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The Civil War on the James River (Part I)

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Mon, 06/06/2011 - 17:09

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.

Eaglet's of Jefferson Reach 2011

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Fri, 05/06/2011 - 07:54

Eaglet Update, May 2011.  In Jefferson's Reach on the James, there are five pair of resident bald eagles.  Four out of five pair have had successful egg hatches this spring and are busy feeding their young eaglets.  In 2010, three out of the five pair raised eaglets to fledge and fly off on their own last fall. Four total chicks were raised by three pair and many of the immature bald eagles we are now seeing are probably offspring of Jefferson's Reach eagles.

The last couple of years, I can tell you exactly when and where the Discovery Barge II was during the first eaglet sighting of the year.  Last year it was March 28, in the main channel looking at Virginia & James' huge nest, when out over the top of the nest came the little bobble head of an eaglet.  Barely strong enough to support it's own head.  This year, on April 7, in the old river channel, near Deep Bottom while looking at the nest of Baba & Pops, up popped a big head and neck, full of dark feathers and a big dark beak"Lee" can be seen on nearly every trip now, as this eaglet is getting bigger each day and recently we saw Lee stretching it's wings.  We have not seen a second eaglet in the nest, but that doesn't mean there isn't one in there. Soon Lee will be on the edge of the nest hopping around and flapping its wings preparing to fledge sometime in June.

Of the five pair of bald eagles in Jefferson's Reach, Baba & Pops, Virginia & James, Varina & Enon and Rebecca & John have eaglets in the nest.  We can tell by the flight patterns of the adults after hunting.  Once a parent catches a fish, they will fly up and over the treeline and straight back to the nest.  Two of the five nests are visible from the River.  The other three range from 10 yards to hundreds of yards from the river's edge, but the forested river banks hide all three.  When the leaves fall this autumn, two of these three nests will be visible again.  The only one not visible at any point is Rebecca & John.  They recently moved their nest from Jones Neck to the mainland on the west side of Jones Neck.  Rebecca & John's story had developed into a fascinating one, and will be the next blog post.  Bandit & Smokey is the only pair to have lost their clutch.  They were harassed by a pair of mature birds for a number of days and lost their eggs somehow, possibly having the intruding pair come into the nest and killing the eggs.

A few interesting notes about the breeding population of resident eagles in Virginia.  Today, there are well over 700 established pair of resident bald eagle in the state.  Over the last 34 years, the Center for Conservation Biology at William & Mary has documented over 10,092 eaglets.  What is amazing about this number is how many of them were documented in the last decade.  Since 2000, over 70% of the 10,000+ chicks were produced, or an average of 1 eaglet per resident pair.  In 2010 8.7 percent were produced, or close to 900 chicks.  That is an amazing comeback for Virginia's bald eagle.  Thank you Center for Conservation Biology, Department of Game & Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Center of Virginia for a job well done.

The Photo's Stories?  Top Left:  This is wonderful image of a mature bald eagle with a chick in the nest.  Look at how large the beak is.

Bottom Right:  Another image by Dave Parrish.  He is a great wildlife photographer, and if you get a chance check out his webiste (  This eagle is approaching the later end of it's immature days. Notice how the head is starting to turn white, and look at the tail feathers, how they are starting to turn white on the inside.  Wow, what a stunning shot of an immature bald eagle of the James.  This was taken within the Jefferson's Reach area.  --Photo by Dave Parrish

Annual Visitor to the James

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Mon, 04/18/2011 - 21:20

April 14, 2011.  One of the rites of spring is the annual spawning run of anadromous fish from the ocean to the fresh waters of the James River.  These include American shad, hickory shad, striped bass and blueback herring.  These species are often targeted by anglers for sport, with hundreds of boats able to be seen in downtown Richmond full of anglers trying to catch them.

There is also another critter that comes out of the ocean and up the James along with these fish.  This animal does not have bones, and looks like something from a sci-fi movie.  This wild looking parasite swims up the river by the thousands each year, and we don't often hear too much about them.  Perhaps it's because they have a mouth full of teeth, and they suck the blood out of their 'hosts'.  The Sea Lamprey is a very cool creature that finds its way into rivers all along the Atlantic coasts of Europe and America.

The Sea Lamprey can grow to nearly three feet in length.  It attaches itself to the side of a fish and 'rasps' away tissue with its many teeth and tongue.  The lamprey also has secretions in its mouth that keeps blood from clotting, so the fish unfortunately usually dies from either blood loss or infection.

The Sea Lamprey swims, or rides up the James for one reason ... to spawn.  Once they spawn, they die (I have never seen a dead one on the river bottom, thank you turtles!).  Once the lampreys eggs hatch, the young emerge in larval form and live buried in the mud for three to seven years.  They filter feed in the mud until they have metamorphosed into their adult form.  Then they swim out to the sea to live out their adult lives, and once its their turn, they too will swim back up the James River to spawn, then die.  --Capt. Mike

The Photo's Story:  While out on the James with a group of teachers from Prince George High School, we encountered this Sea Lamprey swimming around on the surface of the river.  Luckily we were able to scoop it up in a small mesh net.  Once aboard, this critter dazzled the teachers, and me too!  Wow, what a cool animal.  Photo by Anne Wright, VCU.

Thoughts About the James: First Week of April 2011

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Tue, 04/12/2011 - 13:13

April, 2011.  Anyone can talk to eagles, right?  Often, when I see one of the resident eagles in Jefferson's Reach, I say, "Hello!" out loud.  On many occasions, I'll continue my conversation with an eagle by mentioning the obvious.  Our conversation might sound something like this ... "Good morning pretty girl.  How are you this morning Varina?  I am sorry, but I don't have a breakfast shad for you or your chicks this morning."  As my pontoon boat, the Discovery Barge II continues on the James River, I'll end with, "Goodbye Varina.  I promise to bring a shad back to you later if I find plenty during the day and have an extra one at the end of my fishing trip."

Yep, if I can talk to them, anyone can talk to eagles.


But how many people talk to the river?  This is quite different than talking to bald eagles.  Eagles have eyes, and thoughts, and sometimes, you can 'sense' what one might be thinking.  The river is different.  There are no eyes to read and no ears to hear.  No wings to fly and no talons to hunt with.  What the river does have is a soul with moods, parts and pieces.  The river has lines, shapes and color.  It has sounds, thousands of different sounds.  The river and all her surroundings in many ways is perfection no matter when you go.  The James River has been alive and has been the ultimate resource for eons, and will continue to survive and provide forever.  The James River is a time machine and a portal to our future.  Who better to ask life's perplexing questions to, than one that has so much experience?

The river is perfect.  The lines, and curves along the shore and trees reflected in the water just makes sense.  Everything is where it is suppose to be.  All these pieces of the natural puzzle are placed together so wonderfully, that the river becomes the ultimate listener.  It's there, in the face of perfection, the home of so many creatures, I'll take the pieces of my own puzzle to talk and think.  Often I get the answers, and just as often, I get more questions.  But it's those special occasions, I get to see pieces of my own puzzle fit together.  And it's then and there that I realize anything is possible, like talking to eagles.  Yep, the James River is perfect--Capt. Mike



Last week of March 2011

The bald eagle activity has been phenomenal on the James River since the middle of March, which coincides with the time of the hatching of their eggs.  If the resident birds laid their eggs at the end of January, or the first days of February, then the middle of March is when they should hatch, or roughly 35-37 days of incubation.  It’s been a banner year for the resident eagles of Jefferson’s Reach.

Recent observations on the river include the following:  finding Varina & Enon’s nest, locating Virginia & James’ new nest, realizing Bandit & Smokey’s eggs have failed, and seeing so many new bald eagles in the area, all the way to the City of Richmond. 

After two years of searching, we’ve finally found Varina & Enon's nest.  Their nest isn’t high in a tree, like most of the eagles along the James, but it’s built about midway up in a very large pine tree. Lower than anticipated, which made it so hard to find even for how big it it. Their nest is massive.  The biggest nest I have ever seen.  Last year, Varina & Enon didn’t have any chicks, as they were both on the river all spring, meaning neither one needed to be on the nest, so no eaglets to watch over and feed.  This year, they definitely do and fly back to it on a regular basis. 

Virginia & James also have a new nest.  It’s much smaller than the nest they lived in for many years.  Their nest fell last fall in a storm and they’ve built in a tree behind a small stand of pine trees just off the river. It was an amazing feeling to see them fly back with a fresh caught gizzard shad back to the nest to feed the little ones.  For the las seven or eight weeks, many of the birds of Jefferson's Reach have been along the side of the river, one at a time, which only can mean one thing ... eggs on the nest.

On a sad note, Bandit & Smokey have abandoned their eggs.  They are still using the same nest, but neither has been on the nest lately.  There were a number of days about two weeks ago that another mature bald eagle was harassing them.  There were two eagles harassing them one day, but for the most part, it was one mature eagle remaining close to their nest and flying near, causing a disruption with Bandit & Smokey’s routine.  I understand that there is such a high number of eagles on the James now that some territories are being fought over and eaglets and eggs are being killed. This could perhaps be one of those situations.

One of the most interesting observations is seeing how many eagles there are in the area between Osborne Landing and the City of Richmond (upriver from Jefferson's Reach).  I have never seen so many bald eagles in the City.  Yesterday, March 29, we saw seven bald eagles flying around within one mile of Ancarrows Landing.  In one instance there were three mature eagle and one immature eagle hanging out in one tree.  I need to find out more about why this is happening.  It’s my understanding that all the migratory birds are gone now.  Are these resident birds that are now mature looking to ‘pair up’ to become mates for life?  More to follow ...

--Capt. Mike

The Photos Stories.  Top Left:  A wonderful image of Bandit and all her glory.  If we blow the image up really large, we can see two of the numbers on the band, but they are already numbers we know of.  So far, we know of three numbers. 6 ... 2 ... 5.  I'm thinking that anyone who can get a number from the band, one that we don't have get's a free eagle tour.  Photo by Lynda Richardson

Bottom Right:  A beautiful shot of the finest pair of bald eagles on the James River, Bandit & Smokey.  Bandit is on the right, Smokey on the left. Photo by Lynda Richardson