Thursday, March 8, 2012

Brooks D. Simpson on the Battle of Hampton Roads: CSS Virginia vs USS Monitor, March 9, 1862

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, professor of history, Arizona State University and co-editor of The Civil War: The First Year

As Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones looked out across the waters of Hampton Roads on the morning of March 9, 1862, he could appreciate what his vessel, the ironclad CSS Virginia, had achieved the previous day. There was the shattered and mostly submerged hull of the USS Cumberland, which the Virginia had rammed in mid-afternoon as the opening act of its reign of terror on the Union squadron; nearby were the smoldering remains of another frigate, the USS Congress, which had been knocked apart by a systematic bombardment before exploding just after midnight. Now Jones was headed to finish up the job by attacking a third frigate, the USS Minnesota, which had run aground.

But Jones knew that the Minnesota would not be alone. The previous evening one of his pilots, peering across the water, saw a strange vessel illuminated by the burning hull of the Congress. Word spread that it might be none other than the long-rumored counterpart to the Virginia, the USS Monitor, designed by Swedish inventor John Ericsson and built at Greenpoint, Brooklyn. And so it was: if the Virginia had spent the afternoon of March 8 reducing wooden vessels to splinters, it would now confront a vessel that, in the eyes of one observer, looked like a “cheesebox on a raft,” that cheesebox being a turret that rotated to aim its two guns at its target.

For Lieutenant Jones, who had taken command of the Virginia when its original commander, Captain Franklin Buchanan, had been wounded by rifle fire, it was a welcome challenge. True, his ironclad, built in Norfolk’s Gosport Navy Yard upon what remained of the wooden hull and steam engines of an abandoned Union frigate, the USS Merrimack, found maneuvering difficult and time-consuming. However, he badly outgunned his foe fivefold, and Jones thought he would be able to reduce the Minnesota while fending off the Yankee monster. The two ironclads closed to a few dozen yards, with the Monitor proving far more nimble as it dodged around the Virginia while keeping up a steady rate of fire. At one point the Virginia ran ashore, leaving it an easy target; an effort by Jones to ram its foe proved ineffective.
Battle between the Virginia and the Monitor,
from an 1871 wood engraving
(A.S. Barnes & Co)

After three hours of inconclusive combat the Monitor pulled back into shallow water. Its commander, Lieutenant John L. Worden, had been blinded by fragments from one of the Virginia’s shells, and the crew sought to regroup before venturing forth again. At first the Virginia awaited a renewal of the clash; then, as the tide receded, it made its way back to the navy yard lest it find itself unable to make its way across the bar and return to safety. Upon inspecting the damage Jones saw that the Monitor had done good work on the iron plating of the Virginia; ironically, it had been the thick wood walls of the vessel that had saved the day in a few cases.

Much would be made of the so-called first clash of the ironclads as sounding the death knell for wooden ships. Eventually this would be the case: but these two vessels were not the first ironclad ships afloat. The British and French navies had already deployed ironclads, and ironclad vessels had been used by both Union and Confederate forces elsewhere. Nor would they fight again, although each sought to engage the other over the next two months. Moreover, their existence proved short-lived. The Confederates destroyed the Virginia upon abandoning Norfolk in May 1862; its presence may have provided more telling service in causing an already-cautious George B. McClellan to move deliberately in his campaign against Richmond along the peninsula north of the James River. During that time the Monitor patrolled Hampton Roads, calling forth the following description from Nathaniel Hawthorne: “It could not be called a vessel at all; it was a machine. . . . It was ugly, questionable, suspicious, evidently mischievous,” even “devilish.” In short, it was “the new war-fiend,” but it would not survive the year, sinking on New Year’s Eve in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

Not everyone embraced the technological advances embodied in the iron ships. As Hawthorne put it:
How can an Admiral condescend to go to sea in an iron pot? . . . All the pomp and splendor of naval warfare are gone by. Henceforth, there must come up a race of engine-men and smoke-blackened cannoniers, who will hammer away at their enemies under the direction of a single pair of eyes; and even heroism—so deadly a gripe is science laying on our noble possibilities—will become a quality of very minor importance, when its possessor cannot break through the iron crust of his own armament and give the world a glimpse of it.
Yet in years to come, ironclad vessels would prove critical to the success of Union naval operations, both along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts and on the Mississippi and other western rivers. In turn the Confederates would develop submarines in an effort to breach the blockade and underwater mines (called torpedoes) to protect their ports. The war on the water proved to be a testing ground for revolutions in naval warfare that lasted into the next century.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It (includes Catesby ap Roger Jones’s account of the battle and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s description of the USS Monitor in “A Visit to Washington and Virginia: March 1862”)

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