Prelude to the Battle
Within twenty-four hours of the Union’s defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), the Lincoln administration called upon George B. McClellan to lead the Union war effort in the East. McClellan spent the first few months of his new command fortifying Washington, DC, and reorganizing federal forces. The Northern public and politicians, however, wanted action. Accordingly, McClellan devised plans for an offensive to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia, to bring a quick conclusion to the war.
Although President Abraham Lincoln favored an overland assault on Richmond from the Washington area, McClellan developed a more complex strategy. Correctly believing that Confederate leaders expected a direct onslaught against the Confederate capital, McClellan proposed to outmaneuver the Rebel army guarding Richmond and to launch an offensive from the southeast, up the Virginia Peninsula.
The Virginia Peninsula is a strip of land in southeastern Virginia that runs from the northwest to the southeast. The York River borders it on the north and east, and the James River borders it on the south and west. Although nearly the entire area was behind Confederate lines early in the war, the Union maintained possession of Fort Monroe at the very tip of the peninsula.
McClellan planned to use the Union’s superior naval resources to transport the Army of the Potomac down the Chesapeake Bay, to disembark at Fort Monroe, and then to move up the peninsula, attacking Richmond from the rear. In early March, the Confederate Navy launched the ironclad CSS Virginia, posing a menace to federal control of the waters around Fort Monroe. Virginia’s launch threatened the success of McClellan’s plan. The appearance of the USS Monitor at the Battle of Hampton Roads forced Virginia’s withdrawal on March 9 and erased the Confederate threat.
McClellan’s offensive began on March 17, when he began transporting his army of approximately 120,000 men to Fort Monroe. McClellan arrived on site on April 2, and two days later, the Army of the Potomac began its advance up the peninsula toward Yorktown.
Confederate officials had prepared for McClellan’s offensive. In 1861, Major General John Bankhead Magruder, commander of the Army of the Peninsula, began constructing defensive lines across the Virginia Peninsula. The mainline, known as the Warwick Line, connected Yorktown on the York River to the headwaters of the Warwick River and then extended southwest to the confluence of the Warwick and James Rivers.
Siege of Yorktown
The offensive began on March 17, when McClellan began transporting his army of approximately 120,000 men to Fort Monroe, on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers in southeastern Virginia. On April 4, the Army of the Potomac began its advance up the peninsula toward Yorktown. The next day, the advance came to a halt when the Federals encountered Confederate forces of about 10,000, dug in along the Warwick River. Once again, erroneously believing that the Rebels outnumbered his army, McClellan settled in for a siege rather than attack. The resulting one-month delay enabled Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston to redeploy troops from northern Virginia to the peninsula.
Johnston Abandons the Warwick Line
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 since April 5, while under siege during the initial stages of Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign aimed at capturing Richmond.
CSS Virginia Stranded
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.
Rodgers’ Union Flotilla Advances up the James River
The Virginia’s demise left the U.S. Navy in control of the James River. Swiftly attempting 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 comprised 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 Union engineers had refitted with iron plating.
Fort Darling on Drewry’s Bluff
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 about seven miles south of the Confederate capital. Expecting 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 several vessels in the river beneath the bluff to obstruct any Union forays up the river.
Artillery Exchange at Drewry’s Bluff
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 a.m., 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.
Rebels Punish the USS Galena
Aided by infantry sharpshooters on the shore, the Rebel defenders inflicted punishing damage on the Galena. During the battle, the Confederates killed or wounded most of her gun crew. Led by Corporal John F. Mackie a group of U. S. Marines took over the operation of the guns for the rest 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 roughly forty direct hits, eighteen of which penetrated her armor. In addition, fourteen members of her crew died, and another thirteen were wounded. The Monitor also received many 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.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Drewry’s Bluff was a resounding and significant Confederate victory. The fort’s defenders spared Richmond the possibility of being reduced by U.S. Naval artillery. Unable to vanquish the Confederate capital by water, Union officials resumed their attempt to do so by land—a challenge that would prove beyond General McClellan’s ability.