Since April 27, 1861, the U.S. Navy had been enforcing an economic and military blockade on Virginia ports, and several small fleets of U.S. Navy ships and converted civilian vessels had exchanged fire with Confederate shore batteries in the Potomac and James rivers. U.S. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, commanding Fort Monroe at Old Point Comfort at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, had ambitions to clear these shore batteries.
To accomplish that goal, he tasked John Faunce, captain of the converted revenue cutter U.S.S. Harriet Lane, to reconnoiter Pig Point across the Nansemond River from Newport News. Captain Faunce observed activity at the Confederate battery and sailed close to see if he could draw their fire. Fire they did, but due to shallow water the U.S.S. Harriet Lane couldn’t get close enough for its own guns to be effective.
The Portsmouth Rifles, a company of infantry acting as gunners, manned the Confederate artillery. Virginia Navy Captain Robert B. Pegram reported:
“For men who had never before been in action, the Portsmouth Rifles were remarkably cool and self possessed, and after a few rounds got the range of the enemy and fired admirably well. Every officer and man behaved in the most spirited and creditable manner, and were so regardless of danger that had often to interpose my authority to prevent their exposing themselves unnecessarily to the enemy’s fire. The action lasted about fifteen or twenty minutes.”
The Confederate guns struck the Harriet Lane twice, wounding five sailors. One Confederate cannon was damaged, but none of the gunners were hurt. Seeing that nothing was to be gained by continuing the engagement, the Harriet Lane broke off and returned to port for repairs.
Read primary sources from this dramatic event in American history:
- May 1st Letter from Commandant French Forrest to Maj. Gen. Walter Gwynn
- May 1st Letter from Maj. Gen. Walter Gwynn to Commandant French Forrest
- June 4th report of Captain Faunce, commanding U.S.S. Harriet Lane
- June 5th report of Captain Faunce, commanding U.S.S. Harriet Lane
- June 5th Report of Commander Pegram, Virginia Navy, Commanding Pig Point battery
- June 5th Report of Commander Pegram, Virginia Navy, Commanding Pig Point battery (2nd)
- June 5th Report of Brigadier-General Huger, Commanding at Norfolk
- June 7th Report of Brigadier-General Huger, Commanding at Norfolk