Monitor USS Onondaga on the James River

The James River during the Civil War

The James River begins where the Cowpasture and Jackson rivers join in the western part of Virginia. It flows approximately 340 miles, passing over the falls at Richmond, and on to Hampton Roads. The James ranks near the Mississippi River in its significance during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and in importance to the Confederacy. Using the James River and Kanawha Canal system, boats moved materials such as pig iron and coal from Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and Piedmont regions to the capital. After the loss of Norfolk, Richmond became the state's major port, naval base, and shipbuilding facility. South and east of Richmond the James saw significant combat, including actions between the Confederate and Union navies. In addition, the river aided large-scale movement of Union troops and military supplies. MORE...


At Richmond, canals along the James supplied the Tredegar ironworks and Virginia State Armory, enabling manufacture of munitions crucial for Confederate forces. Tredegar-made sheathing also covered the ironclad CSS Virginia , which helped change naval warfare forever. Subsequently, Tredegar provided iron for Confederate shipyards at Rocketts Landing and across the river at Manchester, aiding construction of several major ironclads. Richmond was also base for these vessels serving in Virginia's James River Squadron. Upriver, amid the falls, was Belle Isle Prison, which held thousands of captured Union soldiers in an overcrowded tent city. On the north shore, Libby Prison housed captured Union officers.

To the south, heavily fortified emplacements along the James protected the Confederate capital. Best known are Drewry's Bluff and Fort Darling, where the river turns sharply eastward. Here on May 15, 1862, during the Peninsula Campaign, Confederate sailors, soldiers, and marines, aided by river obstacles, repulsed attacking Union warships, including the USS Monitor. A land-based assault was turned back on May 16, 1864. The Confederate Submarine Battery Service made extensive use of torpedoes (mines) against U.S. vessels in this area, including sinking the USS Commodore Jones on May 6, 1864. An observer noted: "It seemed as if the bottom of the river was torn up and blown through the vessel itself." Also near Drewry's Bluff midshipmen of the Confederate Naval Academy were trained aboard the CSS Patrick Henry beginning in the autumn of 1863.

The river below Drewry's Bluff saw exchanges between the James River Squadron and Union artillery emplacements, as well as the January 23–24, 1865, Battle of Trent's Reach. Seeking to interdict the flow of Union supplies to Petersburg, ships including the ironclads CSS Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Virginia II moved down river only to be defeated by Union batteries and warships.

Located below Trent's Reach, City Point (now Hopewell) was vitally important from a Union command and logistical perspective during the Petersburg Campaign (1864–1865), being the site of Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant's headquarters and a landing point for massive quantities of Union supplies. Farther downriver and on the north bank, Harrison's Landing had figured during the Peninsula Campaign, providing a point for encampment and evacuation of the sick and wounded for George B. McClellan's Union forces following the Battle of Malvern Hill (1862) and the close of the Seven Days' Battles (1862).

The James River flows west to east, like all the major rivers in central Virginia, and thus it served as an obstruction to the southward movement of Union land forces during the war. But it was also used by Union navy and infantry as an avenue of attack, which repeatedly need to be defended by Confederate forces. Those forces could not, however, halt Union use of facilities at City Point that helped provide the vast array of stores and numbers of troops that ultimately underpinned Union victory in Virginia.

Time Line

  • March 9, 1862 - The CSS Virginia engages with the Union's ironclad, the USS Monitor, at the mouth of the James River. The battle lasts for more than four hours. While neither ship gains a decisive advantage, it is a strategic victory for the Union because the Virginia is unable to destroy any more of the Union's wooden fleet.
  • May 10, 1862 - Confederate forces abandon Norfolk, after which Richmond becomes Virginia's main port and naval station.
  • May 11, 1862 - Confederates destroy the CSS Virginia after the fall of Yorktown because it draws too much water to navigate up the James River and in order to ensure that it would not fall into Union hands.
  • May 15, 1862 - A force of Confederate soldiers, sailors, and marines at Fort Darling fight a Union naval flotilla at the Battle of Drewry's Bluff. The USS Monitor cannot elevate its guns sufficiently high to fire on Confederate emplacements, while the USS Galena takes heavy punishment. The Union ships turn back.
  • July 23, 1863 - Commander John M. Brooke approves regulations for the Confederate Naval Academy. By November, midshipmen are training aboard the CSS Patrick Henry near Drewry's Bluff on the James River.
  • May 6, 1864, 2 p.m. - Members of the Confederate Submarine Battery Service detonate a torpedo that sinks the USS Commodore Jones and turns back U.S. ships charged with assaulting positions at Drewry's Bluff on the James River. Union forces opt for a land assault on the Drewry's Bluff–Fort Darling positions.
  • May 16–17, 1864 - Forces under Confederate general Pierre G. T. Beauregard turn back an attempt by divisions of Union general Benjamin F. Butler's Army of the James to capture Fort Darling on the James River.
  • January 23–24, 1865 - At the Battle of Trent's Reach, Union artillery and naval units heavily rebuff ships of the Confederate James River Squadron after several vessels run aground, including the ironclads CSS Richmond and Virginia II.
  • March 27–28, 1865 - President Abraham Lincoln confers with Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman and Admiral David Porter aboard the steamboat River Queen.
  • April 2–3 1865 - Confederate government and military forces evacuate Richmond. Fire destroys many buildings near the James River in the city's industrial area.
  • April 4, 1865 - President Abraham Lincoln arrives in Richmond with his son Tad. He visits the recently vacated office of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and is warmly welcomed by ever-growing crowds of former slaves.


Further Reading
Coski, John M. Capital Navy: The Men, Ships, and Operations of the James River Squadron. Campbell, California: Savas Woodbury Publishers, 1996.
Dew, Charles B. Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1966.
Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999
Perry, Milton F. Infernal Machines: The Story of Confederate Submarine and Mine Warfare. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965.
Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1992
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    McFarland, K. M. The James River during the Civil War. (2015, October 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from

  • MLA Citation:

    McFarland, Kenneth M. "The James River during the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 27 Oct. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: November 24, 2009 | Last modified: October 27, 2015

Contributed by Kenneth M. McFarland, the director of education at Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, in Stratford, Virginia.