At, 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 , 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 . Upriver, amid the falls, was , which held thousands of captured Union soldiers in an overcrowded tent city. On the north shore, 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, 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, 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(1864–1865), being the site of Union general-in-chief ‘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 ‘s Union forces following the (1862) and the close of the (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.