Battle of Sewell's Point
Part of American Civil War
Date May 18–19, 1861
Location Norfolk, Virginia
Result Inconclusive
Belligerents
United States United States (Union) Confederate States of America CSA (Confederacy)
Commanders
D.L. Braine Walter Gwynn
Peyton H. Colquitt
Strength
Two gunboats battery garrison
Casualties and losses
10 total (US and CS) 10 total (US and CS)

The Battle of Sewell's Point took place from May 18–19, 1861 in Norfolk County, Virginia as part of the blockade of Chesapeake Bay during the American Civil War.


BATTLE


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.

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 Virginia.

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.

Stewart's "History of Norfolk County, Virginia" (1902), contains a detailed account of the Battle of Sewell’s Point that took place one month later.

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 Confederate fortifications.

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.

Two Union gunboats, including USS Monticello, dueled with Confederate batteries on Sewell's Point in an attempt to enforce the blockade of Hampton Roads. The two sides did each other little harm.

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