The Civil War on the James River (Part I)

One of the best things about Discover the James is the opportunity to partner with great folks, like Scott Williams.  Scott is a Civil War reinactor, and becoming a Civil War historian (although he'd never admit to it).  Scott is really good at what he does on the River and is the interpreter on the Discovery Barge II during the Civil War on the James tours.  The following story/blog was written by Scott ....


The Civil War on the James River (Part I)   by Scott Williams

During the Civil War, the James River played a very important strategic role in the fighting that took place around Richmond.  This is the first in a series of articles that will describe some of the events that took place on the river during the war.

The Battle of Drewry's Bluff

The fort at Drewry's Bluff was constructed in 1862 in response to the threat posed by Federal general George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign.  Located 8 miles below Richmond, the bluff is situated 90 feet above a sharp bend in the James River and was an ideal spot to protect Richmond from a river-borne attack.

On May 15, 1862, a Federal flotilla led by the ironclad Monitor attempted to force its way past the fort and obstructions in the river to attack Richmond.  When the battle began, the first broadside of four shells from the Galena, a wooden gunboat that had been retrofitted with iron plating, passed just over the crest of the bluff and exploded immediately in the rear of the gun emplacements.  The Monitor was not able to elevate her guns high enough to fire up at the fort, so the ironclad moved back downriver for the rest of the battle.

For three hours and 20 minutes the battle raged, while the fate of Richmond hung in the balance.  During this time, the Galena suffered several direct hits resulting in 12 dead and 11 wounded crew members.  Finally, the Federal commander realized that the river blockade could not be breached and signaled for his fleet to withdraw. Richmond was never again seriously threatened by a water-based attack.

During the battle, Marine Cpl. John Mackie took charge of one of the Galena's guns after the original crew had been wounded.  For his actions, Cpl. Mackie became the first United States Marine to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Soon after the battle, the Confederate Marine Corps Camp of Instruction and the Confederate Naval Academy were established at Drewry's Bluff.  The fort was expanded and the inner and outer lines were constructed to protect the fort from land based attack.  Drewry's Bluff remained a strong point on Richmond's southern defenses until the fall of Petersburg.  The last remnants of the Confederate James River Squadron met their end here when the ironclads Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Virginia II were blown up in front of Drewry's Bluff to prevent them from falling into Federal hands.  Today, Drewry's bluff is maintained by the National Park Service as part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park.

Please join us on our Civil War on the James Tour, to learn about other events that took place on the river during the Civil War.  Times and dates are posted on our website, click here for more ... Civil War on the James Tour.  --Scott Williams


The Photo's Stories?  Above Left & Right:  Gun emplacements at Drewry's Bluff.  The view of the top, left image is looking downriver along the James, towards Chaffin's Bluff and Osborne.

Lower Left:  Union soldiers gather on the deck of the ironclad Monitor.  Men can also be seen inside the top of turret, which gives you an idea of just how big it was.  This was a Federal ship, and is most famous for it's battle with the Merrimac.