The Engagement at Mathias Point was fought on Thursday, June 27, 1861 between Union forces commanded by Commander James H. Ward and Confederate forces commanded by Colonel Daniel Ruggles and Colonel John M. Brockenbrough in King George County, Virginia.
t 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.
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 James H. Ward returned to the USS Thomas Freeborn to direct covering fire for his troops, but he was mortally wounded. 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.