Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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Drewry (Screw Steamer)

1863–1865

(Screw Steamer: displacement 166; length 106’; beam 21’; draft 5’; speed 10 knots; armament 1 6.4-inch rifle, 1 7-inch rifle; class Drewry)

Drewry -- a wooden gunboat-- was laid down at the Richmond [Rocketts] Navy Yard in the early months of 1863. She was classed as a tender and had a foredeck protected by an iron V-shaped shield. Attached to the James River Squadron, she began operations under the command of Master Lewis Parrish, CSN, in October of that year.

The loss of Norfolk shifted the James River Squadron’s base of operations -- that included shipyards, supply depots, hospitals and industrial facilities -- to the Confederate Capital at Richmond, Va. The squadron had been established as a part of the Virginia State Navy shortly after its secession from the Union on 17 April 1861 and was commanded by Capt. French Forrest. Although it began as a modest collection of mostly wooden ships, the squadron later became a part of the Confederate States Navy. Its base protected by a strong line of obstructions, torpedoes [mines], and land fortifications, the squadron operated at Chaffin’s and Drewry’s Bluffs, eight miles downstream from the capital.

Between May 1862 and May 1864, the squadron enjoyed a long respite from combat, during which time Drewry, as well as three ironclads based on the general design of Virginia and built at the Richmond yards, augmented its strength. Richmond was commissioned in November 1862 and Fredericksburg and Virginia II in May 1864. A fourth, Texas, was launched but not commissioned when hostilities came to a close.

When Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant reversed his northern approach to Richmond, crossed the James and based his communications center and supply depot at City Point, control of the river became crucial in 1864. The Confederate James River Squadron, then under the command of 53 year-old Commodore John K. Mitchell, helped check Grant’s right flank advancing up the James and threatened his center by bombarding  Federal monitors at Trent’s Reach on 21 June 1864.

On 13 August 1864, with Lt. William H. Wall, CSN, in command, Drewry participated in the attack on Union forces beginning to construct a larger canal at Dutch Gap. The Federal vessel Saugus and her gunboats joined in the battle, but they could not effectively train their guns due to the angle of the ironclad’s casemates.

From 29 September through 1 October 1864, Drewry, along with the entire squadron attacked Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James at New Market Heights and Fort Harrison in conjunction with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The operation proved to be the largest engagement north of the James since the Battle of Cold Harbor (1 May-12 June) and it remained so until the close of hostilities.

The James River Squadron, during a routine patrol of the river on 22 October 1864, was surprised by a new Union battery near Boulware House two miles from Chaffin’s Bluff. In order to cover the retirement of Drewry and the other wooden vessels of the fleet, the flagship Virginia II approached the battery, followed by Richmond and Fredericksburg and then affected a retreat upstream to Chaffin’s Bluff.

The opposing naval forces continued to face each other across barriers of obstructions and torpedoes as well as the dramatic bends of the James River below Chaffin’s Bluff, a situation that mirrored the trench warfare that prevailed ashore. Acting in concert with the land batteries, then partially manned by naval personnel, the squadron worked to prevent Union forces from crossing the river behind Confederate lines and looked for opportunities to move against the enemy.

Drewry’s final action took place on 23-24 January 1865 when the Confederate James River Squadron made a second attempt to circumvent the obstructions and mines at Trent’s Reach. Unusually high waters had caused significant damage to Union barriers therefore Commodore Mitchell seized this opportunity to attack. The timing was especially opportune since several ships in the Union fleet had recently been transferred to North Carolina in order to support attacks against Fort Fisher. Mitchell and his fleet planned to break through the remaining Union vessels and destroy the Federal supply line from City Point. The ensuing conflict became the Battle of Trent’s Reach.

As the squadron crept under the cover of darkness past the Union batteries on Signal Hill and Fort Brady, Mitchell and his fleet were spotted by Union lookouts. Although they immediately opened fire, the Confederate ships made it through virtually unharmed and continued towards the naval mine field at Trent’s Reach. As Virginia II and Richmond anchored above the Federal barriers, Fredericksburg led Drewry and the wooden fleet to clear the way.

Despite the fact that the Union obstruction had been damaged by high waters, removing it proved quite difficult -- a spar between two hulks served as the chief impediment. The water level then began to recede as the Fredericksburg crew worked to clear the river and sent other boats ahead in order to prepare the way for the ironclads.

It was a dangerous operation that the Confederates undertook since their position removing the barrier was virtually unshielded from three Federal artillery batteries on shore at Trent’s Reach. Despite the Union sharpshooters’ sniping throughout the night, the sailors managed to clear the river by the early morning hours of 24 January and they were ready to move towards City Point.

By this point, however, Mitchell’s squadron had lost any advantage of surprise. The Confederates were met by Union warships poised to attack. Worse yet, the ironclads were struggling to maneuver through the now shallow river. Added to that disadvantage, the sun began rising as ironclad after ironclad ran aground. Consequently, the Union batteries unremittingly shelled the grounded ships, including the torpedo boat Scorpion along with Richmond, Virginia II, and Drewry.

Grounded 400 yards downriver from the Trent’s Reach obstructions and 1,500 yards above Battery Parsons, Drewry was struck by two 100-pounder rifle salvos from a 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery battery at nearby Fort McPherson. The second projectile tore through her magazine as she assisted Richmond getting afloat. Lt. Wall called for the crew to abandon ship and all but two scrambled to safety before a tremendous explosion rocked the ship and she was engulfed in flame. Drewry was underway to assist Scorpion as she slipped beneath the waves of the James.

Paul J. Marcello

30 October 2015

Published: Wed Mar 02 08:57:31 EST 2016