The Battle of Sewell's Point, Virginia in 1861

May 18–21, 1861

The Battle of Sewell's Point was a minor naval battle that took place from May 18 to May 21, 1861, in the early days of the Civil War. The battle was inconclusive but is important because it was one of the first naval battles of the war.

Colonel Peyton Colquitt, Georgia Infantry, Civil War

Captain Peyton H. Colquitt of the Columbus Light Guard. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Battle of Sewell’s Point Summary

The Battle of Sewell’s Point was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America from May 18 to May 21, 1861, during the Civil War. In the early days of the war, General Winfield Scott proposed a plan to President Abraham Lincoln that was designed to strangle the Confederate states by using naval forces to blockade the coastline and take control of the Mississippi River Valley. The “Anaconda Plan” was unpopular with politicians, journalists, and others who wanted immediate military action. The war started when Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 13. Lincoln responded on April 19 by ordering a blockade of the southern seaboard from South Carolina to the Rio Grande. On April 20, the Union Navy burned and evacuated the Norfolk Navy Yard, destroying nine ships in the process. The evacuation gave the Confederacy access to a major shipyard, thousands of heavy guns, and control of Norfolk. General Walter Gwynn, who was in charge of the Confederate defenses around Norfolk, set up batteries at Sewell’s Point to protect the city and control Hampton Roads, the wide channel of water at the mouth of the James River. The Confederate batteries were under the command of Captain Peyton Colquitt. The Union sent a fleet to Hampton Roads to enforce the blockade, and on May 18–19, the Union gunboats USS Monticello and USS Thomas Freeborn exchanged fire with the battery at Sewell’s Point, resulting in little damage to either side. On May 21, the Monticello fired on the battery again but withdrew when it returned fire.

Quick Facts About the Battle of Sewell’s Point

  • Location: Norfolk, Virginia
  • Campaign: Union Blockade of Chesapeake Bay
  • Start Date: May 18, 1861
  • End Date: May 21, 1861
  • Winner: Inconclusive

History of the Battle of Sewell’s Point

Prior to the battle, Virginia had voted to secede from the Union on April 17, 1861, three days after the surrender of Fort Sumter to Confederate forces. In response, President Lincoln ordered a Union blockade of the Confederacy extended to the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina on April 27, 1861.

Prior to the battle, the Commander of the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia ordered the evacuation and burning of the yard and any ships that could not be sailed away, ending the presence of Union land forces in the Norfolk area for over a year. Virginia Militia Major General and later Brigadier General Walter Gwynn was responsible for constructing the batteries at Sewell’s Point to defend Norfolk in late April and early May 1861. He commanded the defense of Norfolk until he was relieved by regular Confederate forces on May 23, 1861.

As part of the Union’s efforts to blockade the Chesapeake Bay, the Union gunboat Monticello exchanged cannon fire with the Confederate battery at Sewell’s Point, Virginia, in an attempt to enforce the blockade of the Hampton Roads area in southeastern Virginia. The Monticello, under the command of Captain Henry Eagle, fired on the Confederate battery at Sewell’s Point, which controlled the entrance to the Elizabeth River and the harbor at Norfolk, on May 18 and May 21, 1861. The battery, which was commanded by Captain Peyton H. Colquitt of the Columbus Light Guard from Georgia, returned fire each time, causing the Monticello to retreat.

After the Battle of Sewell’s Point, the Thomas Freeborn joined the Federal Potomac Flotilla and, under the command of Commander James H. Ward, attacked the Confederate batteries at the confluence of the Potomac River and Aquia Creek in the Battle of Aquia Creek on May 29–30 and June 1, 1861. 

The Sewell’s Point battery and other batteries in the area engaged with Union vessels on several occasions over the next year, including during the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862, in which the Union’s USS Monitor and the Confederacy’s CSS Virginia — formerly USS Merrimack — fought their famous battle. Union Navy gunboats, including the Monitor, also shelled the Sewell’s Point batteries and other targets in the area on May 8, 1862.

Due to the threat of invasion by the large Union Army force at Fort Monroe and the potential capture of the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth, Confederate forces evacuated the Norfolk area on May 9–10, 1862. Federal troops occupied Norfolk and Portsmouth on May 10, 1862, and found that the Confederates had abandoned the batteries at Sewell’s Point and other fortified positions in the area. 

Significance of the Battle of Sewell’s Point

The Battle of Sewell’s Point was a minor engagement in the early days of the Civil War and did not have a significant impact on the course of the conflict. However, it was important because it was an early naval battle of the war.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Battle of Sewell's Point, Virginia in 1861
  • Date May 18–21, 1861
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Sewell's Point
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 16, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024