New Light on the great Drewry's Bluff fight. From the News leader, September 8, 1906.Judge William Izard Clopton's description of the naval Engagement—a valuable addition to Civil war History—Facts heretofore Unpublished.
The following report of the great naval battle of Drewry's Bluff was prepared and delivered to a large audience at Chesterfield Courthouse, Tuesday afternoon, September 4, 1906, by Judge William I. Clopton. In speaking of this address, Judge Clopton said: ‘There is no effort at elocutionary pyrotechnics, nor any flowery eloquence. It is simply an historical report of what actually happened in an event which was fraught with so much moment to Richmond in the stirring times of the Civil War. The naval engagement here related is the one which prevented the men of war of the enemy from coming up to Richmond and bombarding the city in 1862.’ In treating the facts concerning the naval battle which occurred at Drewry's Bluff, May 15, 1862, I am aware that much controversy has arisen as to the true state of facts. The usual source of information is the official reports, but as these are strangely oblivious of the part taken in this very important battle by the Chesterfield company, commanded by Captain Augustus H. Drewry, I shall confine my account to the descriptions given to me by Captain (afterwards major) Drewry, and Sergeant Samuel A. Mann, which latter account is vouched for as true, by Dr. Thomas J. Cheatham, who certified that he was present during the whole action and that Sergeant Mann's account is correct in all respects. I can perform this service in no better way than by simply reading Sergeant Mann's plain and simple, but very eloquent account of the battle, and by reading Major Drewry's account of  the building of the fort, and the part taken by his company in the battle:
Major Drewry's letter.
Sergeant Manns account.The company afterwards known as the ‘Southside Heavy Artillery of Virginia Volunteers,’ was enlisted early in January, 1862, and towards the latter part of the month, assembled at Chesterfield Courthouse, where we proceeded to elect our commissioned officers, with the following results: For Captain—Augustus H. Drewry. For First Lieutenant—James B. Jones. For Second Lieutenant—Spencer D. Ivey, and For Third Lieutenant—Dickerson V. Wilson. All of the lieutenants had been officers in the Chesterfield militia, in which Lieutenant Wilson had held the rank of captain. We then returned to our homes subject to a call to service in the Confederate States army, which had been at war with the United States army for about ten months, with varied success, previous to this time. When on the 5th day of February, 1862, those of us who lived on this side of the county took train for Richmond at the Pocahontas depot, in the city of Petersburg, and were put off opposite to, and went into camp with the rest of the company at Battery No. 19, on the turnpike, a little south of Manchester, the day that the writer of this lacked eleven days of being twenty  years old. Our quarters consisted of a ridge pole set up east and west, with plank set up on each side, at an angle of about forty-five degrees, and covered so as to break joints, and formed a very good storm-proof roof, with no light or ventilation, but such as could come in at the end doors and cracks through the roof. The east end was partitioned off for officers' quarters. We found it erected, and bunks inside, filled with clean straw for beds. And the writer met the largest majority of the members of the company on this day for the first time. Thus we began our army life. Soon we were allowed to elect our non-commissioned officers, when Colonel Robert Watkins, of the Chesterfield militia, was elected first orderly sergeant, and I was chosen third corporal. Shortly an officer who had lost an eye at First Manassas, came over from Richmond, and mustered us into service of the Confederate States of America, Colonel Joe. Selden. The ages of the men of the company ranged all the way between seventeen to about forty-five or fifty years, and were, by occupation, mostly farmers, with a sprinkling of carpenters, cotton-mill hands, with some gentlemen. On the 28th of February, in the afternoon, we were marched over to the old armory in Richmond, and were furnished our first muskets of Virginia make, which had been altered from flint-lock to percussion. Then we were marched back to camp, late on a cold, blustering evening. About this time a man who was a Scotchman, McFarland, spare-built, and appeared to be about thirty-five years of age, who told us that he had been a soldier for sixteen years; first in England, and lately in the United States army, was sent down to us as drill-master, and began to teach us our facing, and the manual of arms, according to Hardee (Lieutenant Wilson had taught some of us the year before according to Scott), and after we had made some progress, we acted as provost guard in Manchester for about ten days. Then we proceeded to erect good, two-room frame houses for quarters, and had occupied some of them, when, on the 17th day of March, with drums beating and  colors flying, accompanied with all our impediments, we were marched along the turnpike, down to Drewry's Bluff, on the ‘Noble James river,’ about seven miles below Richmond, and bivouacked at the future ‘Gibraltar’ that night, grumbling about the hard fate that had overtaken us, at having been turned out of our nice new houses and forced to make our beds on the bare ground. Then Captain Drewry took us in hand, and with his accustomed energy, hurried us on towards erecting log-cabins for quarters, and preparing the battery for mounting guns, &c.— the fort had been laid out by Lieutenant Mason, of the engineers—sometimes we were forced to work on it day and night. After a busy time, the quarters were finished, and occupied, and emplacements to hold three heavy guns were prepared on the river face of the bluff. The two eight-inch Columbiads, which we were told had been constructed at the Bellona arsenal, in Chesterfield county, on the upper James river, above Richmond, were sent down the river on lighters, drawn by tugs, to the wharf, erected at the mouth of the ravine, just east of the fort. Then the heavy work of landing them and hauling them up the steep incline-railway to the level of the fort, ninety feet above the water began, and after severe labor finished, and they were at their places in the battery, ready to be mounted. Then after skilled workmen had built substantial foundations and laid down level platforms, and laid out the traverse circles, we, under Colonel Robert Tansell, who wore the full regimentals as colonel of artillery, proceeded to mount them to their places by the aid of a ‘gin’ and much heavy pulling on ropes by hand. After which our aforementioned Scotchman, Robert Stuart McFarland, (Major Drewry employed him), by name, began to teach us the manual of the heavy artillery tactics, showing us how to go to our places for action, take implements, sponge, load, in battery, point and fire, all of which motions we had to go through with ‘at double quick time.’ And from thence forward every day, and almost all day long, we were kept at severe drill at the heavy guns. About this time a man named McMellon (Major Drewry  employed him), who had belonged to the Ordnance Department of the English army, came down to teach us what he knew about drill at the guns, and how to arrange the powder in the magazine, and the shells in their houses. He also taught us some hygiene exercises. They sent us down a ten-inch Columbiad from Richmond, which we mounted on the western emplacement, already prepared, took it in charge, and began to drill with it also. The company thus had all three guns under its charge, mounted and ready for action, and numbered from east to west, as follows: Gun No. 1, eight-inch; Gun No. 2, eight-inch (64 pounder), and Gun No. 3, ten-inch (128 pounder). I was assigned to Gun No. 2, as gunner, and remained at the same post as long as the company remained at the fort. Meanwhile some workmen were detailed from the company —Lieutenant Ivey among them—to work, obstructing the channel of the river below the wharf, driving piles with steam piledriver, building cribs and loading them with stone. The steamers Jamestown and Curtis Peck were sunk at the last moment to help make the blockade more secure. All of us were thus kept busy until about the first of May, when one day, while at work on the battery at the fort, we saw several steamers loaded to the guards with soldiers, closely following each other, being carried to reinforce the batteries down towards the mouth of the river. They seemed to be in high spirits, for they cheered us as they passed hastily by. But only after a few days we again saw them returning up the river, looking sad and apparently very dejected. Still we kept at work, when one day late in the afternoon we saw the foremost of our battery steamers slowly making their way up from Norfolk, which had been evacuated by the Confederate troops, leaving the navy-yard to fall into the hands of Federal forces, and we learned through the newspapers that the Merrimac (Virginia), had been blown up, thus leaving our river open to this place. On Tuesday, May 13, 1862, about noon, while we were at work at the fort, one of our exchange steamers—under flag of truce—came up the river, passed up through the blockade, stopped  in front of the battery, ‘hailed,’ and told us to get ready, as five gunboats, including the Monitor and Galena, were at Harrison's bar, coming up the river to make an attack on this place. Then all was hurry and some confusion, but we kept on steadily, making preparation to defend the fort. I think we loaded all three guns this day. The crew of the Merrimac had, in the meantime, since their arrival from Norfolk, a few days before, been busily engaged mounting a gun on the river bluff, outside of a little to the west of the fort, covering it with heavy logs, so as to form a casement over it, and another, maybe still higher up the river, this latter was out of range. We were told by some of our working party that some of their working party declared that to attempt to defend the place would only make it a slaughter pen, and they further told our men that the boats would run our company out of the battery in five minutes after the action began. Wednesday, May 14th, every one very busy making things ready at the battery, when near towards noon, probably, the boats having reached a point around the bend in the river to eastward, and out of sight from us in the fort (for the large ravine east, southeast and south from it, was then covered with original forest growth), fired a shot, directed over the fort, although high overhead, but we were startled by its vicious rush through the air, and as it was the first hostile one many of us had ever heard, besides it was of gigantic size, compared to those generally used, and we heard it drop away back toward the turnpike. But they did not fire another that day, and we kept on at work until night, and were told before we retired to our quarters that a signal shot would be fired by the sentry on post at the battery, as a signal, that the hostile boats had appeared around the bend at Chaffin's Bluff, and to warn us to hurry to the fort, and to take our places at the guns. But none were fired that night, so most of us slept very well, but some of the men were kept at work all night. Thursday, May 15, 1862, was cloudy, after smart rain last night, and likely for more to-day; some light showers fell. We  were up early, and about 6 o'clock A. M., while my mess were at breakfast, we heard the expected signal musket fired from the battery; when each one taking a biscuit in his hand, hurried silently to the fort. When upon arriving there, we found the working party toting sand-bags (which had been filled on the outside), to inside, and placing them so as to form embrasures to the gun. And we were ordered to assist them, which we did to the last moment. Meanwhile we could see the five gunboats in the reach below, and very slowly making their way towards us, firing some guns to right and left towards some pickets in the field on our side, and at some guns of the Washington Artillery—as we were told, stationed on Chaffin's Bluff, who speedily retired out of range. The boats then continued on, nearer and nearer (and we still toting up sand-bags from outside and next to them), until they got so near we made a rush for the gun, but Captain Farrand, the naval officer, ordered us not to fire until he gave the word. Then we waited with baited breath. Meanwhile we got to our stations at Gun, No. 2, in the following order: Post No. I, Richard H. Pond; Post No. 2, John Hamilton; Post No. 3, Richard E. Jordan, and Post No. 4, Watkins Coleman. Calvin T. Taylor brought the powder from the magazine to us, and Archibald W. Archer, with Stephen B. Ellis, handed up the shot. I took my place upon the turntable, behind the breech, to act as gunner. This detachment was not relieved, but continued to serve during the whole time that the battle went on. Robert S. McFarland, our drill master, went to Gun No. I, to act as gunner, with enough men to make three detachments, with corporals to serve vent. I am not informed as to their names as a whole. Captain Farrand, the naval officer, Captain Drewry, with Lieutenant Wilson, took their stations at my gun (No. 2), Lieutenant Jones also stayed there some; we were well looked after. Captain Jordan, of the Bedford Artillery, with his men, took charge of the ten-inch (Gun No. 3); I think they came to the fort the night before.  Thus we stood, ready for the word to ‘commence firing’ at the proper time. The boats, continuing to advance, finally took up the following positions: The three wooden ones—Aroostock, Port Royal and Naugatucket, lay to and stood about ‘bows on’ at the mouth of Wilton creek, which enters on the north side of the river, about three-fourths of a mile from the fort, and hugged the bank pretty well. The Monitor and Galena—iron-clads— kept on till about six hundred yard from the fort, when the Galena stopped, turned ‘broadside,’ with her stern not far from the Chesterfield low water-mark, and threw out her anchors. The Monitor took up her position nearly abreast of the the Galena, going over her flag-staff, and struck a lime-pile on river. And from where we stood she looked pretty much like a barge inverted tank, on a very low raft, and we did not need to be told her name, for we knew her at a glance. Some weeks before this day after we could handle the guns pretty well, an army officer, who had been at Roanoke Island, came to the fort and to my gun (No. 2), and showed us how to fire two five-second shells from said gun, being the first and only I had ever heard fired and exploded up to that time. I acted as Post No. 1, and he acted as gunner, and explained to me very carefully about pointing the gun for that range. As soon as the last boat took position Captain Farrand shouted: ‘As soon as you get a chance fire on them!’ When Captain Drewry, seeing me about to point the gun, climbed up to me, and said: ‘Let me aim this gun,’ when I stood and looked over his shoulder, and thinking about what I had been told by the officer aforementioned about the range, said to him: ‘Captain, you are aiming the gun too high.’ He replied: ‘Oh, no, you come with me,’ when we went to windward to avoid the smoke, had the gun fired, and saw the shot just miss the top of the Galena, going over her flag-staff, and struck a lime-pile on the right short, some distance beyond. Then he turned to me and said: ‘You go try your hand.’ This, I think, was the first shot fired during the engagement. Then I ran back to my post on the gun, served the vent — the detachment continuing to load as coolly as if on parade. We ran the gun ‘ in battery ’ and I pointed it, aiming at the Galena ‘amid-ship,’ about half-way  up her shield, ran to my post of observation. Then Lieutenant Wilson again gave the order to ‘fire’ in his most stentorious tones. When the shot struck pretty much where it had been aimed, and glanced off, and the last I saw of it, it was vanishing in the distance, towards Chaffin's Bluff, but it left a visible scar on the boat. Gun No. 1 had also been ‘fired,’ presumably with good results as its gunner was considered an expert, and was a brave man. Captain Jordan's ten-inch gun had been fired, shortly making a most deafening report, and the gun was disabled with the violence of its recoil, which came very near to dismounting it, as the carriage ran back with such force as to knock off the ‘rear-hurters’ on the turn-table, thus preventing its being run ‘in battery.’ And it only resumed its fire near the end of the engagement. The naval gun, just west of the battery, was also disabled by having its casemate of heavy logs cave in on it. Thus leaving Captain Drewry's Company with the two eight-inch guns (64 pounders) to continue the fight alone, and both guns continued to fire as fast as possible to the end of the battle. As soon as we opened fire every gunboat simultaneously commenced pouring their huge shells into us. All the boats using one hundred-pound (parrott) rifle shells, except the Monitor, which used her two eleven-inch (11) smooth-bore (Dahlgren) gunshells, which weighed about one hundred and sixty (160) pounds. And I have thought that when the first broadside of four shells from the Galena passed just over the crest of our parapets and exploded in our rear, scattering their fragments in every direction, together with the sounds of the shells from the others, which flew wide of the mark, mingled with the roar of our guns, was the most startling, terrifying and diabolical sound which I had ever heard or ever expected to hear again. With ‘blanched,’ but earnest faces, we continued to pelt the flagship, Galena, trying to penetrate her armor, which we finally did at the water-line, when the shot could be seen coming out of and tearing up her deck, after glancing up, having been deflected by something inside of her hull.  Thus the unequalled struggle went on for four long hours, and it looked, sometimes, like they would finally overcome us. But many a secret prayer was offered up to Heaven from anxious, if not faithful hearts, to the Ruler of the Universe, and God was very good that day, for ‘He delivered our souls in peace from the battle that was against us’—for not a man of the company was seriously hurt. Although Lieutenant Wilson, who was a strong, heavy man, of about thirty years of age, had been dashed to the ground very violently by a shell, which came through the cordon of sand bags very near him, and I had received a heavy fall, as at one time, I was making a dash from my post where I could observe the effect of our shot, back to where I served the vent-stumbled over the rammer and fell heavily on the hard platform. But neither of us was much hurt, and no one had been disabled, which seemed miraculous. And our company was thus enabled to contribute fully towards repulsing the formidable and hitherto victorious fleet of Federal gunboats. Captain Jordan, together with our navy had seven men killed while trying to remount their guns. And I believe they were all struck down while our two guns were silent toward the end of the action, when we were ordered by Captain Farrand to ‘cease firing for half an hour,’ presumably to save our ammunition. But we had to commence firing again long before the time expired. For the commander of the Federal fleet, no doubt, thinking that all of our guns had been silenced, signaled to the three wooden boats, which immediately advanced and took up a new position, right behind the Monitor, Galena, and all five of them redoubled their fire on our batteries. And I have always thought that it was at this time all the casualties on our side took place. As we heard the first outcry of the unfortunate wounded while we were lying down with all our guns silent. About this time a naval officer walked down and said to me, ‘we must commence to fire again, as the boats are now firing into our men.’ So without further waiting we all resumed our posts for action at the guns. When Captain Drewry, on seeing how the boats had been concentrated, commanded in a very confident tone of voice: ‘Fire on those wooden boats and make them  leave there,’ when both of our guns resumed fire, and put some shot through them broadside, when shortly, I think I saw a shell from the ten-inch gun—which had at last been remounted, burst on the deck of the Galena, and I am not sure, but that Captain Tucker's naval gun also began to lend its aid at the ‘eleventh’ hour. Then after both sides had exchanged a few more rounds, I saw a peculiar flag (to me) slowly creeping up the small iron mast of the Galena, so I called to the men and cried: ‘Look out, they are going to try some other scheme.’ When at once, (about 11:05 o'clock), after the fight had been going on fully four long hours, the three wooden boats turned and began to steam rapidly down the river, followed more slowly by the Monitor and Galena. Captain Farrand immediately gave the command: ‘Cease firing,’ but as my gun had just been sponged, preparatory to loading it, and my enthusiasm got the better of my discipline, for my spirits had now risen several degrees above despondency, I said to Lieutenant Wilson: ‘Let us give them a parting salute.’ He replied: ‘Don't care if you do.’ No other objection being raised about our thus disobeying orders, we loaded the gun as fast as we possibly could, and by the time we got it ‘in battery’ the wooden boats had gotten nearly a mile from us. So after pointing carefully and giving what was thought to be the proper elevation, when after most of the men, including Captain Farrand, had jumped to the top of the parapet to watch the shot on being fired, fell a little short, but ricochetting, struck the boat, which we took to be the Naugatucket, about half-way from deck and water, directly astern. Dick Pond, our No. I, afterwards declared that the hole made by the shot into the boat looked as large as a flour-barrel, and must have done some damage to her. Then we tossed our caps into the air, and shouted our cry of victory. After which Captain Drewry took us in hand, and said: “Don't a man leave for the quarters, for I want you to fix up these parapets that have been knocked down, and those sandbags torn to pieces, must be replaced and get ready for them, for the boats will probably be back here again in two hours.” But they never returned again.  President Jefferson Davis, with General Robert E. Lee, having galloped down from Richmond, came to Gun No. 2, soon after the firing ceased. The General showed us how to replace the sand-bags, and both seemed well pleased with the results of the engagement. Thus the writer of this who had never been absent from duty since the company had been mustered in, must have made it clear to the reader that Captain Drewry, with his company, of most all Chesterfield men—he and most of them plain farmers—had by his indomitable pluck, skill and daring, almost unaided, as has been shown-won a remarkable victory that day. As has been said, the guns not disabled had also been made in the county. And so:
The Monitor was astonished,And the behavior of the officers and men of the company on that occasion, under the circumstances, was extraordinary. Captain Drewry and Lieutenant Wilson, at my gun, were alert and aggressive, and seemed to be devoid of fear, and the men, judging from those that worked Gun No. 2 (and were not relieved during the four trying hours), could not have been excelled by veterans or regulars for coolness, cheerfulness, skill and courage of a high order. It was true that some of the sick ran home, and many of the unemployed were dreadfully demoralized. But that kind of timidity is usual among men in all commands, while receiving their baptism of fire and unable to defend themselves. The disabling of Gun No. 1 (ten-inch), in charge of Captain Jordan's company, has been alluded to, but I will state further that it was badly disabled at the time of the first fire, by a too severe recoil, and for some time we thought that it had been handled awkwardly, and the mishap had been caused by its  having been fired ‘in gear.’ But we afterward came to the conclusion that it had in two charges of both powder and shot, as the report was very loud, indeed, as burnt grains of powder fell at our gun (the line of fire being very oblique). It remained disabled nearly the whole time. And Captain Tucker's naval gun, as before mentioned, was disabled by the rain causing its superstructure to give away so that its casemate of heavy logs caved in on it, which deprived us of their help also, until near the end of the fight. No doubt the moral effect caused by the presence of the crew of the Merrimac was great. But otherwise without any fault of theirs, they rendered very little help towards the repulse of the hostile fleet of gunboats. It was true that Captain Farrand, with his professional skill, in giving very pertinent commands, rendered valuable aid. Yet they have always claimed the almost entire credit for the victory. And but for the fact that Captain Drewry was promoted to the rank of major of artillery, and ordered to take command of the main fort at Drewry's Bluff by the Secretary of War, George W. Randolph, upon the recommendation of General William Mahone, who had witnessed the fight, seconded by Governor John Letcher, who knew of all the circumstances of the defence, his company's claim to fame would have been entirely ignored by the officers and men of the Confederate navy, as well as by others higher in command. But truth struck down will rise again. When history, as well as posterity, will finally be compelled to give honor to whom honor is due. Perhaps, here, it would be well to state that our skill of gunnery and the effectiveness of our fire, were greatly aided by the fact that, unfortunately for us, the Monitor and Galena (the front sights of our guns being short), came within point-blank range, thus rendering themselves conspicuous targets easy to hit, so that we wasted very few shots. Our height, ninety feet above the water, caused the line of fire of our guns to be about three degrees depression to reach them, while theirs on the contrary, had to be about the same degrees of elevation to reach us. It is now useless to discuss the ‘might have beens,’ but if our two guns had been ten-inch calibre instead of eight-inch,  thus making the projectiles as heavy, the Galena would have been rendered a total wreck. Captain Drewry was pleased to compliment me for the part taken by me in the affair, and our expert, McFarland, held my skill as gunner in great repute after that time. As has been said, the fire of the fleet killed seven Confederates and battered the parapets of the fort badly, and also shot our large flag to pieces and cut down trees of all kinds and sizes, for they did not seem to offer any resistance to their huge, blustering projectiles, that were sometimes hurled against them in showers. Now, as to the damage to the fleet. We afterwards heard that the Galena lost about forty men—wounded and killed—and that she was badly damaged by having her armor jarred loose, and her deck ripped up by our shot, after penetrating being deflected upward by chains, anchors, &c., piled on that side for the purpose. And that eighteen were killed on board the Naugatuck by the explosion of one of her own guns, besides other damage rendered by us.
And the Galena admonished,
And their efforts to ascend the stream
Were mocked at.
While the dreadful Naugatuck,
With the hardest kind of luck,
Was very nearly knocked
Into a cocked-hat.
Thus we find that one of the most wonderful achievements of the whole war was the result of the foresight, skill, labor and courage of the men of Chesterfield commanders, naval or military, and of which the reading public knows nothing. The only efficient service in this battle was done by the Chesterfield company, commanded by Major A. H. Drewry. The two eight-inch guns, which did the fighting, were made at Belona arsenal, at his foundry in Chesterfield county, and the battery at Drewry's Bluff was constructed by Chesterfield men with their own resources, and was built upon land owned by Major Drewry. A glorious victory over the hitherto invincible navy of the United States was achieved and the fall of Richmond was prevented,  for if the Federal gunboats had succeeded in passing Drewry's Bluff on that day the capital of the Confederacy would have at once been at their mercy, and the Confederate troops would have been compelled to retreat from Richmond, and probably from Virginia. This gallant band of Chesterfield men by their heroic conduct on this occasion, thus not only saved the capital of the Confederacy from capture, but prolonged the war for three years, and enabled the Army of Northern Virginia to write its heroic achievements in blood and fire for three long years. The proud record of that magnificent army, which will be the boast of all future generations of Virginians, might never have been made. The men of Chesterfield who composed the Southside Heavy Artillery, commanded by Augustus H. Drewry, who drove back the iron-clad fleet down the James river on that momentous day are justly entitled to the laurel wreath of victors, and should ever be cherished in the hearts of their countrymen.