Monday, May 14, 2012

May 15, 1862 (Thursday): Battle at Drewry's Bluff

The Galena, Showing Hole In Stack From Confederate Shell

MAY 15, 1862-Engagement at Fort Darling, James River, VA.
Report of Commander William Smith, U. S. Navy, commanding U. S. Steamer Wachusett.

City Point, James River, May 19, 1862.
    GENERAL: I left West Point on the 15th instant (by order of the Honorable Secretary of the Navy), in company with the Maratanza, for Hampton Roads, to come up the James River. last evening we arrived here.
    On the 15th instant the Galena, Monitor, Naugatuck, Port Royal, and Aroostook ascended this river to within about 8 miles of Richmond, when they met with obstructions in the river which prevented their farther advance. The obstructions consisted of a row of piles driven across the channel, and three rows of vessels sunk also across the channel, among them the Yorktown and Jamestown. Just below these obstructions on the south or west side of the river were very formidable batteries, mounting fourteen guns, among them 11-inch shell, 100-pounder rifles, and nothing less than 8-inch shell guns. The river there is very narrow, the bank some 200 feet high, and the guns so situated that they can be pointed directly down on the decks of the vessels. The sharpshooters can come on the banks and pick off the men on the vessels' decks. The gunboats were engaged about four hours with the batteries and then retired, having expended their ammunition.
    Our loss was 12 killed and 13 wounded; the vessels not much injured, except the Galena, which had eighteen shots through her sides and deck. The rebel papers admit that a few of their men were killed and wounded; some deserters say they amounted to several hundred. The river is so narrow and crooked and the banks so high that the gunboats cannot take a position for shelling the batteries except within a very short distance of them and directly under their guns. A gunboat cannot turn under steam in the river. Commodore Rodgers, of the Galena, who commanded the expedition, is decidedly of the opinion that the works cannot be reduced without the assistance of land forces.
    We have now at this point the Wachusett, Galena, Maratanza, Port Royal, Aroostook, and Monitor, ready to assist you in your movements. I shall keep this river open if possible to Walls' Bluff, where the batteries above mentioned are situated.
    I will station a vessel about 2 miles above this point, on the north side of the river, near the residence of Colonel Hill Carter, from which point there is a good road to Charles City Court-House, and where you can communicate with me if you desire to do so.
    I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

   W. SMITH,
   Commanding U. S. Steamer Wachusett.

Official Records, Series I., Vol. 11, Part 1, Page 636.

If the Union gunboats had passed the obstructions at Drewry's Bluff they could have shelled Richmond.  But the position of Confederate forces on the high bluff above a narrow bend in the river was formidable and allowed for plunging fire onto ships in the river, but made it difficult to shell Fort Darling.  The battle lasted three hours and fifteen minutes, before the Union force withdrew.  Had the fleet been able to pass the report it is interesting to speculate what effect it would have had on McClellan's campaign.  It would not have, by itself resulted in the surrender of Richmond, but it would have certainly placed enormous pressure on Johnston and the Confederate high command.

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