The second battle involving the Union’s Ironclad U.S.S. Monitor (American Civil War). After her duel with the C.S.S. Virginia at the battle of the Hampton Roads, the Monitor had remained in place waiting for the Confederate Ironclad to emerge for a second battle. In the event this never happened. At the start of May, the Confederate army on the Peninsula withdrew from their lines at Yorktown and retreated back towards Richmond. This left the naval base at Norfolk dangerously exposed to Federal capture. The Confederate garrison evacuated the port while the Virginia was at sea, leaving her with nowhere to go. After an aborted attempt to escape up-river to Richmond, on 11 May the Virginia was scuttled to prevent her falling into Union hands.
This gave the Federal navy command of the James River. An expedition had already been dispatched up the river on 8 May, led by another Ironclad, the U.S.S. Galena. The fall of Norfolk allowed the Monitor to join the expedition, which began to pose a real threat to Richmond.
The main river defences of that city were at Drewry’s Bluff, eight miles downstream from Richmond. Here the Confederates had blocked the river with a line of sunken vessels, and placed heavy guns in Fort Darling at the top of the 200 foot high bluff. The commander of the Federal expedition, Commander John Rodgers, had run his fleet past lighter opposition further down the river, but did not thing that he had much chance at Drewry’s Bluff. However, he did feel that it was a risk worth taking, with the prize of Richmond at stake.
His main concern was that the Galena’s armour was not thick enough to stand up to a concerted bombardment. In the event he was partly right – of 28 shots that hit her, 18 penetrated the armour, but she was able to stay in her firing position below the bluffs for three hours and twenty minutes, only withdrawing when her ammunition was nearly all gone. The Monitor turned out to be of no use in this battle. Her revolutionary guns could not be raised to high enough an angle to allow her to fire at Fort Darling.
The Federal fleet withdrew back down to James. It was clear that the only way to get past the defences of Drewry’s Bluff would be with the help of the army, but Rodgers was unable to persuade General McClellan to make the attempt. The fleet in the James remained largely inactive until McClellan’s change of base to the James and the Seven Days’ Battles. The presence of a strong fleet in the James River had played a large part in McClellan’s decision to move in that direction.