Drewry’s Bluff is the most unique and iconic location among Richmond National Battlefield Park’s thirteen units. The last stop on the Park Service’s recommended seventy-mile see-it-all driving tour, the site is certainly worth an extended visit on its own merits.
I frequently heard questions in Richmond’s visitor centers about why the Union navy didn’t just steam up the James River to capture the Confederate capital. That strategy seemed logical to try and the Federal fleet did attempt it, once. The well-preserved fort at Drewry’s Bluff tells the story of the expedition’s failure.
The James River winds it way southeast from Richmond to its confluence with the Appomattox. Confederate engineers constructed water batteries along the bluffs above both banks of the river. Drewry’s Bluff’s location a mile west upstream of a sharp bend in the river gave it special strategic importance. Construction of a fort on top of the ninety-foot eminence began on March 17, 1862. The earthwork, typically referred to as Fort Darling in northern accounts, was operational with three heavy artillery pieces on May 15, 1862. Commander John Rogers’s Union squadron rounded the bend that morning. Wooden gunboats Aroostook, Naugatuck, and Port Royal hung back while ironclads Monitor and Galena attempted to duel the fort. Rogers withdrew after three hours and Richmond remained safe from a naval incursion the rest of the war. Two years later Union land units crept close to the fort during Benjamin Butler’s Bermuda Hundred campaign, but a Confederate infantry counterattack drove Butler back into the peninsula.
Today, the National Park Service unit is only staffed with historians on the anniversary weekend of the battle, but the site is open to the public every day and interpreted with about a dozen wayside exhibits featuring the construction of the fort and its layout, the 1862 battle, and the location’s significance in the history of the Marines. Corporal John Freeman Mackie became the first member of the United States Marine Corps to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions on board the Galena, maintaining musket fire against Confederates in rifle pits along the shore until he received orders to fill a vacancy on the gun crew. Camp Beall, just to the west of the fort, afterward served as the training ground for Confederate marines.
Drewry’s Bluff can be reached from Exit 64 on Interstate-95 in Chesterfield County in between Richmond and Petersburg. Southbound travelers should turn right onto Willis Road, while northbound travelers would turn left. In 0.4 miles turn right onto U.S. Highway 1. Head north 0.6 miles and turn right onto Chester Road. After a quick S-curve, Chester Road becomes Bellwood Road. Head east for 0.6 miles. Immediately after passing under the I-95 bridge, turn left onto Fort Darling Road. Head north 0.4 miles and take a slight right into the parking lot. The fort is about a third of a mile from the trailhead.
Physical Address – 7600 Fort Darling Road, Richmond, VA 23237.
The park unit is open daily from sunrise to sunset.
Richmond National Battlefield Park web page for Drewry’s Bluff.