The Battle of Gloucester Point, Virginia was an inconclusive exchange of cannon fire between a shore battery on the York River which was manned by Virginia (soon to be Confederate) forces and the Union gunboat USS Yankee. The action occurred on May 7, 1861, three weeks after the start of the American Civil War (Civil War) at Fort Sumter in the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina on April 14, 1861. The Gloucester Point engagement is notable as the earliest exchange of gunfire between the Union Navy and organized Rebel (Confederate) forces after the U.S. Army surrendered Fort Sumter to the Confederates and as the earliest reported Civil War military engagement in Virginia. Like other early engagements between Union gunboats and Confederate shore batteries, the battle at Gloucester Point was part of the Union Navy effort to blockade the Southern States in general and the Chesapeake Bay in particular. The engagement also was part of the effort by Confederate forces to deny the use of rivers in Virginia to Union military and commercial traffic.
In early May 1861, the Union Navy already had learned that rebel Virginia forces were constructing fortifications at Gloucester Point, Virginia on the York River. On May 7, 1861, Union Flag Officer Garrett J. Pendergrast ordered Navy Lieutenant Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr. to examine the reported fortifications. On the same day, Lieutenant Selfridge, in command of the USS Yankee, a converted steam tugboat of 328 tons displacement with 2 guns, sailed the Yankee up the York River in a reconnaissance with the purpose of developing intelligence on the fortifications at Gloucester Point. As the Yankee approached to within about 2,000 yards of the shore battery, the battery fired a shot across the boat's bow. The Yankee slowly continued on its course. The battery then fired another shot at the boat.
Lieutenant Selfridge reported that the shore battery fired 12 shots at the Yankee, but in a later account, T. Roberts Baker of the Richmond Howitzers stated that the Virginia force had fired 13 shots. Lt. Selfridge reported that all but 2 of the battery’s shots were short. The Yankee fired 4 shots and 2 shells at the battery in return. Selfridge stated that he could not hit the opposing force's guns because of their elevation and because his guns were too small to damage the battery and fortifications in any event. The Yankee's guns were "light 32s". Selfridge opined that the Rebels had 2 "long 32s" and an "8-inch shell". He thought the rebels had a force of about 40 men. In fact, the battery only had smaller "six-pounder" guns on this date.
After this exchange of cannon fire, the Yankee turned around and headed for its base at Hampton Roads near Fort Monroe. Selfridge did not mention damage to the Yankee in his report. T. Roberts Baker of the Virginia force recalled that two shots from the battery hit the Yankee. Neither side reported any of their men as killed or wounded.
Despite Baker’s later account that Colonel Taliaferro directed the actions of the Richmond Howitzers at Gloucester Point on May 7, Colonel Taliaferro stated in a report on May 8, 1861, that he arrived at Gloucester Point after the engagement had taken place. He said that Captain Whittle had directed the firing at the Yankee. Whittle denied this. Lieutenant John Thompson Brown of the Richmond Howitzers was in immediate command of the small force of artillerymen who manned the battery at this time. Some sources credit him with firing the first cannon shot of the Civil War in Virginia. Brown was promoted to captain on May 9, 1861.
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