Tramping the 150th
Some photos from a trip last week to the Virginia peninsula for a Yorktown Staff Ride with our satellite campus at Fort Lee, from which I took some time out to celebrate the 150th anniversary of George McClellan’s 1862 grand campaign.
The first photo below was taken along the section of the defensive line near the Yorktown Vistor Center. The cannon posted next to the flag is a French 6 pdr. known as “Le Renard” (“the Fox”). Redoubt No. 9, which was captured by the French on 14 October 1781, is visible to the right of the picture.
It is interesting to look at the maps and see just how much the Confederates followed the outline of Cornwallis’s defenses from 1781 in constructing their defenses around Yorktown itself. (Magruder’s men also constructed fortifications that extended south behind the Warwick River.) Of course, the same terrain features, in particular Yorktown Creek and Wormley’s Creek, essentially dictated that the historic Hampton Road (modern Cook Road/VA 704) be the main avenue of approach for armies conducting offensive operations against Yorktown in both 1781 and 1862. (The first map below of the 1862 lines is from plate 14 in the OR Atlas; the second of the 1781 lines is from the USMA Atlas site.)
The photos below were taken at Fort Darling on Drewry’s Bluff. Both look downstream to where on 15 May 1862 the engagement took place between the Confederate land defenses and the James River Flotilla (which included the ironclads Monitor and Galena) in which the latter were forced to retreat downstream. The engagement resulted in the awarding of the first Medal of Honor to a member of the US Marine Corps, Corporal John Freeman Mackie. Fort Darling was also the site of the Confederate Naval Academy.
From, John Russell Soley, “The Navy in the Peninsular Campaign,” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 2: 268-70:
On the 10th, Norfolk was abandoned, and was immediately occupied by the Union forces under General Wool. Early the next morning Commodore Tattnall, being unable to carry out his plan of taking the Merrimac up the James River near Craney Island. Meantime, the Galena and her consorts under Commander John Rodgers had been working their way up the James River. On the first day two batteries were encountered. The first, at Rock Wharf, was silenced, The resistance of the second, at Hardin’s Bluff, was more obstinate, but Rodgers, in the Galena, lay abreast of the enemy’s guns and kept up a steady fire, disconcerting their aim while the wooden boats went by. During the next week Rodgers continued on his course up the James, meeting With no serious impediment until he arrived at Drewry’s Bluff, eight miles below Richmond.
At this time, May 15th, the flotilla had been increased by the addition of the Monitor and the Naugatuck. Fort Darling (Commander E. Farrand, C.S.N.), at Drewry’s Bluff, was a strong position, two hundred feet above the river, and mounting a number of heavy guns. At the foot of the bluff an obstruction had been placed in the river formed of sunken vessels secured by chains. The light armor of the Galena had not as yet been seriously tested, and Rodgers had no great confidence in her ability to stand a severe fire; nevertheless, he decided to make the test. In a private letter written shortly after, he said: “I was convinced as soon as I came on board that she would be riddled under fire, but the public thought differently, and I resolved to give the matter a fair trial.” Accordingly, he ran the Galena up to a point opposite the battery, where the width of the stream was not more than double the ship’s length. According to an officer in the fort, the Galena “steamed up to within seven or eight hundred yards of the bluff, let go her starboard anchor, ran out the chains, put her head inshore, backed astern, let go her stream-anchor from the starboard quarter, hove ahead, and made ready for action before firing a gun.” Nothing could have been more beautiful than the neatness and precision of movement with which Rodgers placed the Galena, as if at target practice, directly under the enemy’s fire. In the words of the officer already quoted, “It was one of the most masterly pieces of seamanship of the whole war.”
In this position the Galena remained for three hours and twenty minutes until she had expended all her ammunition. She came out of the action badly shattered, having been struck 28 times and perforated in 18 places. The Monitor passed for a short time above the Galena, but being unable to elevate her guns sufficiently to reach the bluff, she again dropped below. The wooden vessels cooperated as far as possible, but of course could not accomplish much. The attack made it clear that the obstructions could not be passed without first reducing the fort, and that the fort could not be reduced without the cooperation of the army.