Defending the James River
— 1862 Peninsula Campaign —
In April 1862, Union forces under Gen. George B. McClellan began a major campaign to capture Richmond, marching west from Fort Monroe up the Peninsula between the York and James Rivers toward the Confederate capital. A Confederate army half their size opposed them. Slowly but inevitably, the Federal juggernaut overcame three Southern defensive lines and soon camped in Richmond's eastern suburbs. New commander Robert E. Lee, however, led a Confederate offensive that drove the Union army away during the Seven Days' Battles, June 25-July 1.
In 1861, Confederate engineer Col. Andrew Talcott surveyed several defensive sites on the James River to protect Richmond, including Harden's Bluff and nearby Fort Boykin. The site at Harden's Bluff was named Fort Huger for Gen. Benjamin Huger, who commanded the Department of Norfolk. Slaves and free blacks constructed the fort under direction of the Confederate Engineer Bureau, and detachments of Lt. Col. Fletcher Archer's 5th Virginia infantry Battalion were posted here. By August 1861, several guns were ready to defend the channel. In March 1862, the fort's 13 guns included one 10-inch Columbiad, four 9 inch Dahlgrens, two 8-inch Columbiads, and six 32-pounder naval hot-shot guns.
Union Cmdr. John Rodgers led a gunboat squadron up the James River on May 8, 1862. After shelling Fort Boykin, USS Galena
, USS Aroostook
, and USS Port Royal
steamed toward Fort Huger and attacked at 11:20 A.M. Aroostook
and Port Royal
took position downstream and shelled the bluffs. Galena
passed Fort Huger seven times, firing to suppress the Confederate guns, which failed to damage the Union squadron. Rodgers finally stopped Galena
near Fort Huger and pounded the Confederate ramparts while the other gunboats steamed past.
On May 12, to protect the Union supply line, the ironclads USS Monitor
and USS Naugatuck
ascended the James River. The Confederate gunners at both forts fired, but the ships steamed by undamaged. Five days later, U.S. marines and sailors occupied both forts without resistance. They found Fort Huger abandoned with the guns spiked, the carriages burnt, and the magazines destroyed.