Battle Of Drewrey's Bluff

By Gazette Staff
Originally Published November 1970

The Corps' first Medal of Honor winner, a 27-year-old corporal, received his award from President Abraham Lincoln.

From the waning days of the American Revolution, when Gen George Washington awarded a decoration called the Purple Heart to a few of his soldiers, until Confederate shells screamed into Fort Sumter, S. C. to ignite the Civil War, few American fighting men received medals for valor.

True, Congress had on special occasions recognized military gallantry with individual awards. Congress decreed, on 16 Oct 1787, that Capt John Paul Jones receive". . . a medal of gold . . . in commemoration of the valor and brilliant service of that officer. . . ." Thomas Jefferson, at the same time, was similarly honored for his ambassadorial services in France during the Revolution.

Twenty-six years later, Congress ordered gold and silver medals to be struck for certain officers and men of the frigate USS Constitution and sloop of war USS Wasp for their actions against British men-of-war in the War of 1812. One of these medals went posthumously to Lt William S. Bush of the Constitution's Marine detachment.

Still, the nation made no standard provision for medals honoring its heroes. Perhaps it was because Americans felt that such decorations were foreign, that they smacked too much of European militarism and pomp, that they were too "aristocratic" for the soldiers and sailors of a democracy.

Whatever the reason, the strife between American brothers which exploded in April 1861 already had taken a terrible toll before Congress passed and President Abraham Lincoln signed in December 1861 a bill establishing a Medal of Honor to be awarded by the Secretary of the Navy to enlisted members of the naval service. (The Army medal was not authorized until July 1862; Army officers were made eligible in 1963; naval and Marine officers did not qualify for the honor until March 1915).

Though the Marine Corps' ranks in the Civil War were small in comparison to the total forces engaged, Leathernecks of the 1860s were no less a courageous breed than their successors of a century later. Only four months after Congress and the President had authorized the Medal of Honor, a young corporal manning a naval cannon braved a hail of Confederate shellfire to become the first Marine to win the decoration.

John F. Mackie responded quickly to Lincoln's call for fighting men at the outbreak of hostilities. The same month that Confederate guns battered Fort Sumter, the 25-year-old New Yorker enlisted at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.*

As a member of the Marine guard on the USS Savannah, Mackie soon got his first taste of war. The Savannah sailed in early May 1861 for Fortress Monroe, Va. She arrived shortly after the Marine Corps' first action in the war-destruction of the Norfolk Navy Yard to prevent its falling intact into Confederate hands.

Then the Savannah headed south for blockade duty off the North Carolina coast. Although her Marines were not among the landing party, she lent support while Leathernecks from the Minnesota, Cumberland and Wabash, under Capt William L. Shuttleworth, stormed ashore through boiling surf and seized Fort Clark guarding the eastern shore of Hatteras Inlet. The fort fell on 28 Aug 1861; Fort Hatteras, on the other side of the inlet, surrendered next day after its magazine was exploded by a shell from the Navy's bombardment.

Taking up a position as a guard ship in the James River in early September 1861, the Savannah beat off several attacks by Confederate gunboats which Mackie years later described as "trifling."

After two months of this, the Savannah moved south again, this time to Port Royal, S. C., where she took part in the attack on the city. Then southward once more, where the ship was involved in actions against Florida ports and islands. She returned to New York City in early January 1862.

Mackie, now seasoned by several months of maritime warfare, got his promotion to corporal on 1 March 1862. At the same time he got his orders-an assignment to the ironclad USS Galena under the command of Navy Capt John Rogers. Sailing for Fortress Monroe in company with the now-legendary Monitor, the Galena was delayed en route and arrived on station a few days after the Monitor's historic slugging match with the Confederate ironclad Virginia (Merrimac).

But the action was not entirely over. The Galena got in on the attack against the Norfolk Navy Yard. On 10 May the Confederates evacuated the yard, and the next day the Virginia's crew blew her up to deny her capture by Union forces.

The Virginia's destruction freed the Monitor and Galena to aid Gen George McClellan's drive along the James River toward Richmond. The Confederate forces from Norfolk, no longer obliged to defend the Navy Yard and man the Virginia, hastily assembled at Drewrey's Bluff and dug in to meet McClellan's thrust, mounting salvaged ships' cannon at Fort Darling.

On 12 May, the Galena bombarded City Point below Richmond. Three days later she joined four other vessels-the Monitor, Aroostook, Port Royal and Naugatuck-in an attack on Fort Darling.

Capt Rogers took the Galena in to within some 400 yards of the fort and anchored her, according to Mackie's recollections. The other ships laid off almost twice as far.

As if the Galena's audacity were not enough, the fort had a height advantage of some 100 feet over the ships; her 16 heavy guns (compared to the Galena's seven) could deliver a plunging fire on the squadron.

For six hours from 0600 until noon, according to Mackie's account-Galena slugged it out with the fort. Capt Rogers was one of the first casualties; he was wounded in the opening exchange of fire. Three times the warship's guns drove the Confederates out of their works; three times the enemy reinforced and returned.

The Galena was soon alone. The Monitor could not get the required elevation on her guns and, hit three times in rapid succession, drifted away out of control. The Naugatuck's 100-pounder rifle burst and she withdrew; plunging fire from the fort was more than the unarmored Port Royal and Aroostook could endure. Torn by both shell and solid shot, the Galena fought on.

In one hellish moment, four solid shots pierced the ship and a shell exploded between decks, killing and wounding almost 30 men. One of the ship's 10-pound powder cartridges flashed, and the cry of "Fire!" rang through the ship.

Mackie, noticing that the aft 100-pounder Parrott Rifle's crew had been wiped out, acted without orders. Rallying some of the Marine Detachment, he manned the big cannon. His marksmanship was superb-he soon destroyed a Confederate 10-inch Columbiad that "had been doing terrible execution of the ship every time it was fired."

Out of ammunition and her decks swept with enemy shot, the Galena finally retired from the fight after six terrible hours. Of her crew of 130 men, more than 70 had been killed or wounded. She had taken more than a 100 hits from the Confederate artillery.

Mackie's bravery was rewarded. General Order No. 17 of 10 July 1862 awarded to him the Medal of Honor. President Lincoln himself, accompanied by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, made the presentation in a ceremony at Fortress Monroe. Four sailors from the Galena also received the medal and were promoted to officer rank. Mackie got a promotion too-to orderly sergeant.

After the Drewrey's Bluff battle, the Galena, with Mackie still aboard, participated in the Seven Days' Battle with the Army of the Potomac, during which time Gen McClellan set up his headquarters on the ship. The Galena's guns were worked so actively during the campaign that "they had to be shored up to keep them in their places on deck," Mackie reported later.

The war raged on. Mackie, on 1 June 1863, took charge of the Marine detachment on the USS Seminole. Ordered to join Adm Farragut at New Orleans, the Seminole fell in with the Confederate steamer Charleston along the way and seized her "after a sharp conflict."

After taking part in the Texas blockade and some skirmishing with Confederate naval forces along the Texas coast, the Seminole sailed for Mobile Bay and joined the famous battle there. Eight shipboard Leathernecks won the Medal of Honor in that action: Sgt J. Henry Denig, Sgt Michael Hudson, Sgt James Martin, Sgt Andrew Miller, Cpl Miles M. Oviatt, Sgt. James S. Roantree, Cpl Williard M. Smith and Orderly Sgt David Sprowle.

Returning to the Texas coast, the Seminole engaged in action against blockade runners. On 26 May 1865 the Union Fleet off the Texas coast received the surrender of Gen Kirby Smith and 20,000 Confederate troops, along with the capitulation of Galveston and the Texas coast forts. The war was over.

The Seminole went home, back to Boston, where on 24 Sept 1865 the ship was decommissioned and the crew and Marines discharged.

Mackie, after 4½ years of service which included 16 major battles and several score minor skirmishes, was a civilian again "without ever having received a scratch of any kind."