Earlier this month, Caroline Davis wrote about the Confederate defenders of Drewry’s Bluff. For students of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, the Federal Navy’s defeat on the James ranks as a key moment in the operation.
The main Federal effort for the spring of 1862 involved an attempt to capture Richmond by Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. After considering several different approaches to the Confederate capital, McClellan opted to move his army by water to Fort Monroe and make a joint (Army supported by Navy) advance up the York and James Rivers past Yorktown to Richmond.
While McClellan’s army deployed before the Confederate defenses at Yorktown, defenses, the sea service faced its share of problems in Hampton Roads. The CSS Virginia at Norfolk remained a latent threat with her gunboat consorts. Her presence also effectively closed the James River to any Federal operations.
In early May the Confederates abandoned Yorktown and retreated westward. This action doomed Norfolk’s garrison. Major General Benjamin Huger abandoned the city on 9 May, destroying the Gosport Navy Yard and military supplies. The CSS Virginia received orders to Richmond, but her draft was too deep to pass up the James. After efforts failed to sufficiently lighten the ship, her crew blew her up in the early morning hours of 11 May. The James River was now open almost to Richmond, and Federal Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough exploited his advantage.
Led by the USS Monitor, a Federal flotilla advanced up the James. If the fleet could pass the river batteries at Drewry’s Bluff, seven miles downstream from the Confederate capital city, Richmond might fall in a manner similar to New Orleans a few weeks before. On 15 May the ships tried to force Drewry’s Bluff, but found the river blocked by sunken ships and heavy cannon on the heights above. An attempt to smash the batteries by gunfire failed, and the fleet retired after suffering some loss. “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,” wrote an observer. McClellan refused to detach troops to help, and the Drewry’s Bluff obstructions remained unbroken until 1865.
The failure at Drewry’s Bluff now impacted a key Federal decision of the campaign: where to site the Army of the Potomac’s supply line. General McClellan needed to decide which river (the York or the James) to use for his line of communication; a requirement was a line that could be easily sustained the closer one got to Richmond. The Confederate defenses at Drewry’s Bluff closed the James River as a supply route from that point to the city.
In the end, McClellan chose to base at West Point on the York and use the railroad leading west toward Richmond as his supply line. This decision made geography a critical consideration – the Chickahominy River runs east of Richmond in a northwest-southeast direction, and separated West Point from the Confederate capital. To both shield his line of communication and threaten the city, McClellan straddled the river with his army, opening opportunities for Confederate counteroffensives which were not missed. Basing on the York, with its resulting tactical consequences, influenced the rest of the Peninsula Campaign and Seven Days Battles, and the Drewry’s Bluff defeat was a key factor in that decision.