Monday, September 18, 2006

Hampton Roads

Dates: March 8-9, 1862


Union: Commodore John Worden aboard USS Monitor.

Confederate: Commodore Franklin Buchanan aboard CSS Virginia. (Lieutenant Catsby ap Roger Jones on March 9)

Prelude: On 20 April, 1861, the Gosport Navy Yard was in the process of being taken over by the Confederacy when the Union commander of the base, Commodore C.S. McCauley, ordered the base destroyed in order to prevent vital stores from falling into enemy hands. Among seven ships that were ordered scuttled was the frigate USS Merrimack, built in 1855 and a veteran of deployments with the West Indian and Pacific Squadrons. In February, 1860, the vessel arrived at Gosport for extensive maintenance.

During the evacuation, it was found that there were not enough crews to get all of the operational vessels out of the facility, so they were set afire. The Merrimack was burned to the waterline and left to sink. Within a matter of hours, Confederates had taken over the base, seizing a large amount of cannon, which was sent to costal forts around the Confederacy. As the fires were put out, the Merrimack was discovered still afloat, but with the top of the vessel charred. The hull was towed into a dry dock (which survived the fire) and the burned areas cut away.

CS Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory saw this as an opportunity. There were plans for an ironclad vessel designed to attack the wooden vessels of the still growing US Navy blockade of Confederate ports. Instead of building a warship from the keel up, it was decided to build an iron casemate over the Merrimack’s hull. They also decided to keep the engine that came with the Merrimack. Problem was that engine was designed to power the vessel in calm winds, not be the sole source of propulsion. The Confederates had no choice but to use the engine, since there were only a few factories able to build engines. Another problem facing them was that the only factory that could roll the iron plate necessary to build the casemate was the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, and it would take weeks to retool for that process from casting cannon. If this operation was supposed to be secret, it didn’t last very long as Southern newspapers trumpeted the news of a new weapon that would chase away the Yankee blockade.

In the North, the news of what the Confederates were doing to the Merrimack caused quite a stir in governmental circles. US Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had convened an Ironclad Board to study designs for ships that would counter anything the Confederates were building. Into this fray stepped John Ericsson. The Swedish born inventor had worked for the US Navy before, designing the world’s first steam frigate propelled by a screw propeller, USS Princeton. On February 28, 1844, during a test run of the ship, a cannon had exploded, killing the Secretary of the Navy, the Secretary of State, and several others. This colored Ericsson’s relations with the Navy.
During a rather fractious meeting between Ericsson and several Navy officers, President Lincoln had taken a look at the cardboard model of the proposed vessel, a long deck, low hull, and a single two-gun turret, all of it iron plated. He settled the issue by saying, “All I have to say is what the girl said when she put her foot into the stocking. It strikes me there is something in it.” Ericsson got the contract on 15 September, 1861.

Work proceeded on both vessels with the Confederate vessel completed on 27 January, 1862. Three weeks later, on 17 February, the ship was christened CSS Virginia. The Union vessel was completed on 30 January, 1862 and was christened USS Monitor at Ericsson’s request.


USS Monitor

Length: 172 feet.
Width: 41feet
Draft: 10 ½ feet
Freeboard (between waterline and deck): 18 inches
Turret height: 9 feet
Turret width: 20 feet
Displacement: 1000 tons
Armament: Two Dahlgren 11-inch guns

Armor: Hull and deck, one inch iron plate back by wood. The turret was all iron.

CSS Virginia

Length: 263 feet
Width: 41 feet
Draft: 22 feet
Armament: Six smoothbore cannon and four rifled guns. Also had a 1500 pound spike for ramming.

Armor: Two inches of iron plating backed with two inches of pine and four inches of oak.

The US Navy ordered the monitor to head for Hampton Roads to fend off any attempt by the Confederates to break the blockade.

March 6, 1862: USS Monitor leaves New York harbor for Hampton Roads. It would take two days and the vessel was almost sunk by high waves. The first thing the crew found out was the ship was not designed for the open ocean.

March 8, 1862: 12:00 noon. Amid celebrations, the CSS Virginia cast off and headed up the Elizabeth River from Gosport towards Hampton Roads. In command was Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, a former US Navy Captain who resigned his commission on the chance that his native state of Maryland would secede. When that was not the case, Buchanan tried to get back in the Navy but was refused by Secretary Welles. He now wanted to extract his revenge on the Navy by taking out as many ships as possible.

1:00 p.m. CSS Virginia enters Hampton Roads and heads toward its first target. The 24-gun sloop of war USS Cumberland. The shocked Union crewmembers soon realized that they were under attack. No one had seen a vessel like that before. Gun crews on the Cumberland began to fire on the Virginia. The shells bounced off the Virginia’s armor. Buchanan ordered full speed ahead (not easy with that weak engine) and rammed the Cumberland. The Virginia was stuck in Cumberland’s hull and was in danger of sinking when Buchanan ordered full reverse. The ram tore off and the Virginia was free.

The next target was the fifty gun frigate USS Congress, who had already taken a few shots from Virginia and was being assisted by shore batteries. Virginia delivered a broadside to Congress, heavily damaging the warship and even killing Buchanan’s brother, a lieutenant aboard Congress. The senior surviving officer ordered the Congress’s flag lowered, a signal of surrender. Shore batteries kept engaging the Virginia and Buchanan ordered another broadside into the Congress, which set the Federal warship on fire. Another Union vessel in the area, USS Minnesota, tried to flee but was aground on a sand bar. Firing continued from shore and Buchanan went on the top deck for a look. He was wounded by a Union sharpshooter. Command was passed to Lieutenant Catsby Jones. He orders a return to up river to sit out the night. They would deal with Minnesota in the morning.

As Virginia was steaming out of Hampton Roads, Monitor arrived. It was too late to start an engagement but Worden was instructed to protect Minnesota until the high tide can float the warship off the sand bar.

March 9, 1862: 9:00 a.m. Virginia reenters Hampton Roads and heads for the still beached Minnesota. On approach another vessel was spotted. To the Virginia’s crew, it looked like “a cheesebox on a raft.” Jones orders the Minnesota fired on but then Monitor intervened. The two vessels circled each other and the fight was on.

The Monitor had one advantage; after the guns were fired the turret could be rotated while they were being reloaded. This protected the crew, but if someone was at a bulkhead when an incoming shell struck the outside, he would have quite the headache. This was also the Monitor’s disadvantage; only two guns could be fired as opposed to the Virginia’s 3 to 4 guns in a broadside.

For the next three hours, the two vessels tried to gain the advantage, but no one had the upper hand. Virginia got stuck on a sand bar and it took 15 minutes (with the engine’s safety valves tied down to increase pressure) to free the Confederate vessel. A shot from Virginia hit Monitor’s pilot house, temporarily blinding Worden. As Monitor stopped, Jones thought they were breaking off the fight. The Confederates declared victory, and headed back to Gosport for repairs. The crew of Monitor, thinking that Virginia was breaking off the fight, declared victory and retook up position next to Minnesota.

This was the first engagement between ironclad vessels. There were ironclad warships in existence, the British vessel HMS Warrior and the French warship La Glorie were examples. It was said after the battle that the world’s navies became obsolete the moment Monitor and Virginia began engaging each other.

CSS Virginia never sought another engagement with USS Monitor. The warship stayed at Gosport until the Norfolk area was retaken by Union forces. Since Virginia had too much of a draft to sail up the James River to Richmond, the ship was scuttled on May 12, 1862 to prevent capture.

On that same day, Monitor and three other ships sailed up the James River to shell Richmond, but were stopped short of the city. After repairs and modifications, monitor was ordered to Beaufort, NC to assist in the blockade. While passing Cape Hatteras, NC a violent storm sent Monitor to the bottom with 16 still aboard.

The main effect of that battle was that the face of naval warfare was changed forever.

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