Having lost Norfolk, Va., in March 1862, Confederates realized the James River was open for a Federal advance on Richmond. The Confederate army needed to select a position along the river which would command all traffic on the James. This second-line was a bluff overlooking a sharp bend in the river. The bluff, named after Confederate Captain Augustus Drewry, was the location of the battle of Drewry’s Bluff on May 16, 1862.
Until reaching Drewry’s Bluff, the James River followed a west-to-east course. Then, the river bends in a southerly direction before heading east again. This sharp bend forced boats to slow down as they navigated in front of the 90-foot bluffs. This proved to be an excellent position to retain control of the James, keeping Federal vessels from the Confederate capital.
Drewry’s artillery arrived at the bluff that would bear his name on March 17, 1862, at which time Confederates began to build fortifications and gun emplacements. The earthen fort that was constructed would be known to the Federals as Fort Darling.
By early May, the crew of the CSS Virginia joined Confederate forces at Drewry’s Bluff. The Virginia, which had fought the Monitor at Hampton Roads, was scuttled to keep it from being captured by Union forces. To increase their advantage even more, Confederates sunk several other vessels as obstructions just below Drewry’s Bluff, making passage on the river even more difficult.
On May 15, 1862, a detachment of Union vessels led by Commander John Rodgers, steamed up the James River from Fort Monroe. Among the five vessels in the flotilla, were the USS Monitor and Galena. The other boats in the flotilla were the Aroostook, the Port Royal and the ironclad Naugatuck.
The Galena closed within 600 yards of Drewry’s Bluff before Rodgers could open fire. Rounds from Confederate guns on the bluff struck the Galena. The Monitor, which was equipped with more armor that the Galena, proved to fare better against the accurate fire of the Confederate defenders. The Monitor’s problem was that its guns could not elevate enough to do much damage to the Confederate fort and guns.
For three hours, Confederates traded blows with the Union vessels. During this time, the damaged Galena remained virtually stationary, taking 45 hits. The Galena’s crew suffered 14 dead and ten wounded.
Corporal John Mackie of New York rallied his fellow Marines aboard the Galena shouting, “Come on boys, here’s a chance for the Marines.” While under a continuous fire, Mackie led efforts to remove the dead and wounded from Galena’s deck.
Mackie and the survivors of the Marine Guard then operated the cannon until the Galena withdrew from the battle. For his heroic duty, Mackie was the first U. S. Marine to receive the Medal of Honor. The ironclad Naugatuck withdrew after one of its guns exploded. The wooden vessels Port Royal and Aroostook stayed out of range of the big guns on Drewry’s Bluff.
With a loss of seven killed and eight wounded, the Confederates at Drewry’s Bluff stopped the Union navy’s attempt to seize Richmond just seven miles from the Confederate capital. The Federal boats withdrew to City Point, Va. Although Rodgers told Major General George B. McClellan that he could safely land troops as close as ten miles from Richmond, the cautious McClellan never seriously considered such a maneuver. There were no further attempts to take Drewry’s Bluff until the Siege of Petersburg in 1864.