Battle of Drewry’s Bluff
With the fall of Yorktown, the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia at Norfolk was scuttled to prevent her capture. This opened the James River to Federal gunboats. On May 15, five gunboats, including the ironclads USS Monitor and USS Galena, steamed up the James to test the Richmond defenses. They encountered submerged obstacles and deadly accurate fire from the batteries at Drewry’s Bluff, which inflicted severe damage on Galena. The Federal Navy was turned back.
Drewry's Bluff - The Navy Enters the Fray
The failure of the initiative on the York River left McClellan looking for alternatives. An initial call by the general for the Navy to move up the James River on May 4th went unheeded. When the C.S.S. Virginia was scuttled following the fall of Norfolk on 11 May the possibility of a successful move up the river became more reasonable. Accordingly the Monitor was ordered to "push on up to Richmond" with an escort of four vessels, the ironclad Galena and Aroostook, Port Royal, and Naugatuck (Stevens). The mission was based on on several assumptions. Although the commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, Flag Officer L. M. Goldsborough, knew that the enemy was preparing for such a venture he concluded that the obstructions "have been put down hurriedly" and that there would be "no great difficulty" for the task force "in clearing a passageway" to allow the Monitor to proceed to Richmond and "shell the place into a surrender."
The Confederate preparations were much more in depth than Goldsborough anticipated. The delay in occupying Norfolk granted time for them to move heavy artillery, including the ordinance from the scuttled Virginia into the area. As early as 25 March the recommended obstruction of the river had been ordered by R. E. Lee. The seemingly unending rains slowed the progress of the work and on 13 May the defenses were incomplete. The crew of the Virginia followed the stripped guns to Drewry's Bluff and worked nonstop to complete the line of guns that included one 10" piece, four 8" guns and two 32lb rifled guns. The river was blocked by sinking hulks to stall enemy vessels and make them susceptible to the plunging fire from the heights. The channel markers were removed or changed to make navigation even more difficult. Two gunboats, the Patrick Henry and Jamestown were positioned in the narrow gap that bypassed the obstructions. Additionally a line of rifle-pits was dug along the shore for sharpshooters to harass the Union gunners.
Once again Union delays assisted the Confederate preparation. A full six days were required to assembled the ships for the mission. Additional delays occurred when the commander of the expedition, Commander John Rodgers, became concerned about the veracity of the soundings in the proposed route. As the new soundings were being taken the Virginia crew was putting the finishing touches on the Drewry Bluff defenses. It was not until May 15th that the challenge at the James River was made.
Unaware or undeterred the small Federal fleet steamed up the James River. When the Galena came to within 600 yards she laid to and opened on the Confederate defenses at 0745. She received more than the expected amount of return fire. The Monitor steamed by but when LT Jeffers realized that he could not elevate the guns enough to engage the enemy batteries he retired the boat. The Federal fleets problems multiplied when the Naugatuck's 100 lb gun burst. The Port Royal, and her commander, LT George Morris, were also having troubles. The Confederate sharpshooters were playing havoc with his crew and despite the extended range the Confederate gunners managed to strike his vessel twice below the water line. The Galena was left to fight alone, as the other vessels remained about a mile downstream. For three hours the Galena maintained the fight despite growing damage and evidence of the inefficiency of her iron skin. Despite the accuracy of fire from the bluff (Galena was hit 45 times causing 24 casualties) the telling shot came from Patrick Henry. A round from her 8" gun penetrated her bow and set the ship on fire. There was nothing left to do but retire the Union ships to avoid complete disaster.