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The Clash of the Ironclads: The Battle of Hampton Roads at 158 Years

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Yesterday and today mark the 157th  anniversary of an event which changed naval warfare forever, the Battle of Hampton Roads. It was a watershed event which ended the reign of the great wooden ships which plied the oceans of the world under massive fields of canvas sails. 

It took place about 10 miles from my current office, which is just a few hundred yards from Drydock Number One, at Naval Station Norfolk, in Portsmouth, Virginia, then called Gosport. It was here that the Confederate Navy, salvaged the wreck of the Steam Frigate USS Merrimac, razed her to the waterline, and constructed an ironclad casemate over her and recommissioned as the CSS Virginia. 

On March 9th 1862, two very strange looking ships joined in battle. This is the story of the Battle of Hanpton Roads and the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. This is their story, and the story of the men who designed and commanded them. 

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

On the morning of March 8th 1862 the CSS Virginia steamed slowly from her base at at the former US Navy Shipyard, Gosport, in Portsmouth, Virginia into Hampton Roads at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Her mission, break the Union blockade.

Awaiting her was a US Navy squadron of wooden warships including the steam Frigate USS Minnesota, the Sloop of War USS Cumberland and Frigate USS Congress and a number of smaller vessels. Together these ships mounted over 100 heavy guns, and were backed up by the shore batteries at Fort Monroe, on the Hampton side of Hampton Roads.

The Ships, Their Captains, and Designers 

The CSS Virginia was an armored ram built from the salvaged remains of the large steam frigate USS Merrimack, which had been burned at Gosport (Now Norfolk) Naval Shipyard when the Navy abandoned the shipyard to keep her from being captured by the Confederates after Virginia had seceded from the Union on April 20th 1861.  She was raised in May and the wreck was placed in what is now called Drydock Number One, at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, which is the oldest Drydock in the Western Hemisphere, a historic landmark, and still in use on May 30th 1861. Upon inspection it was determined that her hull below the waterline was intact and her engines serviceable. Since Merrimac was the largest ship, wrecked or intact, with serviceable steam engines and boilers; Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory decided that she would be converted into an ironclad.

Her design was that of Lieutenant John Mercer Brooke, a former U.S. Navy officer, and Naval Constructor John L. Porter, who had been a civilian employee of the Navy at Gosport. The design was an ironclad ram, with a massive casemate armored with four inches of Iron and 24 inches of Oak and Pine, which protected her battery of six 9” Dahlgren smoothbores, which were at the Naval Yard, and four 7” Brooke Rifled Guns, designed by LT Brooke and modeled on the design of the Parrot Rifled Gun, used by both sides during the American Civil War.

Her stem and stern nearly underwater, a V Shaped breakwater was mounted forward of the casemate, and an iron ram mounted below the waterline, a throwback in Naval design which had been abandoned since the Middle Ages when cannons became the weapon of choice. This was because the Confederates discover that the guns mounted on her might not be effective against Union ironclads which were being designed. Her design would be the prototype for almost all future Confederate Ironclads.

         Iron Plates from CSS Virginia at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard

However, she was plagued with unreliable engines which had been condemned by the US Navy, even before she was burn and sunk, were scheduled to be replaced during her refit at Gosport. As such, her design limited her to a coastal defense role, and her engines limited her to a speed of 5 to 6 knots. Her turning radius was over a mile and it took her 45 minutes to make a complete circle. Though lethal to wooden ships in enclosed waters, she was hardly a threat to Union maritime supremacy. In heavy seas she would have been a death trap to her crew.

Her Captain, Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan was a former U.S. Navy Captain originally from Maryland. In expectation that Maryland would secede from the Union, he resigned his commission on April 22nd 1861. When Maryland did not secede he attempted to withdraw his resignation but was rebuffed by Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. Thus  he left the Navy in May 1861 and joined the Confederate Navy in September 1861. He was appointed commander of the James River Squadron in February 1862 and selected CSS Virginia as his flagship. His Executive Officer was Lieutenant Catsby ap Jones. 

The USS Monitor

However, Virginia’s plans had been leaked to the US Navy by a Union sympathizer at Gosport, and taken to Washington, DC, by a freed slave named Mary Louvestre in February 1862. She met with Welles and sped the efforts of the Navy to complete and commission a number of ironclad ships of different types, but most importantly Welles pushed the Navy and builders to speed up the completion of the USS Monitor. 

Monitor was the brainchild of the Swedish Engineer John Ericsson, who had a troubled history with the US Navy. He invented the Screw Propeller for steamships, an idea rejected by the British Royal Navy, but then recruited by the ambitious American, Captain Robert F. Stockton to come to the United States. His propellers were first used on USS Princeton, for which he also designed a 12” breech loaded, rotating gun named Oregon. The gun which he designed was built in England and used hoop construction, also known as built up construction to pre-tension the breech. This method involved placing red-hot iron hoops around the breech-end of the weapon thereby allowing the gun to take a higher powder charge than previous cast iron weapons, which relied on using thicker iron to take an increased charge, making the weapon larger and heavier without increasing its strength.

However, Stockton moved to ensure that Ericsson was not acknowledged as the primary designer. Likewise, he decided that “his” ship should have two 12” guns, Ericsson’s and his own, which used the older technology and heavier iron, but without the tensile strength of Ericsson’s gun. Its huge size made it the more impressive looking weapon, but with the tendency common to such weapons, to burst.

However, Stockton’s gun was hastily built and had only a few test firings before demonstrating it before President John Tyler, his future wife Julia, former First Lady Dolly Madison and an assortment of cabinet officers, congressmen, and their families, numbering close to 400 on February 27th 1844. While coming back up the Potomac River, Stockton personally fired a shot in honor of George Washington at Mount Vernon. Stockton pulled the lanyard and the left side of the breech blew out, sending large fragments of cast iron, killing Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer, Secretary of State Abel Upshur, Chief of the Navy Board of Construction and Repair, Captain Beverley Kennon. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Captain Stockton, and another 14-18 crew members and visitors were wounded.

Stockton, who had a benefactor in President Tyler, blamed Ericsson who went on to many other accomplishments, but who refused any dealings with the Navy until Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles convinced him to design an ironclad in 1861. Ericsson responded with yet another revolutionary design which was at first ridiculed by naval experts. Ericsson based the hull of the ship on that of shallow draft Swedish lumber barges, but constructed completely of iron and not equipped with sails. He armed the ship with a heavily armored turret mounting two powerful 11” Dahlgren guns, which rotated a full 360 degrees. The turret was designed to mount two 15” Dahlgren guns, but they were not yet available. Had those guns been ready, Monitor might have sunk the Virginia.

Monitor was completed in under 100 days as Ericsson had promised. She was laid down on October 25th 1861, launched on January 30th, and commissioned on February 25th 1862. Her Captain was Lieutenant John Worden. Worden had served in the Navy since 1834, and he would go on to many great accomplishments, finishing his career as a Rear Admiral, having commanded another monitor, USS Montauk, Superintendent of the Naval Academy, Commander of the Mediterranean Squadron, and President of the Naval Institute.

However, in February 1862 the relatively old lieutenant took Monitor to sea two days later, but the deployment was cut short by a steering failure, which resulted in the ship returning to New York for repairs. She sailed for Hampton Roads again on March 6th and she would arrive on the evening of March 8th, not long after Virginia had wreaked havoc on the Union ships at Hampton Roads. His Executive Officer was Lieutenant Samuel Dana Greene, son of the future Union General and hero of Culp’s Hill at the Battle of Gettysburg, George Sears Greene. 

The Battle

 

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During the ensuing fight of March 8th Virginia rammed and sank Cumberland which though fatally wounded disabled two of Virginia’s 9” in guns. Virginia destroyed Congress by gunfire which burned and blew up and appeared to be in position to destroy Minnesota the following day as that ship had run hard aground. The losses aboard Cumberland and Congress were severe and included the Captain of the Congress and Chaplain John L. Lenhart of Cumberland, the first US Navy Chaplain to die in battle. During the battle Virginia had several men wounded including her Captain, Franklin Buchanan who during the action went atop the casemate to fire a carbine at Union shore batteries. He was wounded by a bullet in the leg and though he survived he missed the next day’s action.

Cumberland_rammed_by_Merrimac

Due to the coming of darkness and a falling tide the acting commander of Virginia, Lieutenant Catsby Ap Roger Jones her executive officer took her in for the night. During the night Monitor, under the command of Lieutenant John Worden arrived and took up station to defend Minnesota.

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The next morning Virginia again ventured out and was intercepted by the Monitor. The ships fought for over three hours, with Monitor using her superior speed and maneuverability to great effect. During the battle Monitor suffered a hit on her small pilothouse near her bow blinding her Captain Worden.  Monitor’s executive officer, Lieutenant Dana Greene, took command. Neither side suffered much damage but the smokestack of Virginia was pierced in several places affecting her already poor engine performance.  Jones broke off the action and returned to Gosport for repairs while Monitor remained on station, still ready for battle.

Gideon Welles wrote after the battle: “the performance, power, and capabilities of the Monitor, must effect a radical change in naval warfare.”

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It did. The battle showed the world the vulnerability of wooden warships against the new ironclads. Monitor in particular revolutionized naval warfare and warship construction. From that time on the truly modern ships were fully iron and later steel, with revolving turrets, and within twenty years without sails, even as a back up to their steam engines.

Her defining mark was the use of the armored gun turret which over the succeeding decades became the standard manner for large ships guns to be mounted. Turrets like the warships they were mounted upon grew in size and power reaching their apex during the Second World War, only to be superseded by the next revolution in Naval warfare, the Aircraft Carrier.

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Both Virginia and Monitor reached less than glorious ends. Virginia had to be destroyed by her crew to prevent her capture just over two months after the battle on May 11th 1862. Monitor survived until January 31st 1862 when she sank during a heavy storm off Cape Hatteras North Carolina with the loss of 16 of her 62 man crew. The remains of two of those men, recovered during the salvage of Monitor’s engines, turret, guns and anchor were interred at Arlington National Cemetery on March 8th 2012. The relics from Monitor and some from Virginia are displayed at the Mariners Museum in Newport News (http://www.marinersmuseum.org )while one of Virginia’s anchors resides on the lawn of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. Two of her iron plates are on display at Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

Those early ironclads and the brave men who served aboard them revolutionized naval warfare and their work should never be forgotten.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy

Authoritarians and How Youth Like Sophie Scholl Will Save Us from Ourselves

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

As President Trump continues to take revenge on his opponents and threaten others following his acquittal, making threats toward others, including at the Justice Department, State Department, and the Department of Defense, we cannot dismiss these actions as politics as usual. This has never happened in America, at least not until now.

In fact, no American President, has behaved in such a manner. One, Andrew Jackson successfully defied the Supreme Court, in order to remove the Cherokee Nation and put them on the Trail of Tears, James K. Polk who launched an illegal and immoral war against Mexico, an act that the future President Ulysses Grant, then a young Army Lieutenant decried:  “I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”

Then there was James Buchanan who unsuccessfully attempted to overturn the law and Constitution during the Lecompton Constitution crisis, only to be stopped by the actions of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, John Tyler, at that point a former President joined the Confederacy, Andrew Johnson who pardoned hundreds of Confederate traitors, including war criminals, and worked against the the 14th Amendment, defied Congress, was impeached and acquitted by one bought vote. Likewise, Woodrow Wilson who led the great racist purge of the military and civil service in 1915, Richard Nixon whose crimes are too many too mention, and such that even a majority of his party led by Barry Goldwater told him to resign or be convicted in his impeachment trial, approached the authoritarianism, of Trump, and the treats of violence he and his supports make to opponents.  I could mention more, but you get the idea. We live in dangerous times and need to heed the words of British Historian and military theorist B. H. Liddell-Hart wrote about in his book Why Don’t we Learn From History: 

They soon begin to rid themselves of their chief helpers, “discovering” that those who brought about the new order have suddenly become traitors to it.

They suppress criticism on one pretext or another and punish anyone who mentions facts which, however true, are unfavourable to their policy.

They enlist religion on their side, if possible, or, if its leaders are not compliant, foster a new kind of religion subservient to their ends.

They spend public money lavishly on material works of a striking kind, in compensation for the freedom of spirit and thought of which they have robbed the public.

They manipulate the currency to make the economic position of the state appear better than it is in reality.

They ultimately make war on some other state as a means of diverting attention from internal conditions and allowing discontent to explode outward.

They use the rallying cry of patriotism as a means of riveting the chains of their personal authority more firmly on the people.

They expand the superstructure of the state while undermining its foundations by breeding sycophants at the expense of self-respecting collaborators, by appealing to the popular taste for the grandiose and sensational instead of true values, and by fostering a romantic instead of a realistic view, thus ensuring the ultimate collapse, under their successors if not themselves, of what they have created.

This political confidence trick, itself a familiar string of tricks, has been repeated all down the ages. Yet it rarely fails to take in a fresh generation.

But I digress, that was simply an introduction.

Seventy-seven years ago a young German woman was under the interrogation of the Munich Gestapo, before being tried and convicted of treason for distributing a series of anti-Nazi leaflets by the Nazi Volksgericht or “People’s Court” under the direction of the notorious Judge Roland Freisler who gained further infamy in his show trials of those suspected of participating in or supporting the July 20th Bomb Plot against Hitler.

The woman was Sophie Scholl, a student at the University of Munich she was just 22 years old. Her story and the story of the resistance group that she was at the center of is remarkable for the moral clarity that she and her friends displayed in an era where most people were willing to look the other way, if not unreservedly served Hitler’s Third Reich.

She and those who like her resisited Hitler’s Third Reich at the height of its power are worthwhile examples for those who resisit President Trump here. Russia’s Putin, and so many other authoritarian leaders in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The precious truth is that Freedom must be defended from those who use patriotism as a prop, and racism as the raison d’etre of their political, social, and foreign policy of their regimes.


The story of Sophie and the White Rose is a remarkable story because stories like this are often buried by the propaganda machines of totalitarian regimes; but the shock of what these young people did was so great that the Nazi propaganda machine had to publicly confront it with the goal of instilling such fear that no one else’s would dare repeat it. What politicians, generals, and others could not do to shake the Nazi regime a handful of university students accomplished.

There are a number of monuments scattered around Munich to the White Rose movement, but the most remarkable is the monument in front of the university where they studied and where they distributed their leaflets.  Facsimiles of their publications and letters are part of the pavement, looking as if they have been dropped on the ground for someone to pick up.

Scholl, as well as her friends were students, some who in the course of their time of study who had been drafted into the Wehrmacht as medics, serving on the Russian front before returning to the University. There were five of them, Sophie, Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorrel, Hans Scholl, and Christoph Probst, plus one of their professors, Professor Dr. Kurt Huber who began a resistance cell that focused on telling the truth about the crimes of the Nazi regime, and the lies of Hitler.

Telling the truth in a dictatorship is dangerous and although Sophie and her companions could have remained silent they had consciences that were guided by reason and human rights, as well as by their Christian faith, a faith which remained despite their aversion to the institutional church for its complicity with the Nazis. As she stood before Freisler and the Volksgericht she was recorded as saying:

“Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”

Too many people lacked the courage to speak as Sophie did in her day as all too many do today. It is far easier to take the path of least resistance. Laurence Rees in his history of Auschwitz wrote:

“…human behavior is fragile and unpredictable and often at the mercy of the situation. Every individual still, of course, has a choice as to how to behave, it’s just that for many people the situation is the key determinate in that choice.”

Sophie and her circle of friends in the White Rose chose how courageous people behave in such abominable conditions. They published a series of six leaflets which they printed themselves and distributed around the university, the city, and to like minded people in a number of other cities. They asked those who got them to make as many copies as they could and distribute them. They were in the process of drafting a seventh when Scholl was spotted distributing them at the university by a maintenance man who was a member of the Nazi Party. She and her friends were arrested on February 21st 1943 by the notorious Nazi People’s Court under the direction of Roland Freisler on the 22nd, and executed by beheading at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison on the 23rd.


The members of the White Rose were bold and defiant in the face of evil, of course those that have that kind of courage usually have short life expectancies in a totalitarian state, but they did not back down. Their pamphlets and graffiti criticizing Hitler garnered the attention of the Gestapo and when they were caught they were brutally tortured, but none backed down.

Their criticisms of Hitler and his Third Reich were hard hitting. Since all of the students had spent much of their childhood teenage years in Nazi organizations which were designed to make loyal little Nazis, their resistance came as a shock to many. All were children who could have easily due to their family background taken the easy road, but chose the more honorable and dangerous road.


Their pamphlets are striking, and each focused on a different part or aspect of the Nazi regime. In their first leaflet they wrote:

“Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct.” They urged their readers “Therefore every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization, must defend himself as best he can at this late hour, he must work against the scourges of mankind, against fascism and any similar system of totalitarianism.” And to “Offer passive resistance – resistance – wherever you may be, forestall the spread of this atheistic war machine before it is too late, before the last cities, like Cologne, have been reduced to rubble, and before the nation’s last young man has given his blood on some battlefield for the hubris of a sub-human. Do not forget that every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure!”

Such was their beginning, but they went on to attack the Nazi, leaders, the Nazi system, and especially the silence of their countrymen over the extermination of the Jews and Polish intellectuals. They asked in the second leaflet:

“Why do German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes, crimes so unworthy of the human race? Hardly anyone thinks about that. It is accepted as fact and put out of mind. The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals; they give them the opportunity to carry on their depredations; and of course they do so…. For through his apathetic behavior he gives these evil men the opportunity to act as they do; he tolerates this “government” which has taken upon itself such an infinitely great burden of guilt; indeed, he himself is to blame for the fact that it came about at all! Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, the calmest conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!”

In each of the letters they asked their readers to offer some form of resistance to Hitler and the Nazi State but urged passive resistance, but in the third missive they went into more detail, including something that anyone who thinks that they are loyal to their country need to appreciate:

“The meaning and the goal of passive resistance is to topple National Socialism, and in this struggle we must not recoil from any course, any action, whatever its nature. At all points we must oppose National Socialism, wherever it is open to attack. We must soon bring this monster of a state to an end. A victory of fascist Germany in this war would have immeasurable, frightful consequences. The military victory over Bolshevism dare not become the primary concern of the Germans. The defeat of the Nazis must unconditionally be the first order of business… And now every convinced opponent of National Socialism must ask himself how he can fight against the present “state” in the most effective way, how he can strike it the most telling blows. Through passive resistance, without a doubt…”

Eventually their tracts became more biting, and in fourth the metaphysical linking Hitler to Satan and Anti-Christ.


They wrote:

“Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed…. I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defence? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.”

In the fifth leaflet they spoke of where the Nazi war effort would end and the responsibility of not only Hitler but the German people for it:

“It has become a mathematical certainty that Hitler is leading the German people into the abyss. Hitler cannot win the war; he can only prolong it. The guilt of Hitler and his minions goes beyond all measure. Retribution comes closer and closer. But what are the German people doing? They will not see and will not listen. Blindly they follow their seducers into ruin. Victory at any price! is inscribed on their banner. “I will fight to the last man,” says Hitler-but in the meantime the war has already been lost…. Do not believe that Germany’s welfare is linked to the victory of national Socialism for good or ill. A criminal regime cannot achieve a German victory. Separate yourselves in time from everything connected with National Socialism. In the aftermath a terrible but just judgment will be meted out to those who stayed in hiding, who were cowardly and hesitant.”

In the aftermath of the disaster at Stalingrad they published their sixth and last issue before being caught. In it they urged Germans to fight against the Nazi Party and regime, and confronted the way that since its inception Hitler and the Party corrupted the meaning of honor and freedom:

“Freedom and honor! For ten long years Hitler and his coadjutor have manhandled, squeezed, twisted, and debased these two splendid German words to the point of nausea, as only dilettantes can, casting the highest values of a nation before swine. They have sufficiently demonstrated in the ten years of destruction of all material and intellectual freedom, of all moral substance among the German people, what they understand by freedom and honor. The frightful bloodbath has opened the eyes of even the stupidest German – it is a slaughter which they arranged in the name of “freedom and honor of the German nation” throughout Europe, and which they daily start anew.”

Just over two weeks later they were caught and in Freisler’s People’s Court convicted and executed. During their trial, if it can be called that, Freisler and others expressed their shock that young Germans could commit treason. Sophie had no problem confronting her accusers:

Her last words before going to the guillotine were unapologetic: “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?” On the back of the order condemning her to death she wrote the word Freedom.


There are leaders in many nations today intent on destroying freedom and in many places the people and the country’d institutions fall in behind them, usually by painting pictures of threats so imminent that people willingly trade real freedom for a false security. It is a dangerous world and all of us must be alert to changes in society and question what comes out of the mouths of leaders, and even more so their true believer followers.

Sophie Scholl and her companions understood the risk, but they got their message heard at the highest level of government, and most were killed. But their example of courage and belief in freedom and human rights is still stronger that they mightiest despot, and unlike their mighty yet evil rulers, they are the ones that Germany remembers.

Last year I visited her grave in Munich’s Friedhof at Perlacher Forst, it is humble but gravesite, but it is obviously a place of remembrance and pilgrimage. When I go o Munich this year I will again make my pilgrimage to places where she and the White Rose used non-violent protest to speak truth about the Hitler regime when most of the population, knowing the truth did nothing to resist.

I think that there is a lesson for us as well, and I think that it is a lesson that many of our young people will understand that better than their elders, especially in the age of President Trump.  That my friends gives me hope for the future, young people like Sophie Scholl might be all that stands in the way of the destruction of our Republic.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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