Fort Huger History

At the outset of the American Civil War, Richmond was the prime target for Union forces trying to quickly end the fighting.  Access to Richmond could be gained in two ways, overland and by the James River.  Naval maps of the James River show shallow water and shoals in some areas but also show a deep, navigable channel offshore.  Because of the navigable channel, the James River became a strategic transportation route for both Confederate and Union Armies.

In 1861, Colonel Andrew Talcott, a noted civil engineer, was given the task of constructing fortifications along the James River to protect against a Union naval assault on Richmond.  Under orders given by General Robert E. Lee, Talcott was to travel up the river and choose the most suitable sites for the batteries.  Talcott designed numerous fortifications for the Confederate Army.  Among them was Fort Huger, named after Confederate General Benjamin Huger.

Fort Huger is located on Harden’s (Hardy’s, Hardings) Bluff near Lawnes Point, Virginia.  Lieutenant John Waters, commander of the US Minnesota sent a letter to Al Ludlow Case, Captain of the fleet describing the fort on May 19, 1862 after it was captured.  The letter states:

…the upper battery is situated on an elevated sight called Harden’s Bluff, where the examination of the works was commenced…This fort is an earthwork of recent construction, the rear being not quite finished.  It is bastioned work of 500 feet front and about 300 depth.  The front commands the river, presenting an indented or ‘cremaillere’ line composed of long and short lines alternately, thus giving a cross fire from barbette guns, and the longest lines commanding the approach up the river.  The left is a Junette.  The right has two bastions, the line of defense of one looking toward the river, and the other covering a ravine which skirts the right and rear.  The rear of the fort is a redan in which is found the entrance to the fort and also the bridge over the ditch (leading to our “barracks” site), which is reenforced by a small redan commanding the bridge.  In the center are parade grounds and space for quarters and bombproof magazine.  The front at intervals between the guns, has bomb-proof traverses, some of which are store rooms; they are neatly finished with sods, and the parapets all around are faced with revetment of sods on the interior slope. The work is surrounded with a deep ditch and occupies a commanding position on the bluff, with a steep bank almost perpendicular between it and the level of the river of about 30 feet.  Its right is flanked by a ravine which also covers part of the rear, from which the timber has been cleared and burned, leaving an open view extending back nearly a mile. The retiring enemy has burned the quarters and dismounted the guns, burning the carriages and blowing up the magazine, but left their flag flying.  This must have been done very recently, for some of the gun carriages were yet smouldering.  There was also the debris of a furnace for heating shot.  The fort mounted 12 guns: one 32 commanding the entrance to the rear; three of the heaviest caliber mounted on circle-traversing carriages at the angles in barbette, and eight funs on the front, five of which were mounted in embrasure, which took away considerably from their efficiency, as they had only a limited range of fire; but being navy 32 pounders, mounted on navy truck carriages, fitted with breeching and tackles and worked on platforms built of wood over the thread of banquette, they could not be mounted higher without exposing the men over the parapet.  The following summary of the guns will show their character:
One 7 inch army columbiad, rifled bore, gun spiked
Two 8 inch army columbiads, smooth-bore, guns spiked
Three 9 inch navy Dahlgrens guns, smooth-bore, guns spiked
Six double-fortified navy 32’s, smooth-bore, 57 cwt; guns spiked.  Total twelve.

In March 1862, Confederate Captain, in an inventory of the defenses of Richmond, described Fort Huger as “Mounting thirteen guns; one 10-inch, columbiad pattern, rifled, in barbette; four 9inch Dahlgrens, rifled in barbette; two 8-inch columbiads, rifled, in barbette; [and] six hot-shot 32 pounders on ships carriages” (ORN 1862).

It can be difficult to understand the level of battle readiness and the protection based on a listing of the numbers and sizes of guns present at a fort.  Apparently, however, General John B. Magruder, who was responsible for the defense of Richmond during the Peninsular Campaign, saw early on that more defenses were necessary.  In an undated letter, General Magruder wrote “First.  The lower defenses of James River are exceedingly weak, and ought to be strengthened without delay by building another battery at Mulberry Point and placing guns in the embrasures of the batter already prepared at Harden’s Bluff [meaning Fort Huger].  Opposite.  Harden’s bluff and Mulberry Point should then be made impregnable on the land side, which can be easily done…”

General Magruder was calling for the construction of Fort Boykin, which was subsequently constructed at Mulberry Point.  To further bolster the defense of Richmond, obstructions were placed in the James River.  The strategy was designed to force American ships heading for Richmond to slow down due to the obstructions in the James River.  Fort Huger and Fort Boykin, on opposite sides of the James River, would catch the ships in a crossfire.  The Union navy would incur more damage because the obstructions would not allow them to pass through quickly.  The strategy was sound, though the execution was lacking.

This early awareness of the weaknesses of the fortifications along the James River foreshadowed the problems that would occur with Fort Huger in the months to come.  Fort Huger was not completely outfitted until mid-March 1862.  Seven of the guns were in place by March 13, 1862.  The fort was manned by two artillery companies within the fort and three infantry companies outside the fort.  The infantry companies were commanded by Colonel Archer.  The artillery companies were the Rifle Rangers, Compnay C, 5th Battalion Virginia Infantry and were under the direct command of Captain DeLagnel.

Colonel Archer and Captain Delagnel did not agree on the precise chain of command.  This conflict had to be settled by General Magruder.  In a letter dated March 13, 1862, Magruder wrote “…The battery has been a naval battery, and is not commanded by Captain DeLagnel (late of the Navy, but now temporarily a captain in the Confederate Army).  I recommend that the whole be placed under the command of the commanding officer, whoever he may be – at present Colonel Archer- while the guns and the men who serve them should be under the immediate command of Captain DeLagnel, who, however, I believe, is junior to the captains of artillery serving the guns…”

In addition to personal squabbling among commanding officers, Brigadier General Lafayette McLaws noted other problems such as six guns that had not been placed in barbette, traverses needed to be thrown up, the forest surrounding the fort needed to be cleared, guns to protect the road leading from the fort were not in place, all of the wooden building in the fort, with the exception of the commissary, needed to be removed, drill for firing the guns had been suspended, and bomb proofs needed to be erected.

Such was the state of Fort Huger, that on March 18, 1862 General Robert E. Lee sent a tactful letter about Fort Huger to Major General Hugeer.  Lee wrote:

General: It has been represented to me that the work at Harden’s Bluff, Fort Huger, is not in good defensive condition.  The items of fault are reported to be as follows:
1.  Want of proper traverses.
2.  Want of bomb proofs.
3.  Existence of wooden buildings inside the work.
4.  The six 32-pounders for hot shot are not on barbette carriages and there are no guns mounted for land defense.
5.  The woods are left standing close to the work on the outside.
6.  The men have not been drilled at their guns for some time past.
7.  A want of harmony and zealous co-operation among some of the officers, resulting from questions of rank (it is said Captain de Lagnel, who was sent to command the battery of heavy guns, is junior to the captain of one of the companies serving at the battery, and that this is one cause of trouble; and that Colonel Archer and Captain de Lagnel do not accord entirely.
Captain Rives, in charge of the engineer office here, reports in regard to the items of complain as follows:
1.  Traverses are in progress of construction.
2.  Bomb proofs are being made as rapidly as possible.
3. [blank]
4.  The six 32-pounders have not been mounted en barbette because he has not been able to procure the carriages and for the same reason no guns have been placed for the land defense.   He thinks, however, that he can procure at least two barbette carriages on which to mount a like number of guns looking to the land and will send them to Fort Huger at once, with as many more as can be obtained, and will do the same in regard to the other carriages and guns so soon as they can be procured.
5.  The engineer in charge of Fort Huger has long since been instructed to have the woods felled.  A want of axes may have prevented The execution of the order.  He will, however, be directed to have this work done at once to the extent of his means.

I have stated both sides of the questions as presented to me. You will know what importance to attach to the several complaints.  I thin the wooden buildings in the fort, if that cause of complaint be real, should be removed as soon as practicable.  If they are used as quarters, cannot tents be substituted for them?  If for store-houses, some portions of the bomb proofs might be arranged to supply their places, which latter I am told is being done.
The clearing of the woods near the battery is of course necessary, and I am surprised that the commanding officer of the fort has not had this done by the troops.  If the engineer force has more important work to do, axes sufficient could probably be procured from the neighbors, if they cannot be supplied in any other way.
The drill has probably been interrupted by the change in the guns, but should be resumed.
The last item of complaint, “Want of harmony among the officers,” is the most important.  The senior officer present should command all, but the immediate command of the guns and the men serving them should be with Captain de Laguel, as he was assigned to his present position because of his supposed capabilities as an artillery officer.  This is not a time to squabble about rank; everyone must work, and do what he can to promote the cause.  To save time, I have assumed the statements made to me to be true, which is most likely not the case; and my suggestions on this supposition are intended mainly as explanatory.
You can best determine whether the faults referred to are so and provide the remedy, and you are desired to give the subject you earliest attention.

By the latter half of April, Captain J. M. Maury had taken command of the battery at Fort Huger.  He found the garrison to be too small and poorly trained.  To remedy the situation and prepare the men for battle, Captain Maury wrote to Lieutenant Colonel Archer on April 21, 1862 asking that the garrison be relieved of battalion duty to completely focus on drilling.  Lt. Colonel Archer did not feel as Captain Maury did.  Five days letter Captain Maury dispatched a letter to General George W. Randolph asking for some assistance, stating:

General: I beg leave to call your attention to the condition of affairs at this point, and to ask for some changes which I consider necessary to its efficiency.
I have a garrison consisting of two artillery companies, belonging to an infantry battalion of five companies in all, stationed outside of the fort, and commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Archer, of the Third Virginia Regiment.  These two artillery companies were detailed by Colonel Archer as a garrison for this fort, and can, of course, be withdrawn by him whenever he thinks proper to do so.  He, as commanding the battalion, claims to command the garrison everywhere except in the fort, and he has a right to withdraw them from the fort, as a part of his command, at any time.
As I am held responsible for the defense of this fort, I do not think it right that the senior officer of the battalion outside should have a right to withdraw my garrison without my consent.  Besides this, I think it essential to good order, discipline, and efficiency that the command of the fort should be entirely distinct from that of the infantry force outside of it.  That forces consists of three companies, which, with the two artillery companies of the garrison, comprised the whole force at this point.  It may and probably will be necessary and proper to hold the fort longer than the infantry companies can hold their position, and if it became necessary to withdraw the infantry, the commanding officer could and probably would withdraw the garrison, as forming part of his battalion; or, if he should think proper to withdraw into the fort, he would be commanding officer of the garrison, and of course of the fort.
Under these circumstances I feel compelled to apply to you for three companies of artillery, to be placed under my command, and not to be subject to withdrawal by anybody but the general commanding this department or division. The fort, from causes partly traceable to this mixed command, was and is in an inefficient state.
I enclose a copy of a letter which I addressed to Colonel Archer a few days after I took command here, which resulted n his verbally giving me control of the companies of the garrison as far as he could do so without disintegrating his battalion.  Colonel Archer is now the brigade commander at Smithfield, and I feel bound to say that he has shown every disposition to second my views short of breaking up his battalion, but if these two artillery companies are to be retained here as a garrison that disintegration is necessary to its efficiency.  I wish to avoid it if possible, and therefore I respectfully request that three other companies be ordered here as a garrison.  The two companies are not sufficient to man the guns.  I have seven guns in barbette and six on navy carriages, and it will require three full companies to afford a relief in working them.
…I have bomb proofs for storing provisions in case our supplies should be cut off, but I have not control over the commissary department, and of course cannot lay in supplies.
…I would also respectfully call your attention to the fact that all the guns of this fort are long-range guns and all mounted on the water front.  I am moving some of the 32-pounders to the land side, but short guns of that caliber and carronades on sleigh carriages would be much more effective.  Five 32s of twenty-seven hundred weight or thirty-three hundred weight and two carronades would, I think, be sufficient.

Time for improving the defenses at Fort Huger was running out. In less than two weeks following the dispatch of Captain Maury’s letter to General Randolph, the artillery companies at Fort Huger would be put to the test.

On May 8, 1862, Commander John Rodgers of the Union Ship Galena sailed up the James River and shelled Fort Boykin and then turned to Fort Huger.  In a letter to L.M. Goldsborough, Flag Officer and Commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadrons, Commander Rodgers wrote “Sir: We fought two batteries yesterday, each about a dozen guns.  We silenced the first (Fort Boykin) at rock Wharf but finding that we were expending too many shells upon the second at Mother Tynes’ Bluff (Fort Huger) I put the Galena abeam of it as close as the pilot could take her, in good 5- second range and disconcerted the aim of the rebels while Arrostook and Port Royal ran by.”

Commander Rodgers requested the aid of the Monitor and a supply of ammunition to “silence the battery at Harden’s Bluff.”  On May 18, Goldsboroguh sent a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, that he had moved up to the Galena’s position with the Union ships Susquehanna,  Wachusett, Dactoah, and Maratanza.  Upon his arrival he “…found that both [forts] had been recently abandoned and left comparatively in a useless condition.  At Harden’s Bluff the guns were spiked, carriages burned, and magazines blown up, but a little below it a solitary gun remained intact, and this we put out of use.”

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