<Note: Another name often given this event is the “Battle of Fort Darling.” This engagement on 4/15/1862 is a “first” Battle of Drewry’s Bluff … another would be fought two years and one day later on 4/16/1864.>
A personal benefit for me in writing this blog and this series of sesquicentennial posts has been to put these events in a sequence of “felt time.” This serves as an additional sensory perception to the Civil War that is instructive in an entirely different way than simply reading the timeline on a page. The stretches of days and weeks reveal the deliberative nature of McClellan’s advance up the York and James peninsula toward Richmond.
Though deliberative, it did indeed consist of the largest army the continent had ever seen. The panic in Richmond about this approaching force was palpable. Along with an army/land threat, there was an additional concern about the approach to Richmond by the U.S. Navy on the James River. In fact, the Navy hoped to capture Richmond as New Orleans had been taken – employing the river to position for a naval bombardment of the city.
The James River flows directly south out of Richmond for seven miles before making a 90-degree bend to the east. Confederate command had determined that the optimal location to construct a defensive battery was at this bend upon the 90-foot heights of Drewry’s Bluff. Barricades of piles filled with stone were constructed, and vessels were sunk to create obstructions. Heavy guns at Fort Darling on the bluff were positioned to forestall a naval advance up the channel.
That naval movement came on this date of May 15 in 1862 when Commander John Rodgers (from Havre de Grace, MD) steamed a flotilla of five vessels up the James from Fortress Monroe in order to test the river defenses. The squadron included two ironclads – the flagship Galena and the Monitor – along with three wooden vessels.
A four-hour battle ensued, with most of the naval fire coming from the Galena, as the Monitor could not elevate sufficiently to be a factor. The Rebel shells rained down upon the ironclads from the bluff and scored about 45 hits on the Galena. Eventually enough damage was inflicted that the gunboats were forced to withdraw. Casualties on the Galena were 14 killed and 10 wounded, while there were a handful of deaths and wounds on the bluff.
This Confederate victory was hailed with such terms as “the Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” The action did save the city from a naval bombardment (never to be tried again) and an early end to the War.