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