Before the Seven Days – Advance to the Chickahominy Part 10

by Dan O'Connell on November 21, 2012 · 2 comments

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, was 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 (the Galena was hit 45 times causing 24 casualties) the telling shot came from the 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.

Searching for the Enemy
The retreat from Williamsburg and the glacial pursuit of the Federal forces allowed Johnston to establish a line at the Chickahominy River. Placing the river in front of his defense was a prudent decision, particularly during rainy season. Normally a meandering, sluggish stream of little military consequence the Chickahominy became during the spring rains a considerable obstacle. Passing through the swampy lowlands required bridges and this restricted access offered limited access to the advancing enemy. Of course, Johnston took that into consideration when choosing his final defensive line which concentrated on the available crossing locations. The situation required that the Union leaders would have to conduct extensive reconnaissance to locate the enemy and clear the path ahead.

One of the first efforts in this regard was conducted to locate a small fleet of enemy vessels hidden on the Pamunkey River. On May 17th MAJ George Willard of the 19th US Infantry boarded about 140 infantrymen and two artillery pieces on the tug Seth Lowe for an expedition to destroy the boats. After linking up with the gunboat Currituck they proceeded up the river. The river gradually narrowed and the Currituck began to have problems in the shallow water. After successfully negotiating a channel slimmed by downed trees on both sides the two Union boats found the way blocked by two sunken schooners. The infantry was landed and struggled forward in the “thick growth of underwood” until they discovered the boats they were searching for. “One propeller, one large steamer, and seven schooners” were fully ablaze in the river with evidence that more were burning upstream. The threat of having the gunboat in the narrow water after dark caused the expedition to return. Although Willard reported he could not make “a very thorough examination of the burning vessels” he was also confident that “the complete destruction of all the vessels in the river exists.”

A similiar mission met a much different fate on the 19th. Pickets from the 4th Georgia reported that a boat containing about 20 men had departed the Union fleet and landed near City Point. CPT William Willis, of the 4th Georgia, decided to attack the bold group of Federals. As a group of the Union troops moved into town Willis split his men to attack both the shore party and the boat party. The shore party was captured without a fight but the boat crew, sensing danger, pushed off. Willis called out for them to return and surrender but they refused. The Confederates opened fire on the boat. They maintained their fire until Willis was convinced that “no one on board, 6 or 8 in number, escaped, all being killed or wounded.”

A land based column began the important task of “making a reconnaissance on the main road to Richmond via the Long or New Bridge” on the 18th. The group included a cavalry escort and a engineer officer (LT Bowen of the Topographical Engineers) and traveled approximately seven mile northwest before being pushed on to a alternate route by Confederate pickets near Old Church. They eventually joined another cavalry patrol, led by LT Custer and returned to camp. The following day a reinforced patrol of three squadrons of the 6th US Cavalry headed out again on a route that led them to Bottom’s Bridge. After pushing in some Confederate pickets they continued over the bridge and toward Richmond for about two miles. They again returned to report that the way to the river was essentially clear, the roads were passable, and there was “plenty of good camping grounds along the whole route.” The Army of the Potomac was free to move up to the Chickahominy.

Before the Seven Days (Campaign Series)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Small November 26, 2012 at 9:47 am

Thanks, Dan, for an interesting article. Often we seem to concentrate our attention of the battles themselves without paying attention to the probes and reconnaissance that precedes the battle. In this case, McClellan was trying to figure out the best way to get to Richmond. The James River route proved to be not feasible. But the land route over the Chickahominy proved more viable, as McClellan (I believe I read somewhere that Lee considered McClellan the best general he faced) planned his final assault on the Confederate capital.

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Dan O'Connell December 4, 2012 at 10:25 am

Richard,
I find these types of operations fascinating. We are dependent on electronic information gathering now but during the CW someone had to physically go and see what was out there. This often put small bodies of troops deep inside of unknown territory with the little hope of assistance if something went wrong. A tense situation indeed.
Dan

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