160 Years Ago Today: Engagement at Mathias Point

At the end of May, the Union Potomac Flotilla failed to silence a Confederate shore battery near Aquia Landing on the Potomac River. Nearly a month later, Flotilla Commander James H. Ward sought to clear Mathias Point of Confederate skirmishers, who were using the woods as cover to harass passing ships with small arms fire. He was determined to keep the river open from Washington, DC to the Chesapeake Bay.

Mathias Point consisted of the southern portion of a sharp bend in the Potomac River. This 270-degree view, coupled with high ground and wooded terrain, made it an ideal place for enemy troops and artillery to threaten Union ships. Commander Ward devised a plan for a combined land and naval operation to seize the point and deny its use to the enemy. He had no idea this operation would be his last.

On Thursday, June 27, 1861, Commander Ward arrived off Mathias Point with the USS Thomas Freeborn, USS Reliance, and a company of marines commanded by Lt. James C. Chaplin. The two ships covered the landing party with steady volleys of cannon fire that drove away Confederate skirmishers.

Col. Daniel Ruggles of the Virginia Provisional Army reported:

“At about 1 p.m. our pickets reported that the enemy, whose steamers had returned to the immediate vicinity of Mathias Point, had already effected a landing of a strong detachment of men at the point, from which the pickets were mainly driven by the ranking fire of shell and shot from the enemy’s steamers.”

The Union landing party immediately began fortifying their small beachhead and prepared to set fire to the nearby woods and heavy undergrowth, but Confederate reinforcements weren’t far away. Confederate Col. John M. Brockenbrough summoned Maj. Robert Murphy Mayo, who marched one cavalry and three infantry companies three miles to the point and approached the shore through the thick woods.

The Union landing party was outnumbered and dove toward their boats. In an action that would later earn him the Medal of Honor, a U.S. sailor from Louisiana named John Williams was shot through the thigh while making sure every last man made it back to his boat. “Every man must die on his thwart sooner than leave a man behind,” he exclaimed, referring to supports in the center of a rowboat.

Commander Ward returned to the USS Thomas Freeborn to direct covering fire for his troops, but he was mortally wounded. J.W. Moore, active assistant surgeon on the Thomas Freeborn described Commander Ward’s death:

“Commander Ward had been on shore with a party consisting of 34 seamen besides Lieutenant Chaplin, of the Pawnee, and Master’s Mate [John] Kellogg, of the Freeborn. He returned, however, soon after and remained on board until his death, which took place off Mathias Point about 6 p. m. He was struck by a musket ball from the enemy while sighting his forward gun. The ball entered at a point just above and a little to the right of the umbilicus and passed directly through the abdomen, escaping at a point opposite, about 2 inches to the right of the spinal column. He died from internal hemorrhage about an hour after being shot.”

Commander James H. Ward was the first U.S. Navy officer to be killed in action during the Civil War, and Thomas Tingey Craven succeeded him as commander of the Potomac Flotilla. The engagement at Mathias Point was the last significant action along the Potomac until later that fall.

Read primary sources from this dramatic event in American history:

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