Petersburg in April 1865.
 
Drewry's Bluff at the End of the War
The garrison at Drewry's Bluff took part in the evacuation of Richmond and Petersburg on April 2-3, 1865. Soldiers, sailors, and marines from the fort joined the movement westward, ultimately surrendering at Appomattox Court House. Many of the sailors served as infantry during the fighting along the way.
 
Union forces quickly cleared a path through the obstructions in the James River beneath Drewry's Bluff. On April 4, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln passed the fort on his way up the James to visit Richmond.

This short video tells the story of the defenses put in the river beneath the bluff to deter the Union fleet from its goal of reaching Richmond.

(Sources and related reading at bottom of page.)

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Sources: National Park Service; Richmond National Battlefield Park; CivilWar.org; Eicher, David J. The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. ISBN 0-684-84944-5; Kennedy, Frances H., ed. The Civil War Battlefield Guide. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998. ISBN 0-395-74012-6; Salmon, John S. The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001. ISBN 0-8117-2868-4; Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign. Ticknor and Fields, 1992. ISBN 0-89919-790-6; Library of Congress.

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