Category Archives: Virginia

The Battle of Kernstown

March 23, 1862 – Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s 3,500-man Confederate army attacked 9,000 Federals south of Winchester in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. This marked an inauspicious start to what became a legendary campaign.

Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson | Image Credit: Bing public domain

Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson | Image Credit: Bing public domain

Jackson’s Confederates, after marching 25 miles on the 22nd, covered another 15 miles the next day. Their mission was to assault the Federal force south of Winchester, which was part of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s corps stationed in the Valley. Jackson hoped to keep Banks’s men occupied so they could not send reinforcements to the main Federal offensive on the Virginia Peninsula to the east.

However, Jackson did not know that an entire Federal division was stationed outside Winchester. According to Colonel Turner Ashby, Jackson’s cavalry commander, there were only four regiments (or roughly 4,000 Federals) in the area.

Brigadier General James Shields, commanding the Federal division, was so confident that Jackson would not attack that he had shifted one brigade north, away from the Confederate advance. The rest of Shields’s force (now under Colonel Nathan Kimball after Shields had been wounded in the previous day’s skirmish) was just north of Kernstown, a village on the Valley Turnpike about three miles south of Winchester. Not only did the Federals outnumber the Confederates nearly three-to-one, but they commanded the high ground.

Col Nathan Kimball | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Col Nathan Kimball | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Before Jackson’s infantry arrived, Ashby took up positions atop Pritchard’s Hill, where he placed artillery and deployed skirmishers on either side of the turnpike leading to Winchester. Kimball responded by deploying skirmishers of his own and training 10 guns on a potential enemy advance.

The fighting surged back and forth until Kimball committed more men around 11 a.m. Ashby’s troopers then began giving ground. Kimball also recalled the brigade that Shields had sent north to reinforce the other two on the pike. Jackson’s three infantry brigades began arriving on the Valley Turnpike around 1 p.m.

The 23rd was a Sunday, so Jackson planned to rest his men, especially after two days of hard marching. About a quarter of his force had fallen behind during the march, so stopping for a day would give the stragglers time to catch up. Ordering no reconnaissance, Jackson moved his men west and began planning to attack the Federals the next day.

However, Ashby assured Jackson that just a small force opposed them, most likely the Federal rear guard. Jackson scouted enemy positions and, taking Ashby’s word, resolved to attack immediately. Jackson planned to feint against the Federals on level ground near the turnpike while his main force moved westward and attacked the Federal right flank and rear on the high ground at Sandy Ridge. From there they would rout the enemy and retake Winchester.

Without briefing any of his subordinates on his strategy or enemy strength, Jackson deployed Brigadier General Richard Garnett’s Stonewall Brigade and two regiments from Colonel Samuel V. Fulkerson’s brigade to the Federal right around 4 p.m. They arrived at a stone wall and knocked the Federals back with a volley. Fighting surged back and forth for the next 90 minutes. Meanwhile, Ashby’s troopers joined the feint against the Federal left.

Kimball quickly saw that his right flank lay vulnerable and began transferring troops from Colonel Erastus B. Tyler’s brigade from the left to the north end of the Sandy Ridge. Garnett countered by shifting more Confederates from the Confederate right to the left, where the fighting was heaviest.

The Federals’ unexpected strength confused the Confederates, and when a scout reported that there were three times more enemy troops than originally estimated, Jackson concluded that “we are in for it.” Adding to the confusion was Jackson’s refusal to issue orders or divulge any details of his plan.

Disaster loomed for Jackson when Garnett’s brigade began running out of ammunition. As Jackson called up his reserve brigade to join the action, Garnett lost hope of breaking the Federal line and ordered a withdrawal. This created a gap in the line that the Federals rushed through, forcing the regiments of Fulkerson’s brigade to follow Garnett.

Jackson, unaware of this withdrawal, hurried the reinforcements forward with the 5th Virginia in the lead, waving his hat and shouting, “Cheer the reinforcements!” He ordered the 5th to “reinforce the infantry engaged.” But by this time, the infantry had disengaged and were falling back in the opposite direction of the 5th. The reserves could not arrive fast enough to make a difference.

Enraged by the Stonewall Brigade’s withdrawal, Jackson confronted Garnett: “Why have you not rallied your men? Halt and rally.” Jackson then shouted to the retreating Confederates to “go back and give them they bayonet!” But the men would not rally, and Garnett instead directed the 5th Virginia to cover the army’s retreat. The 5th held the Federals off as Jackson’s men conducted an orderly withdrawal.

The outnumbered Confederates had fought hard before pulling back five miles south to Newton for the night. They collected their wounded as they left, along with some artillery and wagons. Shields reported that “such was their gallantry and high state of discipline, that at no time during the battle or pursuit did they give way to panic.” The Confederates sustained 718 casualties (80 killed, 375 wounded, and 263 missing), or 21 percent of their force. The Federals lost 590 (118 killed, 450 wounded, and 22 missing), or less than 7 percent.

The Federals won a tactical victory, but Jackson succeeded in his mission to prevent Banks from sending reinforcements to the Virginia Peninsula. Upon learning of this battle, Banks recalled General Alpheus Williams’s division headed for Centreville as Shields called for more men of his own. Meanwhile, Jackson began gaining many local recruits to his small but growing army.

Jackson directed his men to fall back to the Mount Jackson area the next day. The Federals did not pursue, giving him time to develop a long-term strategy to keep them occupied in the Valley. Jackson appointed mapmaker Jedediah Hotchkiss to captain on his staff with instructions:

“I want you to make me a map of the Valley, from Harpers Ferry to Lexington, showing all the points of offense and defense. Mr. Pendleton (Jackson’s aide-de-camp) will give you orders for whatever outfit you want.”

Hotchkiss would be invaluable in supplying Jackson with detailed maps of the Valley for his upcoming campaign.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 150; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (23 Mar 1862); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 66, 71, 82; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 46; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 145; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 270-71; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 126; Klein, Frederic S., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 415; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 187-88; 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. 425; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 290-91; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677

“Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley Campaign Begins

March 22, 1862 – Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson began a campaign intended to keep Federals busy so they could not move east and join the Federal drive on Richmond.

Maj Gen "Stonewall" Jackson | Image Credit: SonoftheSouth.net

Maj Gen “Stonewall” Jackson | Image Credit: SonoftheSouth.net

As March began, Jackson’s Confederates remained stationed at Winchester, guarding Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley against a Federal invasion from the north. The force consisted of just 3,600 infantry, 600 cavalry, and 27 cannon in six batteries.

On March 3, Federal Major General Nathaniel P. Banks invaded the Valley as his 38,000-man army corps crossed the Potomac River at various points. The Federals quickly occupied such places as Harpers Ferry, Bolivar Heights, Charlestown, and Martinsburg, among others. Soon the Federals were just 20 miles up the Valley Turnpike from Jackson’s small force.

Jackson contacted his superior, General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of the Potomac at Centreville, Virginia. Jackson hoped to keep Banks’s Federals in his front and prevent them from moving east of the Blue Ridge to reinforce their comrades preparing to confront Johnston. Johnston, in the process of withdrawing his army southward in the face of superior numbers, directed Jackson to act in concert by doing the same.

Unaware that he was outnumbered eight-to-one, Jackson initially planned to make a stand at Winchester. He asked Johnston to send him General A.P. Hill’s brigade from Leesburg so that “a kind Providence may enable us to inflict a terrible wound.” Johnston did not respond, leaving his orders to fall back still in force. Johnston’s withdrawal from Centreville left Jackson even more vulnerable.

As Banks prepared to advance on Winchester with a detachment of 18,000 men, Jackson planned to surprise him with a rare night attack. He held a council of war to discuss the assault, where he learned that his army’s supply wagons had already been withdrawn eight miles south of Winchester. This made the attack impossible. Frustrated, Jackson ended the meeting and told an aide, “That is the last council of war I will ever hold.”

The Confederates pulled out of Winchester on the morning of the 12th, saddened about relinquishing the town they had called home for several months. The troops withdrew on the Valley Turnpike to Strasburg, 18 miles south, with Colonel Turner Ashby’s cavalry forming the rear guard. Jackson gathered new supplies and recruits at Strasburg.

Meanwhile, the Federals entered Winchester, where few residents greeted them. Banks, hoping to catch Jackson, quickly learned that he had retreated. Some men grumbled about missing the chance to destroy Jackson’s army, but Colonel George H. Gordon of the 2nd Massachusetts assured them that “this chieftain (Jackson) would be apt, before the war closed, to give us an entertainment up to the utmost of our aspirations.”

At Strasburg, Jackson received word that Banks had sent a division of 9,500 Federals under Brigadier General James Shields southward to confront him. Unwilling to engage the Federals just yet, Jackson resumed his withdrawal on the 15th, passing scores of weeping civilians and arriving at Mount Jackson the next day. This placed Jackson’s men near a mountain pass so they could move east and reinforce Johnston if needed, or prevent Banks from going east himself.

When Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac began moving down the Virginia coast for its Peninsula campaign, Banks received orders to detach a portion of his corps to defend Washington. This prompted Banks to halt Shields’s advance toward Strasburg. Jackson responded to this halt by sending Colonel Turner Ashby’s 700 troopers to harass the Shields’s Federals now between Strasburg and Winchester.

Skirmishing occurred at multiple points, highlighted by an engagement on the 19th in which Ashby’s men fought a force 10 times their size with such ferocity that the Federals thought they were facing “Jackson’s whole force.” The troopers seemed to appear out of nowhere, attacking from various angles with support from just two or three cannon. Ashby soon gained a reputation as “the terror and the wizard of the Shenandoah.”

The next day, Ashby reported that Shields’s division was falling back to Winchester, while another of Banks’s divisions was moving east to protect Washington. Jackson, acting on orders from Johnston to prevent the Federals from reinforcing McClellan, organized his new recruits (including noted engineer and cartographer Jedediah Hotchkiss) and planned to pursue Shields northward.

But first Jackson had to address a problem in which men who had been drafted into his ranks were refusing to fight. These were mainly area pacifists such as Quakers and Mennonites who objected to war of any kind. To attain “the highest degree of efficiency” and encourage “loyal feelings and co-operation,” Jackson employed these men in non-combatant roles such as teamsters and cooks. This would “not only enable many volunteers to return to the ranks, but will also save many valuable horses and other public property in addition to arms.”

On March 22, Jackson’s Confederates embarked on what became a legendary campaign, leaving Mount Jackson and marching 26 miles to Strasburg by evening. The speed in which they moved to Strasburg helped earn the men their nickname of the “Foot Cavalry.” Meanwhile, Ashby’s troopers clashed with Federals outside Kernstown, a few miles south of Winchester. The Confederates held off an entire brigade, wounding Shields in the process, before finally falling back to Strasburg.

That night, Ashby erroneously reported that most of Shields’s division had fallen back to Harpers Ferry, leaving just 4,000 in the Winchester area (Shields actually had closer to 8,000 men, or nearly double Jackson’s number). Jackson, determined to give battle before the Federals could leave the Valley, planned to attack the next day. Banks, who returned to Washington with his other division, refused to believe that Jackson would try it.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Clark, Champ, Decoying the Yanks: Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-66; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 136, 139-40, 144-45; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 270; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 117, 121-22, 124-25; Klein, Frederic S., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 415; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 178-79, 183-84, 186-87

The Peninsula Campaign Finally Begins

March 17, 1862 – Major General George B. McClellan finally mobilized the Army of the Potomac to begin his grand offensive to destroy the Confederacy.

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

The Confederate withdrawal from northern Virginia blocked McClellan’s proposed army landing at Urbanna. However, with the U.S.S. Monitor now controlling the Hampton Roads area, McClellan planned to move his army further south down Virginia’s coast to land at Fort Monroe, on the Peninsula between the York and James rivers. As news of this planned landing reached Richmond, panic spread among the residents. General John H. Winder, the city’s provost marshal, relocated the passport office to accommodate the rush of people trying to leave town.

On March 13, McClellan met with his four new corps commanders at Fairfax Court House and shared his plan for landing the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula. Fort Monroe, three miles across Hampton Roads from Confederate-held Norfolk, would be the Federals’ supply base. McClellan asserted that not only would a march from Fort Monroe to Richmond be 10 miles shorter than one from Manassas Junction to the same place, but the Peninsula roads were usable any time of year. Even better, the navy could support the advance from the York River.

The corps commanders, along with President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, agreed to McClellan’s plan on four conditions:

  • The ironclad C.S.S. Virginia must be kept from interfering
  • There must be enough transports to take the massive army down the coast
  • The Federal navy must neutralize the Confederate guns on the York River
  • A portion of the army must be left at Washington to provide “an entire feeling of security for its safety from menace.” (The generals could not agree on how many men should be left, but the average was around 40,000.)

McClellan dispatched Major General Irvin McDowell to Washington with the signatures of the four corps commanders endorsing the plan. Lincoln and Stanton added a statement to the form urging action: “Move the remainder of the force down the Potomac, choosing a new base at Fortress Monroe, or anywhere between here and there, or, at all events, move such remainder of the army at once in pursuit of the enemy by some route.”

McClellan spent the next day planning to withdraw his army to Alexandria and divide it into corps in accordance with Lincoln’s order to create a corps structure. The five new army corps were to be commanded by Major Generals McDowell, Edwin V. Sumner, Samuel P. Heintzelman, Erasmus D. Keyes, and Nathaniel P. Banks (currently stationed in the Shenandoah Valley). Lincoln had selected these corps commanders to better enable McClellan to lead overall army operations.

By the 17th, McClellan was finally ready to “give the death-blow to the rebellion that has distracted our once happy country.” It had taken over seven months, but he had forged an army “magnificent in material, admirable in discipline and instruction, excellently equipped and armed.” The men marched through Alexandria and boarded transports that would take them down the Potomac River, into Chesapeake Bay, and on to Fort Monroe. This would outflank the Confederates on the Rappahannock River and put the army on a lightly defended path leading northwest to Richmond.

The largest army ever assembled in North America embarked on the largest amphibious operation ever attempted in the Western Hemisphere. In an incredible display of logistical prowess, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs assembled 113 steamers, 188 schooners, and 88 barges to transport 121,500 officers and men, 44 artillery batteries bearing 300 guns, 14,592 animals, 1,150 wagons, 74 ambulances, pontoon bridges, telegraph wire, and enormous quantities of supplies and equipment. This effort was supported by a state-of-the-art navy.

McClellan watched the first group leave the wharf and later issued a proclamation to his men:

“I will bring you now face to face with the rebels, and only pray that God may defend the right… ever bear in mind that my fate is linked with yours… I am to watch over you as a parent over his children; and you know that your General loves you from the depths of his heart. It shall be my care… to gain success with the least possible loss.”

The 200-mile transfer to Fort Monroe began one day ahead of Lincoln’s deadline and was scheduled to take three weeks. McClellan moved the troops by division, which some saw as a disregard for Lincoln’s corps structure. In a last minute change, McClellan moved the divisions of McDowell’s corps from first to last in the order of embarkation. This decision later proved fateful.

As the troops headed down the Potomac, McClellan wrote to Stanton, “The worst is over. Rely upon it that I will carry this thing through handsomely.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 74-76; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 89-93; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 140, 143; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 268-69; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 122, 124; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 428-31; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 198-200; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 184, 186; 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. 424; Spearman, Charles M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 570; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 92-94, 110

McClellan Invades Northern Virginia

March 10, 1862 – General-in-Chief George B. McClellan’s Federals finally entered northern Virginia, but the Confederate retreat from that area jeopardized McClellan’s overall strategy.

Federal General-in-Chief George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org

Federal General-in-Chief George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org

On the night of the 9th, President Abraham Lincoln met with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and General McClellan. Lincoln announced that he had received word of General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Potomac falling back behind the Rappahannock River. If true, this would block McClellan’s planned landing at Urbanna. Lincoln’s secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, recorded that McClellan received the news “with incredulity which at last gave way to stupefaction.”

McClellan, who had said for months that Johnston’s Confederates were too strong to confront, now hurried his own Army of the Potomac to pursue them. As General Philip Kearny’s Federals chased the Confederate rear guard, the bulk of McClellan’s army poured across the Potomac River into northern Virginia:

  • General Irvin McDowell’s division moved from Arlington to Centreville
  • General Edwin V. Sumner’s division occupied Manassas Junction
  • Other divisions advanced to Fairfax Court House

They found little more than wrecked railroad equipment and burned supplies. Even worse, the Federals soon discovered that many of the fortifications that McClellan had considered impregnable were manned by “Quaker guns,” or logs painted black to resemble cannon. Moreover, the abandoned camps indicated that no more than 50,000 enemy troops, or one-third the size of the force that McClellan had guessed, could have been stationed there.

A New York Tribune reporter submitted his article from what he called “Camp Disappointment, near Centreville.” Another correspondent stated that “the fancied impregnability of the position turns out to be a sham.” One reporter wrote, “Utterly dispirited, ashamed, and humiliated, I return from this visit to the rebel stronghold, feeling that their retreat is our defeat.”

Still, McClellan maintained that the abandoned defenses were “quite a formidable series of works.” While Johnston had held the line largely through bluff, he had been given enough time to build very strong defenses in certain points, especially overlooking a likely Federal approach northeast from Centreville. McClellan asserted that this area would have been “somewhat uncomfortable for new troops to carry by storm.”

Although Johnston’s withdrawal allowed for a deeper Federal probe into Virginia, Federal officials, particularly the Radical Republicans and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, were generally unimpressed with McClellan’s “hollow victory.” After McDowell gave him a tour of the Bull Run battlefield, McClellan directed the army to fall back to Alexandria while he pondered his next move.

The Urbanna plan was no longer tenable, but McClellan did not want to altogether abandon the idea of moving down the Virginia coast. When the U.S.S. Monitor recently drove the C.S.S. Virginia away from Hampton Roads, it opened the possibility for McClellan to move his army even further down the coast. He could land the Federals at Fort Monroe, on the peninsula formed by the York and James rivers. From there he could advance 70 miles up to Richmond, with only two waterways in his path.

McClellan, having previously discussed this possibility with Stanton, wired him from Fairfax Court House:

“I have just returned from a ride of more than 40 miles… The rebels have left all their positions, and, from the information obtained during our ride to-day, I am satisfied that they have fallen behind the Rapidan, holding Fredericksburg and Gordonsville… They left many wagons, some caissons, clothing, ammunition, personal baggage, etc… Having fully consulted with General McDowell, I propose occupying Manassas with a portion of Banks’s command, and then at once throwing all forces I can concentrate upon the line agreed upon last week… I presume you will approve this course…”

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 83, 86-87; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13385-93; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 183; 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. 423-24; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q162

The Battle of the Ironclads

March 9, 1862 – A naval duel at Hampton Roads off the Virginia coast marked the first time in history that two ironclad warships did battle.

After nearly destroying the Federal blockading fleet the day before, the C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimac) returned to Hampton Roads on the 9th. The Virginia’s commander, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, intended to finish off the grounded Federal flagship, the U.S.S. Minnesota. However, the Federal ironclad U.S.S. Monitor, designed to neutralize the Virginia, was waiting nearby.

The stationary Minnesota began firing at the Virginia as she closed to within a mile, but no damage was done. The Monitor then answered signals that the enemy was approaching by coming out to confront her. A midshipman aboard the Virginia recalled, “We thought at first it was a raft on which one of the Minnesota’s boilers was being taken to shore for repairs.”

The Monitor did not seem nearly as formidable as the Virginia, but she was iron-plated just like her Confederate adversary. The Monitor was also faster and more maneuverable than her lumbering opponent, with a more stable engine and a 10 1/2-foot draft as opposed to the Virginia’s 21-foot draft. Although the Virginia outgunned the Federal ship 10 to two, the Monitor’s two guns were on an innovative revolving turret.

The Monitor fired first, hitting the Virginia with a shot at the waterline. It did no damage, but the Confederate crewmen were startled to see such a strange craft firing on them. A Federal aboard the Monitor said, “You can see surprise in a ship just as you can see it in a man, and there was surprise all over the Merrimac.”

The Virginia opened fire at 8:06 a.m. with a shot that passed over the Monitor and struck the Minnesota. The Minnesota and Federal shore batteries returned fire as the ironclads closed in on each other. Lieutenant John L. Worden, the Monitor’s commander, stopped his engines and allowed his ship to drift alongside the Virginia, as both crews began firing as fast as they could from just a few yards apart. The Monitor’s revolving turret was struck twice, but the mechanism continued functioning properly.

Virginia (Merrimac) v. Monitor | Image Credit: thehistorybomb.com

Virginia (Merrimac) v. Monitor | Image Credit: thehistorybomb.com

The Monitor’s heavy shot managed to crack the Virginia’s iron plating in some places, but for the most part, her broadsides bounced or slid off the Confederate vessel’s armor “with no more effect… than so many pebblestones thrown by a child.” Conversely, the Monitor sat so low on the water that most of the Virginia’s shots passed harmlessly overhead.

Thousands of spectators gathered on shore to watch the ironclads battle “mercilessly, but ineffectively” for four hours. With his shots having no effect, Worden directed his men to ram the Virginia’s stern and try disabling her propeller. The Monitor narrowly missed, and the firing resumed. As the ships circled each other, the Monitor came perpendicular to the Virginia, and Jones directed his Confederates to ram her. But Worden easily evaded the larger, slower vessel.

Near noon, the Monitor disengaged to replenish her ammunition. The Virginia steamed to within 10 yards and fired a round that struck the pilot house, sending iron splinters through the viewing slit and partially blinding Worden. Thinking that the pilot house had been seriously damaged, he ordered a withdrawal and retired to quarters, relinquishing command to Lieutenant Samuel D. Greene.

Meanwhile, the Virginia’s unstable engine began struggling and she went aground. Greene ordered his Federals to reengage the Confederates, but by the time they returned, the Virginia had broken free and was withdrawing back to Sewell’s Point, under the cover of Confederate artillery. The vessel was low on ammunition and taking on water due to the engine problems, and Jones feared that she could be grounded again in the lowering tides. The battle was over.

The Monitor, which had been hit 23 times, resumed guard duty alongside the Minnesota. The Virginia’s engine proved too ineffective to pose any further threat to the Federal naval fleet on the Atlantic. Nevertheless, this began a new era in naval warfare, as the Monitor’s chief engineer Alban Stimers wrote to his father that this battle “was the first of its kind that ever occurred in history.” Captain John Dahlgren noted, “Now comes the reign of iron–and cased sloops are to take the place of wooden ships.” As of this date, the wooden navies of the world were obsolete.

Both the exhausted crews were mutually happy to be done with each other, and they both claimed victory. The Monitor may have won a strategic victory by preventing the Virginia from accomplishing her mission to destroy the Federal blockading fleet. However, the Confederates may have won a psychological victory by making the Federal navy expend large amounts of resources to defend against enemy ironclads in the future. The resources included vessels that had originally been assigned to support Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula campaign.

At Washington, panic over the prospect of the Virginia steaming up the Potomac turned to jubilation when Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox telegraphed from Fort Monroe at 9 p.m.: “These two ironclad vessels fought part of the time touching each other, from 8 a.m. to noon, when the Merrimac retired… The Monitor is uninjured and ready at any moment to repel another attack.” This meant that Fort Monroe was safe for now, McClellan’s Peninsula campaign could proceed, and Washington would not fall under naval bombardment.

Soon “Monitor fever” swept the northern states in celebration of the Monitor’s defense of Hampton Roads. Naval officials quickly focused on constructing more Monitor-class vessels for the war effort. Worden later received a vote of thanks from Congress and a promotion to captain for leading the crew of the Monitor in this fight.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 72-74; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 85; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 179; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (9 Mar 1862); Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 46; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 385-86, 504; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 139; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 120-21; Keefer, Kimberly A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 842-43; 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. 181-82; 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. 375-76; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition), p. 101-05; 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. 279; 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. 62; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 529-30

The C.S.S. Virginia Attacks

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.

C.S.S. Virginia | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

C.S.S. Virginia | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.”

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References

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

Johnston Abandons Manassas Junction

March 5, 1862 – General Joseph E. Johnston issued orders to withdraw his Confederate Army of the Potomac from its Manassas Junction-Centreville line southward to the Rappahannock River, almost halfway to the Confederate capital at Richmond.

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Confederate General Jeb Stuart notified Johnston of “unusual activity” across the Potomac River from Dumfries, Virginia, which was Johnston’s right flank. Johnston both expected and feared that this foreshadowed an attack by Federal General-in-Chief George B. McClellan’s 120,000-man Army of the Potomac. If McClellan struck Johnston’s right, he could wedge his Federals between Johnston’s army and Richmond.

Johnston and President Jefferson Davis had recently conferred and agreed that if McClellan made such a move, retreat may be necessary. But they had not agreed on a timetable, leaving Davis to hope that Johnston would stand his ground until the last possible moment before falling back. However, without consulting his superiors, Johnston ordered all his 42,000 men east of the Blue Ridge to withdraw immediately.

Unaware that Johnston was already preparing to retreat, Davis wrote him on the 6th acknowledging the possibility of such a move:

“Notwithstanding the threatening position of the enemy, I infer from your account of the roads and streams that his active operations must be for some time delayed, and thus I am permitted to hope that you will be able to mobilize your army by the removal of your heavy ordnance and such stores as are not required for active operations, so that, whenever you are required to move, it may be without public loss and without impediment to celerity…”

In their hasty withdrawal, the Confederates left behind large quantities of supplies and equipment. They distributed other goods to nearby farmers before destroying a meatpacking facility at Thoroughfare Gap that had stored a million pounds of meat. Johnston soon established new defensive positions 25 miles south on either side of the Rappahannock’s north fork.

Meanwhile, McClellan was busy developing his plan to move the Federal army by water to Urbanna, at the mouth of the Rappahannock on the Virginia coast. Like Davis, McClellan did not know that Johnston’s Confederates were abandoning such key points as Manassas Junction, Dumfries, Evansport, and Occoquan. However, Federal General Philip Kearny received word of Johnston’s withdrawal and sent a brigade into northern Virginia without orders. They marched along the railroad toward Manassas Junction, arriving at Burke’s Station, six miles east of Centreville, on the 10th. By then, the Confederates were long gone.

Kearny sent cavalry scouts forward, and they clashed with the Confederate rear guard before disengaging. As Johnston established new defenses, Davis, still unaware he had retreated, telegraphed: “Further assurance given to me this day that you shall be promptly and adequately reenforced, so as to enable you to maintain your position and resume first policy (an offensive) when the roads will permit.” But Johnston was not only already at the Rappahannock, he was considering falling back even further to the Rapidan River.

Davis did not receive official confirmation that Johnston had abandoned the Manassas Junction-Centreville line until three days later, on the 13th. Davis responded to this news on March 15:

“I have received your letter of the 13th instant, giving the first official account I have received of the retrograde movement of your army. Your letter would lead me to infer that others had been sent to apprise me of your plans and movements. If so, they have not reached me; and, before the receipt of yours of the 13th, I was as much in the dark as to your purposes, condition, and necessities as at the time of our conversation on the subject about a month since. It is true I have had many and alarming reports of great destruction of ammunition, camp-equipage, and provisions, indicating precipitate retreat; but, having heard of no cause for such a sudden movement, I was at a loss to believe it. I have not the requisite topographical knowledge for the selection of your new position. I had intended that you should determine that question; and for this purpose a corps of engineers was furnished to make a careful examination of the country to aid you in your decision. The question of throwing troops into Richmond is contingent upon reverses in the West and Southeast. The immediate necessity for such a movement is not anticipated.”

Johnston’s withdrawal enraged Davis, as it cost the Confederacy millions of dollars in much-needed supplies and equipment. But once done, it could not be undone.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 83, 86-87; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (7 Mar 1862); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 8123, 8136-47; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13385-93; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 138; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 238-39; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 118; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3149; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 179-80, 181-83; 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. 423-24; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q162