A strategic Civil War location
Sewell's Point’s location at the mouth of Hampton Roads proved to be a
strategic location during the early portion of the Civil War.
Battle of Sewell's Point
The first skirmish in Virginia, the little-known Battle of Sewell's Point,
was fought on May 18-19, 1861, on ground now occupied by the US Naval
Station Norfolk. The events leading up to the initial engagement on
Virginia soil had moved with whirlwind rapidity.
Events leading onto the Battle
On December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from
the Union. Four months later, on April 12, 1861, troops of that state
opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston's harbor. Five days later,
Virginia became the eighth Southern state to withdraw from the Union, and
join the newly formed Confederacy.
A few weeks later that spring, US General-in-Chief Winfield Scott proposed
to President Lincoln a plan to bring the states back into the Union: cut
the Confederacy off from the rest of the world instead of attacking its
army in Virginia.
His plan was to blockade the Confederacy's coastline and control the
Mississippi River valley with gunboats. Lincoln ordered a blockade of the
southern seaboard from the South Carolina line to the Rio Grande on April
19 and on April 27 extended it to include the North Carolina and Virginia
coasts. On April 20 the Union Navy burned and evacuated the Norfolk Navy
Yard, destroying nine ships in the process, leaving only Fort Monroe at
Old Point Comfort as the last bastion of the United States in Tidewater
Occupation of Norfolk gave the Confederacy its only major shipyard and
thousands of heavy guns, but they held it for only one year. CS Brigadier
General Walter Gwynn, who commanded the Confederate defenses around
Norfolk, erected batteries at Sewell's Point, both to protect Norfolk and
to control Hampton Roads.
The Union dispatched a fleet to Hampton Roads to enforce the blockade, and
on May 18-19 Federal gunboats exchanged fire with the batteries at
Sewell's Point, resulting in little damage to either side.
The Battle Itself
Stewart's "History of Norfolk County, Virginia" (1902), contains a
detailed account of the Battle of Sewell’s Point that took place one month
"On May 18, 1861, Norfolk-area and Georgia Confederate troops began
erecting land batteries at Sewell’s Point opposite Fort Monroe on Hampton
Roads. By 5 o'clock that evening, three guns and two rifled guns had been
mounted and work was rapidly progressing on the fortifications when the
USS Monticello, commanded by Captain Henry Eagle, steamed over from Fort
Monroe to see what was afoot. Not liking what he saw, Captain Eagle gave
the order to open fire. One of the shots from his vessel hit the battery,
throwing turf high in the air. In the meantime, the Monticello had been
joined by an armed tug, also from Fort Monroe. The bombardment from these
two vessels caused momentary confusion in the breastworks, but once the
Confederates had recovered from the initial shock, immediate preparations
were made to return the fire from their two 32-pounders and the two rifled
guns already in position. In the absence of a Confederate or Virginia
flag, Captain Peyton H. Colquitt of the Light Guard of Columbus, Georgia,
who was in charge of the erection of the battery, called for the raising
of the Georgia flag on the Sewell’s Point ramparts. Under the cover of
darkness, the armed tug returned to Fort Monroe, but the Monticello
remained off Sewell’s Point with her guns pointed in the direction of the
"During the night, frantic efforts were made to complete the breastworks,
and it was not until the next day at around 5:50 in the afternoon that the
bombardment was resumed. It continued until 6:45 p.m. In the end, the
Monticello, with several gaping holes in her hull from well-aimed
Confederate shots limped back to Fort Monroe. The first engagement on
Virginia soil during the Civil War was over."
There were no fatalities on either side. The only person wounded was a
Confederate private who was struck by a fragment of a bursting shell.
Subsequently the Sewell’s Point batteries were under fire many times, but
they were never silenced or captured in combat. And, later, when
Confederate forces evacuated Norfolk on May 10, 1862, they were abandoned.
Battle of Hampton Roads
The famous Battle of Hampton Roads took place off Sewell's Point in
Hampton Roads on March 8-9, 1862.
USS Monitor of the Union Navy faced CSS Virginia of the Confederate States
The battle, which was inconclusive, is chiefly significant in naval
history as the first battle between two powered ironclad warships, which
came to be known as ironclads.
Abraham Lincoln and the bombardment of Sewell's Point
On June 5, 1862, President Lincoln, with his Cabinet Secretaries Stanton
and Chase on board, proceeded to Hampton Roads on steamer Miami to
personally direct the stalled Peninsular Campaign. The following day,
Lincoln directed gunboat operations in the James River and the bombardment
of Sewell’s Point by the blockading squadron in the five days he acted as
Commander-in-Chief in the field.
On June 8, 1862, Monitor, Dacotah, Naugatuck, Seminole, and Susquehanna by
direction of the President "-shelled Confederate batteries at Sewell's
Point, Virginia, as Flag Officer L. M. Goldsborough reported, "mainly with
the view of ascertaining the practicability of landing a body of troops
thereabouts" to move on Norfolk. Whatever rumors President Lincoln had
received about Confederates abandoning Norfolk were now confirmed; a tug
deserted and brought news that the evacuation was well underway and that
CSS Virginia, with her accompanying small gunboats, planned to proceed up
the James River or York River.
It was planned that when the Virginia came out, as she had on the 7th, the
Union fleet would retire with the Monitor in the rear hoping to draw the
powerful but under-engined warship into deep water where she might be
rammed by high speed steamers. The bombardment uncovered reduced but still
considerable strength at Sewell's Point. The Virginia came out but not far
enough to be rammed.
Two days later President Lincoln, still acting as Commander-in-Chief,
directed Flag Officer Goldsborough: "If you have tolerable confidence that
you can successfully contend with the Merrimac [Lincoln and the North used
the ships' former name] without the help of the Galena and two
accompanying gunboats, send the Galena and two gunboats up the James River
at once to support General McClellan." This division power afloat by the
President silenced two shore batteries and forced gunboats CSS Jamestown
and CSS Patrick Henry to return up the James River.
On June 9, 1862, President Lincoln himself, after talking to pilots and
studying charts, reconnoitered to the eastward of Sewell's Point and found
a suitably unfortified landing site near Willoughby Point. The troops
embarked in transports that night. The next morning they landed near the
site selected by the President. The latter, still afloat, from his
"command ship" Miami ordered the Monitor to reconnoiter Sewell's Point to
learn if the batteries were still manned. When he found the works
abandoned, President Lincoln ordered Major General Wool's troops to march
on Norfolk, where they arrived late on the afternoon of the 10th.
On June 10, 1862, Norfolk Navy Yard was set afire before being evacuated
by Confederate forces in a general withdrawal up the peninsula to defend
Richmond. Union troops crossed Hampton Roads from Fort Monroe, landed at
Ocean View, and captured Norfolk. With the entire area back under Union
control, the isolated batteries at Sewell’s Point lost their importance
and were abandoned. For the remainder of the 19th century, the area was
largely undeveloped and sparsely populated.