Fort Darling on Drewry’s Bluff Prevented the Union Navy From Capturing Richmond Via the James River

On May 11th, 1862, the Confederate Ironclad CSS Virginia (aka Merrimack) was blown up outside of Norfolk, Virginia to prevent it from falling into Union hands. Before it was scuttled, the cannons were removed and , along with the ship’s crew, relocated to the Confederate garrison at Drewry’s Bluff on the south bank of the James River about seven miles downriver from Richmond.

Drewry’s Bluff was named after the man who owned the property, Augustus Drewry, who was also serving there as a captain of artillery. It was located near a bend in the James and rose to a height about 100 feet above the river, making it a very formidable defensive position. With the CSS Virginia gone, the garrison at Drewry’s Bluff (which was referred to by the Union army and navy as Fort Darling) became the primary defense against a Union Navy attempt to steam up the James and capture Richmond.

With a big Union army under General George McClellan slowly advancing toward Richmond in the Peninsula Campaign, and the Union Navy threat, it was with a sense of urgency that the defenses at Drewry’s Bluff were strengthened, with five former naval heavy guns added to the three guns already there. They would be manned by Confederate sailors, as well as army artillerymen; Confederate marines were also deployed along the shore to rake the decks of Union ships with musket fire. Additional cannon were placed slightly upriver from the bluff. The defenders also sunk ships and placed other obstacles in the river to impede Union gunboats. Navy Commander Ebenezer Ferrand was in overall command of the Confederate defenses.

Interior of Fort Darling

Meanwhile down the James River, Commander John Rodgers, assembled a five ship Union Navy flotilla to attack Drewry’s Bluff. These included the famous ironclad USS Monitor, along with the USS Galena, an ironclad that was essentially a wooden hull covered with wrought iron plates, and the armored steamer USS Naugatuck. The wooden gunboats USS Port Royal and USS Aroostook rounded out the fleet.

USS Galena

Rodgers’ flotilla arrived in front of the guns of Fort Darling at about 7:45 a.m. on May 15th. Galena steamed to within 600 yards of the bluff, maneuvered so it could fire broadsides, dropped anchor and prepared for action. While Galena exchanged gunfire with the Confederate batteries, the rest of the fleet had difficulties. Monitor could not elevate her guns high enough to shell the Rebel guns, so was forced to withdraw down river and fire over a much longer range, to little effect. The wooden gunboats Port Royal and Aroostook were ordered to anchor 1300 yards away from the bluff and were largely ineffective firing at that long range. Naugatuck, armed with a big 100 pounder Parrot rifle, went out of action about halfway through the morning after its big gun burst.

USS Naugatuck

All of this left Galena to bear the brunt of the fight, coming under fire from both artillery and musket fire. Corporal John F. Mackie of the United States Marines, who was on the gun deck, described the situation aboard Galena:

As the gunner turned to go below an 8-inch solid shot pierced the port side, killing him and four other men instantly and wounding several. This was followed almost within a moment by another 8-inch solid shot hitting a little farther forward, killing and wounding six men. After this shell came one which exploded on our deck, killing and wounding several men. Among these was a powder boy in the act of passing a cartridge, which exploded.

While this dreadful work was going on forward the after division fared still worse. A 10-inch solid shot, followed immediately by two other 8-inch solid shot, struck this part of the ship, killing and wounding the entire after division of twenty five men and disabling all the guns…

Corporal John F. Mackie Firing From USS Galena

Twelve men of the marine guard under my command and I were at our ports, taking care of the sharpshooters on the opposite river bank, and I barely escaped being struck by the 10-inch shot. As soon as the smoke cleared away a terrible sight was revealed to my eyes: the entire after division down and the deck covered with dead and dying men. Without losing a moment, however, I called out to the men that here was a chance for them, ordering them to clear away the dead and wounded and get the guns in shape. splinters were swept away from the guns, sand thrown on the deck, which was slippery with human blood, and in an instant the heavy 100-pounder Parrot rifle and two 9-inch Dahlgren guns were ready and at work upon the fort.

For his actions at the Battle of Fort Darling, Corporal John F. Mackie was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was the first U.S. Marine to receive the Medal of Honor in the history of the Marine Corps.

Galena continued the fight as long as possible, but with ammunition running out, Rodgers ordered the flotilla to withdraw downriver at about 11:05. Afterwards, Galena’s executive officer reported 43 hits on the ship resulting in extensive damage. Thirteen men were killed and 11 more wounded. Monitor had taken three hits with no damage or casualties; Port Royal had one man wounded and Naugatuck two wounded. Confederate casualties were seven killed and eight wounded.

Captain Rodgers filed this after action report on the battle. Rodgers referred to Drewry’s Bluff as Ward’s Bluff, which is another name it was known as.

U.S.S. GALENA,
Off City Point, James River, May 16, 1862.

SIR: I have the honor to report that this vessel, the Aroostook, the Monitor, and Port Royal, with the Naugatuck, moved up the river, getting aground several times, but meeting no artificial impediments, until we arrived at Ward’s Bluff, about 8 miles from Richmond, where we encountered a heavy battery and two separate barriers, formed of spiles and steamboats and sail vessels. The pilots both say that they saw the Jamestown and Yorktown among the number. The banks of the river we found lined with rifle pits, from which sharpshooters annoyed the men at the guns. These would hinder the removal of obstructions unless driven away by a land force.

Battle of Drewry’s Bluff

The Galena ran within about 600 yards of the battery, as near the sidles as it was deemed proper to go, let go her anchor, and with a spring swung across the stream, not more than twice as wide as the ship is long; then, at 7:45 a.m., opened tire upon the battery. The wooden vessels, as directed, anchored about 1,300 yards below. The Monitor anchored near, and at 9 o’clock she passed just above the Galena, but found her guns could not be elevated enough to reach the battery. She then dropped a little below us and made her shots effective.

At 11:05 the Galena had expended nearly all her ammunition, and I made signal to discontinue the action.

We had but six Parrott charges and not a single filled 9-inch shell. We had 13 men killed and 11 wounded.

The rifled 100-pounder Parrott of the Naugatuck burst, half of the part abaft the trunnions going overboard. She is therefore disabled.

The Galena and Monitor can, with a supply of ammunition, silence the battery at Harden’s Bluff.

Commander John Rodgers USN

The result of our experiment with the Galena I enclose. We demonstrated that she is not shot-proof; balls came through, and many men were killed with fragments of her own iron. One fairly penetrated just above the water line and exploded in the steerage. The greater part of the balls, however, at the water line, after breaking the iron, stuck in the wood. The pert side is much injured; knees, timbers, and planks started. No shot penetrated the spar deck, but in three places are large holes, one of them a yard long and about 8 inches wide, made by a shot which, in glancing, completely broke through the deck, killing several men with fragments of the deck plating.

The Galena should be repaired before sending her to sea. I would suggest the Washington navy yard, since so many people there have an interest in iron plating, and she so well shows the effect of various shot.

No gun is disabled, but we need ammunition.

On James River an army can be landed within 10 miles of Richmond on either bank.

We command City Point, and are ready to cooperate with a land force in an advance upon Petersburg. In going up James River above this point it will be desirable to protect the crew from sharpshooters upon the river; they annoyed us.

To command important points and prevent the reoccupation of old Fort Powhatan at Hood’s, more vessels are needed.

Some should continually pass up and down the river to prevent the erection of new batteries.

I can not too highly commend the cool courage of the officers and crew.

Lieutenant Newman, the executive officer, was conspicuous for his gallant and effective services. Mr. Washburn, acting master, behaved admirably. These are selected amongst the number.

The Aroostook, Port Royal, and Naugatuck took the stations previously assigned them, and did everything which was possible; the Monitor could not have done better. The barrier is such that vessels of the enemy, even if they had any, probably can not pass out; ours can not pass in.

I have the honor to be, your obedient servant,

JOHN RODGERS,
Commander, U.S. Navy.

Flag-Officer GOLDSBOROUGH,
Hampton Roads, Virginia.

In preparation for the return of the Federal fleet, the Confederates strengthened the defenses at and around Drewry’s Bluff. But the gunboats did not return. In his report, Rodgers suggested that a combined land and river attack would succeed in taking Fort Darling. Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough, Captain Rodgers commander, went to General McClellan to offer cooperation for a joint Army-Navy expedition to take Fort Darling and open up a route to Richmond. McClellan was in the process of moving his army across the Chickahominy River to the north, and preferred to complete that task before committing any forces to such an operation.

Columbiad Heavy Gun at Fort Darling

That operation never occurred. Things were quiet at Fort Darling for the next two years as the location was used as a training ground and the garrison was fortified. Then in the middle of May 1864, the Union Army of the James under Major General Benjamin Butler attempted to take the fort via a land attack during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, launched in cooperation with General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. The operation consisted entirely of an attack on the garrison’s outer defenses by ground forces, without any naval involvement on the river. After initial success, Union forces were repulsed by a Confederate counterattack and withdrew.

Fort Darling was finally abandoned by the Confederates on April 2nd and 3rd, 1865, as Union forces captured Richmond and Petersburg.

Earthworks at Fort Darling, Drewry’s Bluff, Richmond National Battlefield Park

Visiting Fort Darling

The site of Fort Darling is preserved as one of the units of Richmond National Battlefield Park. From I-95, take Exit 64 at Highway 613, and follow the signs, circling around to Fort Darling Road, just east of I-95. The parking lot is just off the road. From there, it’s about a three tenths of a mile hike, some of which is paved, to the Fort’s location. Many earthworks have been preserved, and signs mark some points of interest. A big 8-inch Columbiad gun overlooks the James River from inside the fort at an original gun location.

8 Inch Columbiad Gun at Fort Darling, Drewry’s Bluff, Richmond National Battlefield Park

Sources

“Butler’s Attack on Drewry’s Bluff” by William Farrar Smith. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume IV. Edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel.

By Sea And By River: The Naval History of the Civil War by Bern Anderson.

Deeds of Valor: How American Heroes Won the Medal of Honor, Volume II, edited by W.F. Beyer and O.F. Keydel.

“The Navy in the Peninsular Campaign” by James Russell Soley. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume II. Edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel.

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 7.

The Peninsula and Seven Days: A Battlefield Guideby Brian K. Burton.

To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. Sears.

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