Tag Archives: U.S.S. Monitor

The End of the U.S.S. Monitor

December 30, 1862 – The first Federal ironclad spent its last evening above water before foundering off the coast of North Carolina.

The U.S.S. Monitor left Hampton Roads, Virginia, on the 29th, under tow from the side-wheeler U.S.S. Rhode Island. The ironclad was slated to participate in an attack on Fort Caswell, North Carolina, before continuing down the coast to join the blockade of Charleston. The journey was incident-free on the first day.

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

On the second day, the ships approached the dangerous area of Cape Hatteras, known by sailors as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Severe winds produced rough waves as night fell, prompting the Monitor’s paymaster to write, “I have been through a night of horrors that would have appalled the stoutest heart. The heavy seas rolled over our bow dashing against the pilot house & surging aft, would strike the solid turret with a force to make it tremble.”

The paymaster stated that the ironclad’s bow “would rise on a huge billow & before she could sink into the intervening hollow, the succeeding wave would strike under her heavy armour with a report like thunder & a violence that threatened to tear (her) apart.”

After midnight, water flooded the Monitor’s engine room and extinguished the fires needed to run the pumps. The ship’s crew used distress rockets to signal the Rhode Island that she was sinking, and crewmen from the Rhode Island hurried to launch their rescue boats.

The paymaster wrote, “Words cannot depict the agony of those moments as our little company gathered on top of the turret… with a mass of sinking iron beneath them. Seconds lengthened into hours & minutes into years. Finally the boats arrived,” as “mountains of water were rushing along our decks and foaming along our sides” and the boats “were pitching & tossing about on them and crashing against our sides.”

A fireman aboard the Monitor stayed in the engine room working a manual pump “until the water was up to my knees and the Cylinders to the Pumping Engines were under Water and stoped (sic).” He rushed onto the deck and was blown into the sea; he managed to grab a rope and haul his way into one of the rescue boats.

Men of the Rhode Island rescued 47 of the Monitor’s crewmen, while 16 men went down with the ship. Although she had participated in the first-ever Battle of the Ironclads, she had never been very seaworthy. As the paymaster wrote his wife, “The Monitor is no more. What the fire of the enemy failed to do, the elements have accomplished.”

—–

References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 248; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 124-25; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 248; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 302; 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. 133-34; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 504; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-65; 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), Q462

The Battle of Drewry’s Bluff

May 15, 1862 – Confederate batteries repulsed the advance of a Federal naval fleet on the James River, which helped ease some of the panic spreading throughout the Confederate capital of Richmond.

The day after crewmen of the C.S.S. Virginia destroyed their vessel, they assembled under their commander, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, at Drewry’s Bluff. Once owned by a man named Drewry, this was a 100-foot-high eminence on the north bank of a sharp bend in the James, about seven miles from Richmond. It was officially known as Fort Darling, and it was the last stronghold preventing Federal naval forces from reaching Richmond via the James River.

Confederate gun overlooking Drewry's Bluff | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Confederate gun overlooking Drewry’s Bluff | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The crewmen were assigned to help man the eight heavy cannon on the bluff. The overall fort commander, General George W.C. Lee (oldest son of Robert E. Lee), had directed the guns’ placements, as well as the placement of obstructions (including the C.S.S. Jamestown) in a narrow point of the river. The C.S.S. Patrick Henry, a civilian steamer with heavy guns, was stationed in front of Drewry’s Bluff.

The fortification of Fort Darling was a joint effort by the Confederate army, navy, and marines, led by both Commander Ebenezer Ferrand of the navy and General William Mahone of the army. After working tirelessly in the rain for two days, the Confederates commanded all potential river approaches.

The Federal James River Flotilla, led by Commander John Rodgers, began moving up the James toward the Confederate capital on the 14th. The flotilla consisted of the ironclads U.S.S. Monitor and Galena (a new corvette), and the wooden ships U.S.S. Aroostook, Naugatuck, and Port Royal. The crews had orders from Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough to “get up to Richmond, all with the least possible delay, and shell the city to a surrender.” The navy hoped to capture Richmond as it had captured New Orleans the previous month.

Panic swept Richmond as residents realized that they were now under threat from Federal army forces on the Peninsula and naval forces on the James. Alarm bells rang in the capital as the ships continued upriver on May 15, with Confederate sharpshooters firing on them from rifle pits on shore. In a public meeting outside City Hall, Virginia Governor John Letcher declared:

“Some one said to me the other day, that the duty of surrendering the city would devolve either upon the president, the mayor, or myself. I said to him if the demand is made upon me, with the alternative to surrender or be shelled, I shall reply, bombard and be damned!”

Richmond Mayor Joseph C. Mayo told his constituents:

“I say now, and will abide by it, when the citizens of Richmond demand on me to surrender the capital of Virginia and of the Confederacy to the enemy they must find some other man to fill my place. I will resign the mayoralty. And when that other man elected in my stead shall deliver up the city, I hope I have physical courage and strength enough left to shoulder a musket and go into the ranks.”

A committee met with President Jefferson Davis to get his assurance that the Confederate government would help local officials defend the city to the end. The meeting was interrupted by a message stating that Federal warships were coming up the James River. Davis told the committee members, “This manifestly concludes the matter.”

The vessels came in sight around 7:35 a.m., with the Galena and Monitor emerging from the fog in the lead. As the Confederate gunners opened fire, the Galena dropped anchor about 600 yards from Fort Darling and began firing back. The gun noise rattled windows in Richmond.

Action at Drewry's Bluff | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Action at Drewry’s Bluff | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

With the three wooden ships staying out of range, the Monitor steamed past the Galena to draw fire but could not elevate the guns in her revolving turret high enough to hit the Confederates on the bluff. The Monitor moved back downriver, near the wooden ships, to find her range. But from that distance, her smoothbore Dahlgren guns were less effective. The Monitor also drew too much water to become fully engaged. This allowed the Confederates to focus primarily on the Galena.

Commander Rodgers reported that “balls came through, and many men were killed with fragments of her own iron.” The Galena sustained large holes in her deck from the plunging fire of shot and shell. The Patrick Henry connected with an 8-inch solid shot through the Galena’s bow port, and the ship was also running low on ammunition. At 11:05, Rodgers ordered her to withdraw, after a shot sparked a fire.

Meanwhile, the Port Royal took a hit on the forward wheel and another below the waterline, forcing her to fall back. The Naugatuck took heavy punishment and was rendered useless when her 100-pound Parrott gun exploded upon firing. The Aroostook stayed out of range.

The rest of the flotilla followed the Galena when she withdrew downriver, and the Confederates hollered three cheers for their victory. Richmond residents also celebrated, but only briefly because Major General George B. McClellan’s army still threatened them from the Peninsula.

The Federals lost 13 killed and 11 wounded aboard the Galena, along with three others wounded on the wooden ships. Some Federals had been killed or wounded by sharpshooters on the riverbanks. Paymaster William Keeler of the Monitor, which was hit three times but sustained no casualties, went aboard the Galena and later wrote his wife:

“Here was a body with the head, one arm & part of the breast torn off by a bursting shell, another with the top of his head taken off the brains still steaming on the deck, partly across him lay one with both legs taken off at the hips & at a little distance another completely disemboweled.”

The Galena sustained 50 hits, with 18 piercing the four-inch plating and reaching the wooden hull. The Monitor captain reported that “the action was most gallantly fought against great odds, and with the usual effect against earthworks. It was impossible to reduce such works, except with the aid of a land force.”

Corporal John B. Mackie of the Galena’s Marine Guard later became the first U.S. marine awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, for bravery under fire in this battle. Navy Department General Order No. 17, dated July 10, 1863, allowed U.S. marines to be eligible for the award.

The Confederates lost seven killed and eight wounded. After the victory, President Davis wrote his wife Varina:

“The panic here has subsided and with increasing confidence there has arisen a desire to see the city destroyed rather than surrendered. The great temporal object is to secure our independence and they who engage in strife for personal or party aggrandisement, deserve contemptuous forgetfulness.”

The Federal repulse was sudden and surprising to many who expected the ships to easily bypass the obstructions and batteries. But the Federals did benefit somewhat from the incursion: they had forced the Confederates to obstruct the river, which prevented them from going down just as it kept the Federals from coming up. It also revealed an ideal spot for a Federal army landing, just 10 miles from Richmond, if McClellan opted to move his supply base from the York to the James. Few knew at the time how important Harrison’s Landing would become.

—–

References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 128-29; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13705-14; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 401-02; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 170-71; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 416; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 151, 153; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3418-30; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 296; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 211-13; 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. 427; 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. 330-31, 383-85; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640-41; 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. 227, 571

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.

—–

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 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.

—–

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.”

—–

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.

—–

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