Battle of Drewry’s Bluff

How people refer to events in their own time tells us quite a lot about their thinking, or how they viewed events unfolding around them. For example, no one in 1861 used the term Civil War to describe the bitter rivalries between North and South. If one happened to live in the North, the conflict became The War of Rebellion. Living in the American south, below the so-called Mason-Dixon line, it became The War of Northern Aggression. Both terms are accurate, from a historic point of view.

Artillery atop Drewry's Bluff

Artillery atop Drewry’s Bluff

The American Civil War was a time when brothers faced off, when homeland loyalty prompted men attending the same service academies to oppose one another in lethal combat. Nowhere is this horrible circumstance better represented than at the Battle of Gettysburg: here, Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock opposed his long time friend, Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, who was wounded during Pickett’s Charge and died soon after.

At the outbreak of the war, the U. S. Marine Corps had 63 officers; 16 of these officers resigned their commissions and joined the Confederate States Marine Corps (CSMC), including Major Henry B. Tyler who served as Adjutant of the Marine Corps. During this time, Marine Corps guard detachments served aboard naval shipping. They manned the ships’ guns, and they participated in limited riverine operations and amphibious assaults. It was inescapable that Marines would face someone he had met or served with before the war.

The first engagement was bloodless, a duel at Ship Island in early July 1861. A second battle occurred near Pensacola, Florida in October —this time with significant losses on both sides. The next battle would involve some of the most intense fighting anyone had seen up to that time; it occurred at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff on 15 May 1862.

Corporal Mackie aboard USS Galena 1862 (Waterhouse Collection)

Corporal Mackie aboard USS Galena 1862 (Waterhouse Collection)

Seven miles south of Richmond, Virginia, Corporal John F. Mackie, and the 12 Marines under his command aboard the USS Galena became engaged in a bitter duel with two companies of Confederate Marines sniping from the banks of the James River. Confederates directed their artillery from shore batteries atop Drewry’s Bluff, which towered 34 meters in elevation. The barrage directed against the Union squadron lasted for a little more than three hours. Eight and 10-inch artillery tore into the sides of the Union ships, sending shrapnel and splinters into the crew.

Dispersed throughout the five ships of the Union squadron, U.S. Marines fought desperately alongside their Navy counterparts, working the guns, resolutely bracketing Confederate positions all the while lethal bombs burst over their heads. The circumstances of mounting casualties among the crew forced Marines to set down their muskets and help man naval artillery.

Navy Medal of Honor, 1862

Navy Medal of Honor, 1862

A shot from Galena’s Parrot Rifle struck the Confederate artillery, destroying three guns and driving the Confederate troops from their field pieces —including Captain Robert Tansill, CSMC, who formerly served 28 years as a U. S. Marine officer. Galena prepared to fire for effect, but her successes made her a prime target for Confederate counter-battery fire; she suffered 45 hits. Captain John D. Simms, CSMC (also a former a U. S. Marine Corps officer), directed withering musket and rifle fire upon the Galena’s crew and accompanying ships, wounding the officers commanding USS Aroostook and USS Port Royal.

A 10-inch shot crashed into the Galena, killing or grievously wounding the entire aft division. When the smoke cleared, Corporal John Mackie rallied his men, led them forward, and rendered aid and protection to the wounded crewmen. After clearing the deck of the dead, wounded, and debris, Mackie and his Marines manned Galena’s Parrot Rifle until the end of the fight. In recognition of his remarkable coolness and leadership under intense enemy fire, Corporal Mackie became the first U. S. Marine recipient of the Medal of Honor.

The battle forced the squadron to withdraw. Drewry’s Bluff subsequently served as headquarters of the Confederate Marine Corps until the end of the War. Confederates referred to Drewry’s Bluff (also Fort Drewry) as the Gibraltar of the South.

 

Notes:

(1) Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A military history of the civil war (2001)

 

 

4 thoughts on “Battle of Drewry’s Bluff

  1. I marveled at the paintings in your article and they helped me understand the courage shown by both sides. Upon your reporting the ships took countless hits, I thought the Confederate gunners to either be numerous or simply excellent. Then I saw the ships were confined.

    Also mentioned were the artillery rounds bursting overhead. Did these cannon shot have some sort of internal fuse? And one thing always intrigued me physically. How could a lead cannon ball explode into shrapnel upon hitting a wooden ship? Being a layman, I would feel the lead shot would just go through like a stick through paper.

    It would appear Cpl. Mackie miraculously survived the combat – like John Basilone at Guadalcanal. Would you know what happened to this Marine?

    • What most people envision about civil war battles is large bowling ball kinds of munitions tearing in to massed formations of troops. This was certainly true, but cannon balls were not the only munitions. Both sides used essentially five kinds of munitions: shot, shell, case, canister, and grapeshot. Supposedly, the kind of ammunition used would depend on what you intended to do with it, but logistics being the determining factor in all warfare, very often the artillerymen had to go with what they had.

      There were two kinds of shot: that fired from smoothbore cannon, and a cylindrical bolt fired from rifled guns. The kinetic energy produced by either of these made them effective battering weapons. Shell, case, and canister munitions contained an explosive charge that upon detonation, created shrapnel. Grape was a variation of canister that had a fewer number of metal balls and was extraordinarily deadly to troops of foot.

      Corporal Mackie left the Marine Corps at the end of the war, lived a quiet life near Philadelphia. He passed away in 1910 at the age of 74.

  2. Good point about the term CIVIL WAR: they certainly wouldn’t have used that name at the time.
    Also, one might assert that it was anything but CIVIL!?

    My only connection is having visited Gettysburg with Mr. Z. The town is charming, the battle fields, quiet now and beautiful, are astonishing to stand in, knowing what happened there, and the room you can go into, with tiny lights all over the walls, each representing the fallen, like more stars than there could be in any universe, is so sad.

    Oh, and another connection is my erstwhile Lutheran Pastor’s communion set from his great great grandfather who served in the Civil War. He opened the old leather box with silver cup and whatever else it had, and it felt so unbelievably hallowed..”May I touch it?” I asked. As I wondered how many American boys took solace, or their last breaths, after drinking from that silver cup I was touching. wow.

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