On April 17, 1861, a majority of delegates at the Virginia Secession Convention in Richmond passed an ordinance of secession, pending the results of a popular referendum to be held on May 23. Virginia Governor John Letcher appointed Col. Robert E. Lee, recently resigned from the U.S. Army, as overall commander of the Virginia Provisional Army. Around the same time, Virginia militia captured the U.S. Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia along with approximately 1,085 cannon and 250,000 pounds of powder. In response, on April 27, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln extended the blockade of the seven original Confederate States to include the ports of Virginia and North Carolina. Virginia seemed to be inexorably sliding toward war.
On May 3, 1861, Robert E. Lee appointed Col. William B. Taliaferro commander of defenses at Gloucester Point on the York River opposite Yorktown, Virginia and instructed him to cooperate with Virginia Navy Capt. William C. Whittle to construct a shore battery there. On May 6, Taliaferro ordered a company of fifty men of the Richmond Howitzers with two six-pounder cannons to report to Gloucester Point to assist in the defense. They arrived the next morning.
At the same time, Union Commodore Garrett J. Pendergrast ordered Lt. Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., commander of the converted steam tugboat USS Yankee, to sail up the York River and examine the fortifications at Gloucester Point. As the Yankee approached within 2,000 yards of Taliaferro’s battery, it fired several shots across the Yankee’s bow. The Richmond Howitzers reportedly fired 12-13 shots during the engagement. The Yankee fired six rounds from its two cannon in return, but could not elevate its guns high enough to score a hit.
Lt. Selfridge reported:
“I stopped steaming, moved all heavy articles to the port side and started all the water in the starboard tanks, as the Yankee had a considerable list to starboard, from moving her two guns to that side. I fired 4 rounds shot and two shell at the extreme elevation the guns would permit, but they all fell short. Twelve shots in all were fired by the enemy, two shells passed about 10 feet over and burst some 20 yards beyond; the remainder fell short. Finding the guns opposed to me so much superior in range and caliber to the Yankee’s light 32’s, I considered it my duty, though reluctantly, to return.”
There is some controversy whether any of the Virginians’ shots hit the Yankee, but regardless, Lt. Selfridge saw the futility of continuing the engagement and sailed away after a few minutes. Neither side reported casualties. This brief exchange of fire was the first hostile engagement between Virginia and the U.S. government in the Civil War, occurring a little less than two weeks before Virginia formally seceded from the United States.
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