Tag Archives: C.S.S. Virginia

The Destruction of the C.S.S. Virginia

May 11, 1862 – The ironclad that had terrified the Federals was destroyed to prevent capture. This paved the way for the Federal naval fleet to advance up the James River to threaten Richmond.

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

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

The fall of Norfolk and the Gosport Navy Yard left the mighty C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimac) without a port. Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall, commanding the Confederate naval squadron on the James, initially tried withdrawing the Virginia to Harrison’s Landing, 35 miles upriver. The ship’s draft was lowered from 21 to 18 feet, but she still could not clear the shoals.

Tattnall met with his officers, and they acknowledged that the Virginia could not stay at Norfolk because the Federals would capture her, she could not go upriver over the shoals, and she could not go downriver into Chesapeake Bay because the Federal blockading fleet awaited her. Therefore, they decided that the Virginia must be destroyed.

The vessel’s crew towed her to Craney Island and set her on fire. The flames burned for about an hour before reaching the 16-ton powder keg on board. The ship exploded at 4:58 a.m. After destroying the Virginia, her crew marched up the south side of the James to Suffolk, took a train to Richmond, and became part of the garrison defending Fort Darling on Drewry’s Bluff against a potential Federal naval advance up the James.

Federal crewmen aboard the U.S.S. Dakota, two and a half miles away, could see the massive explosion. An officer informed Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron from his flagship, the U.S.S. Minnesota. Goldsborough, who had planned to pit the ironclad U.S.S. Monitor against the Virginia once more, ordered his squadron to advance upriver and “reduce all of the works of the enemy as they go along.” From there, they were to “get up to Richmond, all with the least possible delay, and shell the city to a surrender.”

Commander John Rodgers headed the squadron, which included the ironclads U.S.S. Monitor and Galena. They began steaming up the James in the hopes of forcing Richmond’s surrender just as Admiral David G. Farragut had taken New Orleans in April. The Federals secured Sewell’s Point and Craney Island en route. But the Confederates at Fort Darling, eight miles in front of the Confederate capital, stood in their way.

President Abraham Lincoln was told the good news that the Virginia had been destroyed as he returned to Washington from Fort Monroe. He telegraphed Major General Henry W. Halleck in Mississippi: “Norfolk in our possession. Merrimac blown up, & Monitor & other boats going up James River to Richmond. Be very sure to sustain no reverse in your Department.”

Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula, learned of the Virginia’s demise from West Point. He concurred with Goldsborough’s order to move the naval fleet up the James to Richmond.

A Confederate court of inquiry later found that the Virginia’s destruction had been unnecessary. Tattnall argued that he and his crew had desperately tried to lighten the ship before finally ordering the explosion. He demanded a court-martial to refute the court’s findings. Confederate officials ultimately granted Tattnall’s request and exonerated him of any wrongdoing.

The fall of Norfolk had been imminent for several weeks, leading many southerners to question why Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory did not take greater precautions to ensure the Virginia’s security. Others argued that Mallory should have at least sided with Tattnall and waived the court-martial.

The Confederacy suffered an irreparable loss with the Virginia’s destruction. This ensured that the Federal blockade would not only be maintained, but it would be gradually strengthened as the war went on.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 125-27; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (11 May 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 169; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 414-15; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 151; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 210; 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, 2012), p. 109; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 329; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 335, 571, 742; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 63

Confederates Abandon Norfolk

May 9, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln personally directed an operation that resulted in capturing one of the Confederacy’s most important naval bases.

As elements of the Federal and Confederate armies clashed at Williamsburg, Lincoln left the Washington Navy Yard aboard the five-gun Treasury cutter Miami, bound for Fort Monroe. Lincoln’s secretary stated that the president was going “to ascertain by personal observation whether some further vigilance and vigor might not be infused into the operations of the army and navy at that point.” Joining the president were Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and General Egbert Viele.

Part of the trip’s intent was to see if Norfolk could be captured now that Yorktown had fallen. Norfolk, on the south side of the James River estuary, housed the vital Gosport Navy Yard for the Confederacy and was home to the powerful ironclad C.S.S. Virginia. Lincoln and his fellow travelers hoped to end the Virginia’s reign of terror over the Federal blockading fleet.

Gen J.E. Wool | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Gen J.E. Wool | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Miami reached Fort Monroe on the night of May 6, after a 27-hour trip. When Lincoln was informed that Major General George B. McClellan would not be meeting with him because he was busy directing operations at Williamsburg, he personally inspected the area around Hampton Roads. Seeing that Norfolk, now isolated due to the fall of Yorktown, could be easily taken, Lincoln turned to 78-year-old Major General John E. Wool, commanding the Federals at Fort Monroe, to lay out a plan to capture the town.

On May 8, a Confederate tugboat captain who had deserted informed the Federals that Major General Benjamin Huger was hurriedly evacuating his 9,000 Confederates from Norfolk. Lincoln ordered a naval squadron–consisting of the U.S.S. Monitor, Dacotah, Naugatuck, Seminole, and Susquehanna–to bombard Sewell’s Point, about seven and a half miles north of Norfolk, in preparation for a troop landing. However, the Virginia arrived to push the Federal vessels back to Fort Monroe.

As Lincoln inspected Hampton Roads for a potential troop landing on the 9th, the Confederates evacuated Norfolk, losing the town they had captured in April 1861. Lincoln directed the U.S.S. Monitor to see if Confederates had abandoned their batteries at Sewell’s Point. Learning that they had, Lincoln ordered Wool to land Federals on Willoughby Spit, away from the enemy batteries, on the south side of Hampton Roads. That night, about 5,000 Federals led by Wool and Treasury Secretary Chase left Fort Monroe.

The Federals reached Norfolk without resistance, with Mayor William W. Lamb and other municipal officials meeting Wool and Chase outside the city. Lamb handed keys to the city to the Federals. He then stretched out the surrender ceremony long enough for the last Confederates to destroy the Gosport Navy Yard and anything else useful to the Federals before escaping.

The loss of Norfolk devastated the Confederacy. It also threatened to end the career of the C.S.S. Virginia, which was now without a base. The Confederates retreated up the south side of the James, planning to make their next stand at Drewry’s Bluff. Lincoln triumphantly visited both Norfolk and Portsmouth the following day. Norfolk was placed under martial law, with General Viele governing, for the rest of the war.

The fall of Yorktown effectively doomed Norfolk, but Lincoln’s direct involvement made it happen faster than it otherwise would have. An officer of the Monitor credited Lincoln with “stirring up dry bones,” referring to the aging General Wool and Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The officer wrote, “It is extremely fortunate that the President came down when he did–he seems to have infused new life into everything, even the superannuated old fogies began to show some signs of life.”

Chase told Lincoln about the operations and then wrote his daughter: “So has ended a brilliant week’s campaign of the President, for I think it quite certain that if he had not come down, (Norfolk) would still have been in possession of the enemy and the Merrimac (i.e., Virginia) as grim and defiant and as much a terror as ever.” McClellan did not acknowledge either Norfolk’s fall or Lincoln’s involvement.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124-25; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (10 May 1862); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15279-89; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 167-68; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7408-19; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 414-15; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 149-50; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3405-18; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 436-39; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 209-10; 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, 2012), p. 108; 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), Q262

The Siege of Yorktown: Confederate Response

April 14, 1862 – The Confederate high command met at Richmond to consider abandoning the Virginia Peninsula to the numerically superior Federal Army of the Potomac.

Maj Gen George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org

Maj Gen George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org

By this time, Confederate forces were holding the port city of Yorktown against a Federal force three times their size. Major General George B. McClellan, the Federal commander, began directing placement of his heavy siege artillery, opting to lay siege to Yorktown rather than risk a head-on assault. Despite his overwhelming numbers, McClellan believed the Confederate army was much larger than it truly was.

As part of the siege, McClellan relied on the Federal navy to neutralize the two forts on either side of the York River at Yorktown and Gloucester. But this would not be easy. Even though the Federals had a decided advantage in technology with rifled artillery versus smoothbore, the Confederates had 33 guns commanding the entire width of the 1,200-yard river. These gunners did not have to rely on accuracy like the Federal gunboats did. And the Federals would have great difficulty elevating their guns high enough to hit the forts, which were on bluffs above the river. Moreover, the best Federal ships remained in Chesapeake Bay guarding against the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia. So if the Federals would attack these forts at all, they would be doing it at less than full strength.

McClellan urged Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to send his ships past the forts under cover of darkness to land troops behind them, but Goldsborough declined. This prompted McClellan to try finding other ways to penetrate the Yorktown defenses. He soon learned from scouts that there could be a weakness in the Confederate line near Lee’s Mill. McClellan directed IV Corps under Major General Erasmus D. Keyes to exploit it.

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

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

Meanwhile, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston returned to Richmond after inspecting the Yorktown defenses and reported to President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee, Davis’s top advisor, that they were unsatisfactory. Davis called a council of war that included Lee, Johnston, Secretary of War George W. Randolph, and Johnston’s two top subordinates, Major Generals James Longstreet and Gustavus W. Smith.

The conference began at 11 a.m. on the 14th and lasted until 1 a.m. the next morning. Johnston continued arguing that defending Yorktown was a waste of resources. The forts at Yorktown and Gloucester had old smoothbore cannon to face the Federals’ state-of-the-art rifled cannon. There were not enough troops to man the eight-mile-long defensive line, and it was only a matter of time before McClellan’s massive army overran the works.

Johnston strongly urged abandoning the Yorktown-Warwick River line, which meant losing not only Yorktown but the vital Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk as well. Johnston proposed falling back and concentrating all Confederate troops from Virginia and the coasts of the Carolinas and Georgia around Richmond. They would then attack McClellan as he approached Richmond, being nearly 100 miles from his supply base at Fort Monroe. Johnston also offered an alternative plan in which Major General John B. Magruder’s Confederates would fall back to defend Richmond while the rest of the Confederates invaded the North.

Randolph, a former naval officer, objected to both proposals because they meant abandoning the navy yard at Norfolk, and if the yard fell, they would lose the powerful ironclad C.S.S. Virginia stationed there. Losing Norfolk would also leave the Confederacy without a prime naval base from which to develop vessels to break the Federal blockade.

Lee also opposed abandoning the Yorktown-Warwick River line. He asserted that pulling troops from the coastal defenses would leave Charleston and Savannah open for easy capture. Johnston countered that those losses could be regained once McClellan was defeated. Neither Longstreet nor Smith offered an opinion.

The meeting adjourned for dinner and then resumed at Davis’s home at 7 p.m. As the discussion went on, Davis held back judgment but slowly began siding with Lee. After midnight, Davis finally broke the stalemate by voicing support for defending the Yorktown-Warwick River line. Johnston was to continue moving the bulk of his army to that line and absorb Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula into his. Johnston complied with the decision, but he also began preparing to withdraw to Richmond and implement his plan later.

On the Federal side, Keyes directed his 2nd Division under Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith to probe for potential weaknesses at Dam No. 1 to the right of Yorktown, near the center of the Confederate line. McClellan had ordered that the Federals were not to bring on a general battle, but merely stop the Confederates from working on the battery and earthworks there.

After an artillery bombardment on the 16th, Smith launched a reconnaissance in force that easily took the Confederate rifle pits and seized Burnt Chimneys. The Federals were poised to push even farther into the Confederate interior; a general assault might have even destroyed the Confederates’ center and opened the path to Richmond.

However, the Confederates counterattacked, and when the Federals’ call for reinforcements went unanswered, they fell back. Smith tried retaking the position later that evening, but by that time Confederate strength was too great. The Federals sustained 165 casualties in successfully stopping the Confederates from working on the defenses. But they could have accomplished much more had they been reinforced.

In response to President Abraham Lincoln’s request for a progress report, McClellan stated that he was still arranging to besiege Yorktown and needed reinforcements. Meanwhile, Confederate resistance at Burnt Chimneys and other points near Lee’s Mill gave Johnston time to hurry more Confederates to the Peninsula.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 102; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13498; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 160; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 401-02; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 138; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3264-87; Spearman, Charles M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 570

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

Launching the U.S.S. Monitor

January 22, 1862 – Lieutenant John L. Worden reported satisfactory progress on construction of an unnamed vessel slated to become the first Federal ironclad warship.

The U.S.S. Monitor | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The U.S.S. Monitor | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The vessel had been under construction since September 1861 at Long Island, New York. Swedish inventor John Ericsson had pledged to build the ship in just 90 days at a cost of only $275,000. The Federal Naval Ironclad Board, hoping to develop a craft that could challenge the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia (also under construction), enthusiastically approved the plan and even gave Ericsson an extra 10 days to complete it.

Worden, still recovering from several months of Confederate captivity as a prisoner of war, received a message from Joseph Smith of the Ironclad Board on January 11:

“I have only time to say I have named you for the command of the battery under contract with Captain Ericsson, now nearly ready at New York. This vessel is an experiment. I believe you are the right sort of officer to put in command of her.”

Worden responded that he was “induced to believe that she might prove a success.” Five days later, Worden arrived at New York and reported to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles: “… I have this day reported for duty for the command of the U.S.S. Steamer, building for Capt. Ericsson.”

The ship was revolutionary in that she contained 47 patentable inventions. The 172-foot-long vessel was encased in nine layers of iron and operated like a floating raft, with most of the body below the waterline. An inch of iron plating protected the wooden deck, with more iron on the sides to protect against rams and fire.

Topping the deck was a nine-foot-high revolving turret, protected by eight layers of one-inch iron plating. The turret, 20 feet in diameter, housed two cannon that could be fired in any direction. When Ericsson could not get 12-inch guns for the turret, he borrowed two 11-inchers from other ships in the harbor.

Another of Ericsson’s innovations was the engine, which connected to a crankshaft and turned the four-bladed propeller. Capable of reaching a speed of six knots, the smokestack venting the exhaust could be removed during combat.

On January 30, Ericsson launched the vessel from the Greenpoint Shipyard on Long Island. Although Ericsson missed his completion deadline, he still built the warship in 101 days, a timeframe that many thought impossible. In fact, Ericsson completed work on his ship before Confederates completed the C.S.S. Virginia, even though they had a three-month head start.

The warship steamed down the East River in Manhattan on her maiden voyage with a draft of 11 feet, just as Ericsson had predicted. Thousands of onlookers cheered as the strange vessel, with some comparing her to a “cheesebox on a raft.” Ericsson suggested that she be named the Monitor, as “one who admonishes and corrects wrongdoers.”

Worden recruited 57 volunteers to serve as crewmen aboard the U.S.S. Monitor, whose launch would change the course of naval history.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (January 16); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 111, 113, 116, 119; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 98, 103; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 184-85; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 164; 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. 374-75; 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, 2012), p. 99; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 246; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 52-53; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 99

The Fall of Norfolk

April 21, 1861 – Virginia militia seized the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk after Federals partially burned and abandoned the vital naval base.

As delegates to the Virginia Convention considered secession, former Governor Henry Wise had already begun taking steps to secure Norfolk, specifically the Gosport Navy Yard, for the commonwealth. Conversely, U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles ordered Captain Hiram Paulding to assemble 1,000 Marines and “take command of all naval forces there afloat… and should it finally become necessary, you will… destroy the property.”

Charles S. McCauley, commanding 800 officers and men at the Navy Yard, had initially been ordered to do nothing to upset local Virginians, but these orders were soon revised to take valuable ships and equipment out of harm’s way regardless of local reaction. McCauley opted to follow the original orders, refusing to allow U.S.S. Merrimack and three other warships to leave port to avoid possible capture. McCauley also reached an agreement with the Virginia militia commander “that none of the vessels should be removed, not a shot fired except in self defense.”

Despite the arrival of Paulding and his men, McCauley ordered the Navy Yard abandoned and burned. McCauley had decided to evacuate based on an erroneous report that Virginia forces were about to storm the facility; McCauley also worried that some of the southerners on his base might join the Virginians.

On the night of the 20th, the Federals began burning the ship-houses, docks, warehouses, stores, offices, and other property in the yard. McCauley also ordered the destruction of all warships that could not be put out to sea. Federals scuttled nine aged ships of the line: U.S.S. Columbus, Delaware, and Pennsylvania; frigates Columbia, Merrimac, and Raritan; and sloops Dolphin, Germantown, and Plymouth. Five vessels burned to the waterline and four others, including Merrimack, sank in the Elizabeth River after burning. Only three ships escaped. Captain Paulding, who made the final decision to abandon the yard, took U.S.S. Pawnee to defend Washington.

Burning of U.S.S. Merrimack at Norfolk | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Burning of U.S.S. Merrimack at Norfolk | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

All told, the Federals destroyed several million dollars’ worth of property before withdrawing. But in their haste to leave, they left 1,198 guns worth about $7,307,000, some 2,000 barrels of gunpowder, and plants and dry docks enabling the Confederates to repair equipment lost and manufacture even more. Confederates used these facilities to rebuild four vessels, including Merrimack as the first ever ironclad warship, C.S.S. Virginia.

McCauley received widespread criticism from his superiors and the public for his rushed decision to abandon the most valuable naval yard in the U.S. without a fight. Some considered him unfit for duty due to old age and ill-health. Some accused him of drunkenness. And some questioned why the Lincoln administration would put such a man in command of so important a base. A Senate investigating committee report concluded that McCauley had acted hastily and irresponsibly, and he retired into obscurity.

Virginia militia quickly took back the smoldering Gosport Navy Yard after the botched Federal retreat. The Confederacy now had a vital base of operations from which to protect the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina, challenge the Federal navy, and disrupt the blockade. Federals tried making up for the loss by reinforcing other areas around the navy yard, including posting the 4th Massachusetts at Fort Monroe on the nearby tip of the Virginia peninsula between the York and James rivers.

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Sources

  • Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 230-31
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 5770
  • Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 17
  • Delaney, Ned C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 562
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 36-37
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 23-26
  • Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2436
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 60-61, 63-65
  • Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 455
  • 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. 278-79
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 71-72
  • Robertson, James I., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 535
  • Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 529-30