March 8, 1862 – The Confederate ironclad Virginia demolished the Federal naval fleet off Hampton Roads, rendering all wooden warships obsolete and threatening to permanently break the Federal blockade.
The crew of the C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimac), the flagship of the Confederate James River Squadron, completed preparations for action on the 7th. The next day, the ironclad vessel steamed out of the Norfolk Navy Yard, accompanied by five other vessels.
Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, commanding the Virginia, had been authorized to make a trial run, but he instead sent the workers ashore and took the ironclad out to confront the entire Federal blockading fleet off Hampton Roads. As the Virginia passed Sewell’s Point, Buchanan addressed his 350-man crew:
“My men, you are now about to face the enemy. You shall have no reason to complain of not fighting at close quarters. Remember, you fight for your homes and your country. You see those ships–you must sink them. I need not ask you to do it. I know you will do it.”
Although the Virginia had not been built for speed (she could barely reach six knots at full steam), her thick iron plating made her almost invulnerable to enemy fire. Crewmen also greased the sloped plating with melted pork fat to better resist the cannonballs.
As the ironclad steamed down the James, five of the Federals’ most powerful warships were stationed near the river’s mouth, 10 miles from Norfolk: U.S.S. Cumberland, Congress, Roanoke, St. Lawrence, and the flagship Minnesota. The Congress, Cumberland, and St. Lawrence were sailing vessels considered behind the times due to the advent of steam power. The Roanoke had a broken shaft and was not functional. All five were wooden warships.
The 8th was a Saturday, so Federal crewmen were drying their laundry on their ships’ riggings when the Virginia appeared. The ironclad steamed directly for the 30-gun sloop Cumberland, one of the Federals’ largest ships, and rammed her around 1 p.m. The Cumberland’s superior firepower was no match for the Virginia’s iron plating. Despite losing her metallic ram, the ironclad opened a gaping hole below the Cumberland’s waterline and sank her.
The Congress, a 50-gun frigate led by Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, saw the action from Newport News Point and began firing at the Virginia. A witness observed several broadsides being fired into the ironclad and noted that the shots “struck and glanced off, having no more effect than peas from a pop-gun.” The Virginia took 98 hits that disabled two guns, blew nearly everything off the deck, and shot up her smokestack. But none inflicted serious damage.
In response, Buchanan directed his crew to bear down on the Congress. Smith ordered the Congress towed to shore, but she sustained heavy damage from direct fire before running aground. Many were killed or wounded, including Smith, who was decapitated by a shot around 4:20 p.m. His successor surrendered the burning vessel.
The Virginia then turned her attention to the flagship, Minnesota. However, the Minnesota’s crew grounded her off Newport News to avoid destruction. The ironclad’s deep 22-foot draft prevented her from steaming into the shallows to finish the Minnesota off.
Meanwhile, Federal shore batteries poured fire into the Virginia, with the cannonballs merely bouncing or sliding off her iron plating. But one shot managed to wound Buchanan, forcing him to pass command to Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones. Jones returned the Virginia to Sewell’s Point near nightfall, with plans to resume the attack on the Minnesota and any remaining blockaders the next day.
This was the Confederacy’s greatest naval victory of the war. The Virginia destroyed two powerful warships in four and a half hours and, despite losing two guns, suffered no serious damage. They sustained 21 casualties (two killed and 19 wounded, Buchanan among them).
Conversely, this was the worst day in U.S. naval history up to that time (only Pearl Harbor, 79 years later, was worse). The Federals sustained 250 casualties, the most the navy suffered on any day of the war. The remaining vessels at Hampton Roads faced almost certain destruction the next day, until a new vessel arrived late that night to help even the odds.
The Federal ironclad U.S.S. Monitor completed a harrowing journey from New York, during which she was nearly swamped several times. The Monitor’s primary mission was to stop the Virginia. Captain John Marston, acting commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron aboard the U.S.S. Roanoke, directed Lieutenant John Worden, commanding the Monitor, to protect the grounded Minnesota.
The Monitor steamed to the Minnesota’s side around midnight, using the light from the burning Congress to find her way. The Congress’s magazine ignited shortly after 1 a.m., sparking several explosions and destroying the vessel. Lieutenant Samuel D. Greene, the executive officer of the Monitor, reported: “Her powder tanks seemed to explode, each shower of sparks rivaling the other in its height, until they appeared to reach the zenith–a grand but mournful sight.”
Within two hours of the Congress’s explosion, Major General John Wool, the Federal army commander at Fort Monroe, telegraphed the War Department that the Confederacy’s “floating battery” had sunk two frigates and would sink the remaining three before assaulting the fort itself. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton read the dispatch with terror and hurried to the White House to notify President Abraham Lincoln. The news soon spread panic throughout Washington, with Lincoln repeatedly looking out windows to see if the Virginia was coming up the Potomac.
An emergency cabinet meeting began at 6:30 a.m. on the 9th, where Stanton paced “like a caged lion” and declared: “The Merrimac (i.e., Virginia) will change the whole character of the war. She will destroy, seriatim, every naval vessel; she will lay all the cities on the seaboard under contribution.”
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles expressed concern but shared a message from Lieutenant Worden announcing that the Monitor had arrived at Hampton Roads. Stanton, unimpressed, went to a window and said, “Not unlikely, we shall have a shell or a cannonball from one of her (Virginia’s) guns in the White House before we leave this room.”
Welles argued that the Virginia drew too much water to come up the Potomac. He later recalled that there was “something inexpressibly ludicrous in the wild, frantic talk, action and rage of Stanton.” Lincoln shared Stanton’s concerns but remained calm. Later that day, Stanton telegraphed the coastal state governors: “Man your guns. Block your harbors. The Merrimac is coming.”
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 72-74; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 139; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 258; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 119; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 131-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 180-81; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 697; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 375; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 787; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 275; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 504; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 335; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 49, 57-58; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 99-100; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 529-30