160 Years Ago Today: Engagement at Sewell’s Point

160 years ago, May 19, 1861, a popular referendum to decide whether the Commonwealth of Virginia would secede from the United States was still four days away. Never-the-less, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln had extended the naval blockade of the seven original Confederate States to include the ports of Virginia and North Carolina. On May 6th, U.S. Navy ships exchanged fire with a Virginia battery off Gloucester Point on the Potomac River.

Earlier that month, pro-secession militias had, with tacit approval from Virginia Governor John Letcher, seized the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and the Gosport Navy Yard. Fort Monroe, near Hampton Roads at the mouth of the James River, was the only remaining federal facility in Virginia not taken. In order to prevent Union ships and troops at Fort Monroe from re-taking the naval yard across Hampton Roads, Virginia Provisional Army Brig. Gen. Walter Gwynn emplaced an artillery battery at Sewell’s Point, directly facing the fort.

Saturday, May 18, 1861, Union forces observed Virginia engineers digging fortifications for the battery and sent the gunboat USS Monticello (temporarily operating under the name Star), commanded by Captain Henry Eagle, to investigate. The Monticello was armed with one 9-inch gun and two 32-pound guns. It fired several shots at the militia building the fort, to little effect.

By the next evening, May 19, three 32-pound cannon and two smaller rifled cannon from the Light Artillery Blues, commanded by Confederate Capt. Peyton H. Colquitt, were emplaced behind the works flying a Georgian flag. Brig. Gen. Walter Gwynn reported:

“I sent forward here guns immediately and two of the rifled cannon. Got them in position at 5 p. m. on the 19th. Soon after the enemy opened fire, which was returned and kept up one and a half hours, when the vessel from which the guns were fired withdrew.”

The USS Thomas Freeborn, a small steam tug, came up to support the Monticello during the ninety-minute exchange. Of the 114 shots expended by the Monticello, only one Confederate cannon was struck by a shell, and there were no casualties reported. The Monticello was hit five times, causing superficial damage and injuring two crewmen. Captain Henry Eagle reported:

“I regret that want of ammunition compelled me to retire, as I am satisfied I could have silenced the battery in a short time. I can not too highly praise the courage and patriotism of the officers and men under my command. They acted nobly and with great coolness, as the repeated firings, as above, will show.”

Though minor, the engagement at Sewell’s Point showed the Civil War in Virginia was underway, yet neither side knew what form that conflict would take. The next few weeks would be a crucial test.

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