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Iron against Iron: The Clash of the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads at 159 Years

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today marks the 159th anniversary of an event which changed naval warfare forever. 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 just a few miles from two of my last three active duty assignments. If it happened today I would certainly been able to watch it from beach any of the beaches were I worked at Joint Base Little Creek – Fort Story.  I could have watched Virginia steam from the Elizabeth River to do battle from my office at the Joint Forces Staff College, or I could have watched Virginia’s transformation from the salvaged wreck of the steam frigate USS Merrimac into the ironclad behemoth she became in Dry Dock Number One at Naval Shipyard Norfolk in Portsmouth, my last assignment on active duty.

On 9 March 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. 

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

On the morning of March 8th 1862 the CSS Virginia steamed slowly from her base at Portsmouth Virginia into Hampton Roads at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Awaiting her was a US Navy squadron of wooden warships including the steam Frigate USS Minnesota, the Sloop of War USS Cumberland, Frigate USS Congress and a number of smaller vessels.

The 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. After Virginia’s forces seized the yard the hulk was salvaged. When the Confederate States Navy assumed command of the yard , Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory decided to reconstruct her as an Ironclad Ram. 

Her plans had been leaked to the US Navy through by Mary Louvestre  a former slave with a talent for drafting who worked as a seamstress for an engineer at the shipyard. Hearing her employer brag about the ship she went into his office and traced the plans, sending them to Union authorities. Virginia had a casemate of 24 inches of oak and pine topped by two layers of 2” thick iron plating. She was equipped with an iron ram on her bow and was armed with six 9” Dahlgren Smoothbores,  two 7” Brooke Rifles and two 6.4” Brooke Rifles. However she was barely seaworthy and had too deep draft to navigate inland waters. Her engines were unreliable and she had a very slow and long turning radius which hindered her against Monitor.

The United States Navy was also in the process of constructing a number of ironclad ships of different types. The first of these ships to be ready was the USS Monitor, a small ship mounting a single heavily armored (8” iron) turret mounting two powerful 11” Dalghren smoothbore guns. She was designed by Swedish inventor John Ericcson. Her design was best suited for coastal and inland waters and she was was faster and more maneuverable than Virginia.

On the morning of 8 March she was still steaming to Hampton Roads from New York when Virginia came out for battle against the Union blockade squadron.

 

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CSS Virginia 

During the ensuing fight of March 8th Virginia rammed and sank Cumberland which though fatally wounded disabled two of Virginia’s 9” in guns. She 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, Commodore Franklin Buchanan.

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Virginia rams the USS Cumberland 

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,  Lieutenant John Worden, as such Monitor’s executive officer, Lieutenant Dana Greene, the son of Union Brigadier General George Sears Greene, the hero of Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg 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 and Monitor remained on station.

Secretary of the Navy 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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Monitor after the Battle

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. 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.

 

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. Additionally, parts of her armor are displayed 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.

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Filed under civil war, hampton roads and tidewater, History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy

“Whom the gods intend to destroy, they first make mad” The Post Trump World Collides with Secession

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am posting a section of my book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory! Racism, Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Civil War Era and their Continuing Importance regarding the actions of Southern Democrat Secessionists who had already split their party during the 1860 election because I think it is very relevant today.

Former and twice impeached President Donald Trump and his supporters attempted a coup by attacking Congress as it undertook its Constitutional duty to officially count the votes of the Electoral College. 

The assault made under the direct order of the former President was brutal and led by White Nationalists, Neo-Nazis, armed self-proclaimed militias, and a host of Theocratic Christians whose Crosses and Flags were prominent in the attack. The Terrorists who attacked the Capitol almost captured former Vice President Mike Pence who they threatened to hang, even bringing a gallows to the Capitol lawn, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and many others. During the attack they killed one Capitol Police Officer, wounded over 140 more, some of whom are still in the hospital with serious injuries including one officer who might lose an eye, as well as two officers on duty that day who subsequently committed suicide.

Despite the fact that many of those leading the attack said they believed that they were following the orders of Donald Trump and therefore believe in their innocence, the “I was just following orders defense,” there is no defense to be found in their actions. Driven by over 30 years of propaganda and over 50 years of measures that gave persecuted minorities such as African Americans, Hispanics, Women, and Gays the same basic rights as the white majority, the anger has reached a fever pitch and much of the Republican Party and what is so wrongly called the Conservative movement has gone mad. When members of Congress still despite all evidence claim the election was stolen, who believe conspiracy theories that the mass murders and massacres of school children at the Newtown and Parkland schools were government false flag operations to enact anti-gun laws, who stalk the survivors of those  massacres, and the belief that a Rothschild family (typical antisemitic accusation) funded space laser was the cause of the 2018 California wild fires.

Likewise many members of the Trump Republican base make frequent physical threats of violence against their political opponents as well as Jews, Blacks, other racial, ethnic or religious minorities. Before the coup attempt of 6 January they have either invaded and taken over or besieged State capitols. They led by the President have committed physical violence against peaceful protestors of  the Black Lives Matter campaign protesting the murders of Black men and women by police and vigilantes. Individuals connected with them have attacked and committed mass murder at Synagogues and Jewish community centers and Black Churches.

The list could go on and there is no condemnation from the former President or his acolytes who are still threatening violence, even in the halls of Congress.

The title of this article includes the comment of William Lloyd Garrison in describing the mood of the South as Southern States began to secede. I no longer believe that there will be a Republican version of Senator Stephen A. Douglas who will attempt to pull the party out of the abyss that it is throwing itself headlong into. In fact they are in the process of a witch hunt in the party, kicking out elected state officials in Arizona and working against others to remove them from Congressional leadership positions and committee assignments and are launching campaigns against their re-election for their attempt to hold former President Trump accountable for his actions.

The irony is, that it is now the Republican Party that is doing what the Democrats did in 1860, but then the Republicans beginning in the 1960s and have become the old Souther Secessionist Democratic Party when they brought in the Dixiecrats and adopted the cynical and racist Southern Strategy.

This article deals with the actions of Southern Democrats upon learning that Abraham Lincoln had been elected leading up to their attack on Fort Sumter. The attitudes, words and actions of the current Republicans are frighteningly similar to the Secessionist Southern Democrats who first destroyed their party before their secession from the Union that led to the bloodiest war in American history.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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After the election of 1860 President-Elect Abraham Lincoln tried to reassure the South that he would remain true to his campaign promise not to interfere with slavery where it already existed, but he also refused to give in to threats of secession. Despite his belief that anything that he said would be twisted into the exact opposite by Southerners, Lincoln released a statement through Senator Lyman Trumbull in Springfield saying:

“The states will be left in complete control of their affairs and property within their respective limits as they have under any administration. I regard it as extremely fortunate for the peace of the whole country, that this point, upon which the Republicans have been for so long, as so presently misrepresented, is now brought to a practical test, and placed beyond the possibility of doubt. Disunionists per se, are now in hot haste to get out of the Union, precisely because they perceive they cannot, much longer, maintain apprehension among the southern people that in their homes, and firesides, and lives, are to be endangered by the action of the Federal Government.” [1]

On his way to Washington D.C. the President Elect stopped in New York and gave a speech  “promising that he would “never of his own volition “consent to the destruction of this Union,” he qualified this promise with “unless it were that to be that thing for which the Union itself was made.” [2]  Two days later Lincoln speaking Independence Hall in Philadelphia Lincoln further detailed what he meant in New York, going back to the premise of the Declaration of Independence in which “he asserted that he “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration…. I was not the mere matter of separation of the colonies from the mother land; but rather something in that Declaration” that provided “hope for the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.” [3] It was a thought that he would continue to refine in the Emancipation Proclamation Gettysburg Address, the Thirteenth Amendment and in his Second Inaugural Address.

Senator Stephen A. Douglas tried to reassure the Southern leaders as well even as argued against secession. He reminded Southerners how he had fought against Lincoln and the platform of the Republican Party and stated “that the mere election of any man to the Presidency does not furnish just cause for dissolving the Union.” [4]Addressing Southern concerns in a pragmatic way, the Little Giant tried to diffuse Southern fears by reminding them that the answer to their fears lay in the checks and balances laid out in the Constitution and in the ballot box. Douglas’s next words redound to the present day:

“It is apprehended that the policy of Mr. Lincoln and the principles of his party endanger the peace of the slaveholding states. Is that apprehension founded? No, it is not. Mr. Lincoln and his party lack the power, even if they had the disposition, to disturb or impair the rights and institutions of the South. They certainly cannot harm the South under existing laws. Will they have the power to repeal or change these laws, or to enact others? It is well known that they will be a minority in both houses of Congress, with the Supreme Court against them. Hence no bill can pass either house of Congress impairing or disturbing these rights or institutions of the southern people in any manner whatever, unless a portion of southern senators and representatives absent themselves so as to give an abolition majority in consequence of their actions.

In short, the President will be utterly powerless to do evil…. Four years shall soon pass, when the ballot box will furnish a peaceful, legal, and constitutional remedy for the evils and grievances with which the country might be afflicted.” [5]

An attempt in Congress led by President James Buchanan and Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky to bring about a constitutional compromise to mollify both sides was considered. A committee of thirteen senators was convened to entertain various compromise propositions, however, most of the suggested compromises were heavily weighted toward Southern interests, though it promised to restore the prohibition of slavery north of the line drawn in the Missouri Compromise.

A frustrated Lincoln wrote, “I’ll tell you now what bothered me: the compromises measures introduced in Congress required the Republicans to make all the concessions.” [6] Lincoln warned Crittenden that such proposals would not be acceptable: “Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery…. The instant you do they have us under again…. The tug has to come & better now than later.” [7]

Lincoln had seen how for four decades Southerners had pushed for compromises that only benefited them and the extension of slavery, even at the expense of Northern states rights and he was not about to let it happen again. The President Elect wrote:

“The Crittenden plan, I feared, would put the country back on the high road to a slave empire. Whether it was the revival of the Missouri Compromise line or a popular sovereignty, it was all the same. “Let neither be done,” I warned Republicans in Washington, “and immediately filibustering and extending slavery recommences. Within a year, we shall have to take Cuba as a condition on which the South will stay in the Union. Next it will be Mexico, then Central American. On the territorial question, I am inflexible. On that point hold firm as a chain of steel…” [8]

In the South the efforts of staunch Southern Unionists like Alexander Stephens to discourage secession were dismissed as the movement toward secession became a passion filled revolutionary movement, which acted as a cathartic movement for many Southerners. Like Douglas, Stephens had the greatest faith in the checks and balances provided in the Constitution and he pleaded with his fellow Georgians at the state capital of Milledgeville noting that the checks and balances “would render Lincoln “powerless to do any great mischief,” and he warned that “the dissolution of the Union would endanger this “Eden of the world,” that “instead of becoming gods, we shall become demons, and no distant day commence cutting one another’s throats…” [9] While his speech received favorable coverage in the North and even in London, it was met with little enthusiasm at home.

Influential Southern preachers joined in the push for secession and warned of what they saw as the dire consequences of Lincoln’s election. The Baptist clergyman James Furman expressed the outrage and paranoia of many in the South by warning after Lincoln’s election “If you are tame enough to submit, Abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands.” [10] Likewise entire southern denominations began to endorse secession, southern Methodists raised “alarms about a Union dominated by abolitionists as they called on the Lord for deliverance from the northern “Egypt.” The division of Israel and Judah (not to mention the nation’s already fractured churches became typologies for the American crisis. Just as southern Methodists had once “seceded from a corrupt church,” a Mississippi politician declared, “We must secede from a corrupt nation.” To drive the point home, Georgia Methodists ministers endorsed disunion by an overwhelming 87-9 vote.” [11]

Despite Lincoln and Douglas’s efforts during and after the election to strike a conciliatory tone, it did not take long before Southern states began to secede from the Union. In light of the profoundly sectional nature of Lincoln’s victory “emboldened many Southern politicians and journalists to insist that they would not be bound by the result.” [12] In his final speech before the Senate, Senator Robert Toombs of Georgia lambasted the “black Republicans” and abolitionists,“We want no negro equality, no negro citizenship, we want no negro race to degrade our own; and as one man [we] would meet you upon the border with the sword in one hand and the torch in the other.” [13]

Other Senators, many who became prominent leaders of the Confederacy made their speeches, some, like that of Jefferson Davis tinged with regret while others like Senator Stephen Mallory, and the future Secretary of the Navy for the Confederacy delivered a fiery broadside against his Northern colleagues, “You cannot conquer us. Imbue your hands in our blood and the rains of a century will not wipe away from them stain, while the coming generation will weep for your wickedness and folly.” [14] As these men finished the left the chambers of Congress where many had served for years many left with tears, while some marked their exit with angry words.

Alexander Stephens

Stephens, still a Unionist at heart lamented the election even as he prepared to leave the Senate before becoming the vice president of the Confederacy, warned that “revolutions are much easier started than controlled, and the men who begin them [often] …themselves become the victims.” [15] Even so the senator noted “If the policy of Mr. Lincoln and his Republican associates be carried out…no man in Georgia will be more willing or ready than myself to defend our rights, interest, and honor at every hazard and to the last extremity.” [16] But as he resigned his office Stephens replied to a friend’s question, “why must we have civil war?”

“Because there are not virtue and patriotism and sense enough left in the country to avoid it. Mark me, when I repeat that in less than twelve months we shall be in the midst of a bloody war. What will become of us then God only knows.” [17]

But Stephens’ warning fell on deaf ears as passionate secessionist commissioners went throughout the South spreading their message of fear. “Thus fanned, mob spirit ran close enough to the surface to intimidate many moderates – the very temperament that inclines men toward moderation is apt to respond timidly when threatened or abused – and to push others closer to the extremist position.” [18]Such was the case with Southern moderates and Unionists as men like Stephens were swept up in the tumult as their states seceded from the Union. Senator Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana wrote, “The prudent and conservative men South… were not able to stem the wild torrent of passion which is carrying everything before it…. It is a revolution…of the most intense character…and it can no more be checked by human effort, for the time, than a prairie fire by a gardener’s watering pot.” [19]

The Palmetto State of South Carolina was the first state to secede. Its senior senator, James Chesnut launched a fusillade against the North in a speech before the state legislature in which he argued that the South could not wait for another election: He thundered:

“Because of the Yankee puritans’ invasive mentality, incendiary documents would flood our region, Southern Republicans would fill our offices. Enemies would control our mails. The resulting upheaval would make “Lincoln’s election…a decree for emancipation. Slavery cannot survive the four years of an administration whose overwhelming influences” will be “brought to bear against it.” To submit now is to guarantee that before 1865, we must “slay the Negro, or ourselves be slain.”  [20]

Future Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, the man whose armies would cut a swath of destruction across Georgia and the Carolinas in 1864 and 1865 was serving as the President the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy, what is now Louisiana State University. Like many men in the ante-bellum era, Sherman had thought little about the slavery issue, though he was very concerned with the preservation of the Union. He thought secession made no sense, especially for the people of the South. When Sherman read the news of South Carolina’s secession it “cut to the depths of his nationalistic soul.” The future general wept, and told his friend David Boyd “Boyd, you people of the South don’t know what you are doing! You think you can tear to pieces this great union without war…. “The North can make a steam-engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on earth…. You are bound to fail. Only in spirit and determination are you prepared for war.” [21] Sherman, the man who later proclaimed that “War is Hell” proved to be a remarkably accurate seer regarding the fate of the Confederacy.

South Carolina was followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. “A belt of seven states from South Carolina to Texas, embracing nearly one-sixth of the country’s population and nearly one-fifth of the national domain, had proclaimed independence and severed its ties with the Union.” [22] All of the declarations of causes for secession made it quite clear and explicit that slavery, and fear that the institution was threatened by Northern abolitionists was the primary reason . The declaration of South Carolina is typical of these and is instructive of the basic root cause of the war:

“all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.” [23]

Throughout the war slavery loomed large, even though in the beginning of the abolition controversies of the 1830s many northerners “were content to tolerate slavery’s indefinite survival in the South so long as it did not impinge on their own rights and aspirations at home.” [24] Such attitudes were still common in the North during the late 1850s, especially among Democrats.

But it was the continued actions and multiple transgressions of slavery supporters that energized northerners as never before. Their use of the courts to advance their rights and the cause of slavery, by the compromises that had extended slavery to the territories; their use of the courts especially the Dred Scott to allow slaveholders to recover their human property, even in Free States provoked no end of indignation throughout the North, even for those sympathetic to Southern concerns. Those actions demonstrated to Northerners:

“just how fundamental and intractable the differences with Southern political leaders were. Thus educated, most northern voters had decided by 1860 that only an explicitly anti-slavery party could protect their interests.” [25]

The fiery abolitionist and profoundly religious editor of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison, used biblical imagery in a rather astute analysis of the behavior of Southern leaders after the election of 1860. He wrote of the Southern response to Lincoln’s election:

“Never had the truth of the ancient proverb “Whom the gods intend to destroy, they first make mad” been more signally illustrated than in the condition of southern slaveholders following Lincoln’s election. They were insane from their fears, their guilty forebodings, their lust for power and rule, hatred of free institutions, their merited consciousness of merited judgments; so that they may be properly classed as the inmates of a lunatic asylum. Their dread of Mr. Lincoln, of his Administration, of the Republican Party, demonstrated their insanity. In vain did Mr. Lincoln tell them, “I do not stand pledged to the abolition of slavery where it already exists.” They raved just as fiercely as though he were another John Brown, armed for southern invasion and universal emancipation! In vain did the Republican party present one point of antagonism to slavery – to wit, no more territorial expansion. In vain did that party exhibit the utmost caution not to give offense to any other direction – and make itself hoarse in uttering professions of loyalty to the Constitution and the Union. The South protested that its designs were infernal, and for them was “sleep no more!” Were these not the signs of a demented people?” [26]

But both sides were blind to their actions and with few exceptions, most leaders, especially in the South badly miscalculated the effects of the election of 1860. Many leaders in the North did not realize that the election of Lincoln would mean the secession of one or more Southern states, and Southerners “were not able to see that secession would finally mean war” [27] despite the warnings of Alexander Stephens to the contrary. In fact throughout the South it was believed that there would be no war because “they believed that the Yankees were cowards and would not fight”… “Senator James Chesnut of South Carolina offered to drink all the blood shed as a consequence of secession. It became a common saying in the South during the secession winter that “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed.” [28]

Following their secession the five slave states of the lower South: “appointed commissioners to the other slave states, and instructed them to spread the secessionist message across the entire region. These commissioners often explained in detail why their states were exiting the Union, and they did everything in their power to persuade laggard slave states to join the secessionist cause. From December 1860 to April 1861 they carried the gospel of disunion to the far corners of the South.” [29]

The editors of the Philadelphia Press accused the Southern secessionists of being enemies of democracy and wrote:

“should the Cotton States go out in a body, we shall witness the beginning of an experiment to establish, on this continent, a great slaveholding monarchy. With few exceptions, the leaders of the Disunion cabal are men of the most aristocratic pretensions – men who…easily adopt the habits and titles of the European nobility. South Carolina, which is the head of Secession, is almost a monarchy herself. Her representatives in both branches of Congress, for years past, have acted upon the idea that the people of the free states are servile, and Mr. Hammond, the most candid and straightforward of the set, denounced the laboring white masses of the free States as the mudsills of society …” [30]

The mood of the South in the fall of 1860 was “fearful, uncertain, impatient and volatile, eager to adopt the course that best offered hope of deliverance – which was ideally suited for the immediacy and urgency of the radical secessionists.” [31]Using the political machinery of the Democratic Party in the South which they now possessed, the proponents of secession were far better organized than Southern Unionists who had a difficult time putting up a united front in the face of the radicals.

Slavery and the superiority of the white race over blacks were at the heart of the message brought by these commissioners to the legislatures of the yet undecided states. Former Congressman John McQueen of South Carolina wrote to secessionists in Virginia “We, of South Carolina, hope to greet you in a Southern Confederacy, where white men shall rule our destinies, and from which we may transmit our posterity the rights, privileges and honor left us by our ancestors.”[32] In Texas McQueen told the Texas Convention: “Lincoln was elected by a sectional vote, whose platform was that of the Black Republican part and whose policy was to be the abolition of slavery upon this continent and the elevation of our own slaves to an equality with ourselves and our children.” [33] These Southern secessionists were realists, they knew that the election of 1860 was a watershed in terms of the history of slavery in the United States, emancipation was coming, it might take a decade, it might take twenty-five or even fifty years, but they knew that it was coming, and for them secession was the only logical action left that was “consistent with their ideology.” [34] Many of these men now viewed it as an issue of now or never.

In his First Inaugural Address Lincoln cut to the heart of the division in the country: “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.” [35] Of course he was right, and his Southern opponents agreed. Jefferson Davis wrote: “The great northern party, thus organized, succeeded in electing to the office of the Presidency a man who openly proclaimed his hatred of slavery, who declared that the government could not endure “half slave and half free.” [36]

As the war began, white Southerners of all types and classes rallied to the call of war against the hated Yankee. The common people, the poor yeomen farmers were often the most stalwart defenders of the South. With the Orwellian slogan “Freedom is not possible without slavery” ringing in their ears, they went to war against the Yankees alongside their slave-owning neighbors to “perpetuate and diffuse the very liberty for which Washington bled, and which the heroes of the Revolution achieved.” [37]

Alexander Stephens, the longtime friend of Lincoln who had been a devout Unionist, who had supported Stephen Douglas until the bitter end, and who had strenuously opposed secession in the months leading to the election of 1860 was now the Vice President of the Confederacy. He had been elected Vice President the same day as Jefferson Davis was elected President by the new Confederate Congress and now went through the South speaking about the nature of the new government.  Stephens explained the foundations of the Southern state in his Cornerstone Speech of March 21st 1861, the speech echoed what many Southerners had believed for years regarding slavery and the status of Blacks, namely that Blacks were a lesser order of humanity. He proclaimed in words that could never be taken back:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” [38]

Jefferson Davis had issued instructions to cabinet members to downplay slavery as an issue and was infuriated. The new President of the Confederacy wrote: “That speech infuriated me, Oh, what Stephens had said was true, perfectly true, but could anything hurt us more abroad than such impolitic remarks? It was the beginning of a fatal falling out between me and that rebellious and vindictive dwarf, who was hell-bent on forming his own policies and disputing mine with niggardly deviousness.”[39]

The Orwellian definition of slavery as being necessary to liberty and the Confederate leader’s proclamations that they were comparable to the founding fathers was condemned throughout the North. The editors of the New York Evening Post wrote:

“The founders fought to “establish the rights of man… an principles of universal liberty.” The South was rebelling “not in the interest of general humanity, but of a domestic despotism…. Their motto is not liberty, but slavery.” Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence spoke for “Natural Rights against Established Institutions,” added the New York Tribune, while “Mr. Jeff. Davis’s caricature thereof is made in the interest of an unjust, outgrown, decaying institution against the apprehended encroachments of human rights.” It was, in short, not a revolution for liberty but a counterrevolution “reversing the wheels of progress…. to hurl everything backward into deepest darkness… despotism and oppression.”[40]

Secession commissioners from the first seven Confederate States fanned out to the undecided Slave states to spread the message of secession. One of these men was Henry Benning of Georgia. Benning spoke to the secession convention of Virginia, a state that the new Confederacy deemed all-important to its cause and which it had to have on its side in the coming confrontation with the Union. There the Georgia Supreme Court Justice used the time-honored method of racial fear mongering to sway the men of the Virginia House of Delegates, he thundered:

“If things are allowed to go on as they are, it is certain that slavery is be abolished except in Georgia and the other cotton States, and…ultimately in these States also,” Benning insisted. “By the time the North shall have attained the power, the black race will be a large majority, and we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything.” [41] 

Not letting up the fiery Georgian told the Virginians that the North would invade the South to end slavery and of the outcome of such an invasion:

“We will be overpowered and our men compelled to wander like vagabonds all over the earth,” he told his audience, “and for our women, the horrors of their state cannot contemplate in imagination.” This then, was “the fate that Abolition will bring upon the white race….We will be exterminated.” [42]

Virginia’s Governor, John Letcher was “a longtime foe of secession and had wanted to bring slavery to an end in Virginia, but once elected to the governorship he adroitly put all that behind him, and rather like [Robert E.] Lee, he went to work with considerable efficiency for two causes in which he did not believe.” [43] One Unionist delegate to the convention wrote of the proceedings, “The scenes witnessed within the wall of that room…have no parallel in the annals of ancient or modern times. On the morning of the 17th, Mr. Wise rose from his seat and drawing a large Virginia horse-pistol from his bosom laid it before him and proceeded to harangue the body in the most violent and denunciatory manner. He concluded by taking his watch from his pocket and, with glaring eyes and bated breath, declared that events were now transpiring which caused a hush to come over his soul.” [44] Those events were a planned seizure of Federal facilities including the arsenal at Harpers Ferry and the Naval Yard at Norfolk. But not all in Virginia were convinced. The strongly Unionist western counties of the state, where few people owned slaves and those who did held very few, voted heavily against secession. The counties withstood the initial shock of secession and would “in a wholly extra-legal way, abetted by Washington – perform its own act of secession, breaking away from Virginia and clinging to the Union as a bob-tailed but finally acceptable new state.” [45]

Former President John Tyler added his voice to the secession cause in Virginia and “personally drafted a document placing the state’s military force under Jefferson Davis’s direct command.” Shortly thereafter he was “elected to the Confederate Congress – becoming the only former President to win office in a foreign country.”[46] However, before he could take office, the former President, now an intractable enemy of the country that he once led, died in Richmond. Shortly thereafter his portrait was removed from its place of honor in the capital.

Tennessee was another state where secession was problematic. Eastern Tennessee was strongly Unionist and the counties “held a convention, denounced the governor and legislature for making the alliance with the Confederacy, and sent a memorial asking that the eastern counties be allowed to form a new state.” [47]The legislature and governor refused this but the area would prove a problem for Jefferson Davis as well as Lincoln who would have liked to help the Tennessee Unionists, but had no military way to do so.

The highly divided border states of Kentucky and Missouri remained in the Union, but became highly partisan battlegrounds between secessionists and Unionists in which insurgents used terrorist methods against their fellow citizens throughout the war. Kentucky’s pro-secession Governor, Beriah Magoffin called the legislature into convention to decide secession “but the legislature, by a vote of 54 to 36 in the lower house, refused to call one and adjourned on February 11 without taking any decisive action.” [48] Losing that vote, he issued a declaration of neutrality which caused both Lincoln and Jefferson Davis to move with caution in the state. Lincoln understood the strategic importance of Kentucky and said “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game….Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We may as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capital.” [49] Lincoln’s use of caution, diplomacy, and when needed the force of the law, courts, and the military paid strategic military and economic dividends for the North as the Ohio River remained under Union control.

Maryland too remained in the Union as Governor Thomas H. Hicks, with the help of federal troops resisted a call in the legislature for a secession vote, even so as Union volunteers marched to Washington in response to Lincoln’s calls for troops some regiments were attacked in Baltimore. The 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was set upon as a “crowd of southern sympathizers threw bricks and stones and fired into their ranks as they changed trains. They returned the fire, killing twelve citizens and wounding many more, then packed their four dead on ice for shipment north, and came on to Washington, bearing their seventeen wounded on stretchers.” [50]

To Lincoln, the issue of secession as well as territory was “never just about politics. To him it spoke about the nation, even if primarily as a symbol. In his mind the nation must be about freedom, never slavery.” [51] For him the Union was sacred and could not be dissolved for any reason, especially the cause of slavery. In contrast to the secessionists who proclaimed that the states had formed the Federal Government and had the right to dissolve the Union, Lincoln, using the reasoning and arguments of Daniel Webster asserted in his inaugural address that the Union actually predated the Constitution:

“Descending from these general principles, we find the propositions that, in legal contemplation, the Union is perpetual, confirmed by the history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And final, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution, was “to form a more perfect Union.”[52]

In early April 1861, a few days before the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter, a New York Times editorial made a proposition that unveiled the reality of the situation now confronting the divided nation, and which so many had for so long refused to face: “If two sections can no longer live together, they can no longer live apart in quiet until it is determined which is master. No two civilizations ever did, or can, come into contact as the North and South threaten to do, without a trial of strength, in which the weaker goes to the wall…. We must remain master of the occasion and the dominant power on this continent.” [53]

Thus, the American ideological war was born; it had taken decades to reach the point of no return. It had taken years of frustration, and attempts at compromise by politicians who attempted to dodge the moral issues inherent in slavery. Time could not heal the wounds caused by slavery as long as “one section of the country regarded it as a blessing, the other as a curse.” [54] Frederick Douglass observed: “Whatever was done or attempted with a view to the support and secularity of slavery on served to fuel the fire, and heated the furnace of [anti-slavery] agitation to a higher degree than had any before attained.” [55]

As a Post Script I would add that it appears that the Trump Led Republican Party is on the same path as the Southern Democrats who first split their party and then the Union.


Notes

[1] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury pp.355-356

[2] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 310

[3] Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 310

[4] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.338

[5] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury pp.338-339

[6] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.355

[7] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightning p.134

[8] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury pp.354-355

[9] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.184

[10] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With Sword p.50 These words are little different than the words of many conservative Evangelical Christian pastors, pundits and politicians today in relation to the legalization of Gay marriage.

[11] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples pp.38-39

[12] Ibid. Holzer Lincoln and the Power of the Press p.256

[13] Ibid. Goodheart 1861 p.77

[14] Ibid. Goodheart 1861 p.77

[15] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.238

[16] Cooper, William J. We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War November 1860-April 1861 Alfred a Knopf, New York 2012 p.75

[17] Ibid. Catton The Coming Fury pp.46-47

[18] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter pp.250-251

[19] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.237

[20] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume II p.398

[21] O’Connell Robert L. Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman Random House, New York 2013 p65

[22] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.248

[23] __________ Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union. Retrieved from The Avalon Project, Yale School of Law http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp 24 March 2014

[24] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.251

[25] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.253

[26] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.342

[27] Ibid. Catton The Coming Fury p.122

[28] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.238

[29] Ibid. Dew Apostles of Disunion p.18

[30] Ibid. Stampp The Causes of the Civil War p.189

[31] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.250

[32] Ibid. Dew Apostles of Disunion p.48

[33] Ibid. Dew Apostles of Disunion p.48

[34] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.145

[35] Lincoln, Abraham First Inaugural Address March 4th 1861 retrieved from www.bartleby.com/124/pres31.html 24 March 2014

[36] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.429

[37] Ibid. McPherson Drawn With Sword pp.50-51

[38] Cleveland, Henry Alexander H. Stevens, in Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, before, during and since the War, Philadelphia 1886 pp.717-729 retrieved from http://civilwarcauses.org/corner.htm 24 March 2014

[39] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.382

[40] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.244

[41] Ibid. Dew Apostles of Disunion p.66

[42] Ibid. Dew Apostles of Disunion p.67

[43] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory p.232

[44] Osborne, Charles C. Jubal: The Life and Times of General Jubal A. Earl, CSA Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill NC 1992 p.49

[45] Ibid. Catton The Coming Fury p.365

[46] Goodheart, Adam The Ashen Ruin in  The New York Times: Disunion, 106 Articles from the New York Times Opinionator: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln’s Election to the Emancipation Proclamation Edited by Ted Widmer, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, New York 2013 p.71

[47] Ibid. Catton The Coming Fury p.365

[48] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.510

[49] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume One: Fort Sumter to Perryville p.53

[50] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume One p.53

[51] Ibid. Cooper We Have the War Upon Us p.80

[52] Ibid. Wills  Lincoln at Gettysburg p.130-131

[53] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume One p.43

[54] Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.143

[55] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.253

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

800px-the_monitor_and_merrimac1

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

 

CSSVirginia1862.2.ws

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.

603px-Battle_of_Hampton_Roads_Map

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.”

USSMonitor1862.3.ws

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.

arizon-main-battery2

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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The Monitor and the Virginia at 157 Years: The Clash of Ironclads at Hampton Roads

800px-the_monitor_and_merrimac1

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today marks the 157th  anniversary of an event which changed naval warfare forever. 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 just a few miles from my office, if it happened today I would certainly be able to watch it from beach any of the beaches were I work at Joint Base Little Creek – Fort Story.  

On that day, 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. 

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

On the morning of March 8th 1862 the CSS Virginia steamed slowly from her base at Portsmouth Virginia into Hampton Roads at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. 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. The 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. Her plans had been leaked to the US Navy which was also in the process of constructing a number of ironclad ships of different types. The first of these ships to be ready was the USS Monitor, a small ship mounting a single heavily armored turret mounting two powerful 11” Dalghren smoothbore guns was still steaming to Hampton Roads when Virginia came out for battle.

CSSVirginia1862.2.ws

During the ensuing fight of March 8th Virginia rammed and sank Cumberland which though fatally wounded disabled two of Virginia’s 9” in guns. She 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.

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.

603px-Battle_of_Hampton_Roads_Map

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. Monitor’s executive officer, Lieutenant Dana Greene, the son of Union Brigadier General George Sears Greene, the hero of Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg 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 and Monitor remained on station.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote after the battle:

“the performance, power, and capabilities of the Monitor, must effect a radical change in naval warfare.”

USSMonitor1862.3.ws

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. 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.

arizon-main-battery2

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.

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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The Civil War and the Transformation of Naval Warfare

battleofhamptonroads

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

For the past month I have been doing a lot of work on my Civil War and Gettysburg text. As I looked at the first chapter which deals with the Civil War being the first truly modern war, I realized that the text was entirely land-centric. Part of this was because no naval forces were involved at Gettysburg, but they did have a significant and even a pivotal role in the defeat of the South. The technical developments at sea during the Civil War still affect us today. Since many of my students are Naval officers and our Staff College focuses on joint operations I thought it wise to include a brief introduction to those transformational developments of the Civil War.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Another aspect of the American Civil War that made it the first modern war was the naval war. There are several components of which we should take note. The first of which are the major technical advances in naval warship design, particularly in the matter of armor protection and steam propulsion. While both armor protection and steam propulsion were not new. Steam power had been introduced in the United States Navy in 1814 when Robert Fulton’s USS Demologos was launched. That ship was innovative but saw little service. The U.S. Navy commissioned a number of steam frigates, first paddle-wheel steamers and later screw-frigates in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s. However during the ante-bellum era only seventeen of fifty-seven major ships (ships of the line, frigates and first rate sloops of war) were steam powered. By the end of the war most ships were steam powered or had sails just to supplement their steam plants.

The second major technical innovation was the use of iron in shipbuilding, particularly armor plating for protection. What had changed was that the French and British navies had adopted explosive shell in the 1830s. The first use of them by the Russians against the Turks at the Battle of Sinope in 1853 proved devastating to the Turks and convinced both the British and the French that something had to be done to counter the threat. The result was the ironclad.

During the Crimean War the French built ironclad floating batteries as well as “three small purpose built…gunboats…whose ironclad hulls proved equally impervious to solid shot and explosive shell.” [1] The French commissioned their first ironclad shell firing battleship, the Gloire in 1859. The British Royal Navy commissioned their first ironclad, the HMS Warrior in 1860. Though she did not have the rotating turrets and maintained sails as an auxiliary source of propulsion, Warrior was “rightly regarded as the first battleship of the modern age. Warrior was steam-propelled, shell firing, iron in construction from keel to bulwarks and heavily armored as well.” [2]

But it was in America that the steam powered ironclads changed naval warfare in a dramatic fashion. The Confederacy led the way in the development of ironclads largely out of necessity to break the Union blockade. As necessity is the mother of invention the Confederates were most creative in attempting to answer the Union blockade, which was tightening significantly by 1862 as Union Naval and Army forces conducted amphibious operations along the Confederate Coast seizing six of the nine ports with rail connections to the southern interior, while blockading the remaining ports. The “blockade reduced the South’s seaborne trade to less than a third of normal,” [3] which included imports of vital war materials as well as the export of the South’s only real commodity, cotton.

The blockade had a devastating effect on the southern economy and war effort: “by bringing about serious shortages in strategic items, not only added to the inflationary trends but also frustrated efforts to maintain the transportation network and to increase industrial output.” [4] A southern naval officer “conceded after the war that the blockade “shut the Confederacy out from the world, deprived it of supplies, weakened its military and naval strength.” [5] It also contributed to the decline in the southern standard of living, weakening the political will of the southern people by “accentuating the hardships of war by reducing the southern standard of living and denying consumers enough of many of the imports, such as coffee, which they valued. This was a cost of war which northerners did not have to bear.” [6]

The blockade and Union amphibious operations soon deprived the Confederacy of its major naval facilities and forced the confederate Navy to rely on small shipyards in often isolated locations. The isolation meant that the often paltry amount of supplies such as iron, wood, and weapons, could not get to these facilities, hindering the construction of warships. But the Confederate Navy also suffered from its secondary status to the Army and since “Davis favored the army, the navy received inadequate funding.” [7]

the-css-virginia-in-drydock

CSS Virginia in drydock

Despite this, southern naval personnel were decidedly inventive in attempting to find creative ways to defend their harbors as well as break the blockade. First was in the development of ironclad ships armed with large rifled cannons which fired the explosive shells which were so devastating against wooden ships. The first operational Confederate Ironclad the CSS Manassas was destroyed at New Orleans by Admiral Farragut’s fleet, but the most famous Confederate Ironclad had a decided effect on the war. This was the CSS Virginia formerly the Federal steam frigate USS Merrimac which had been burned at Norfolk to prevent her from falling into Confederate hands. The ship had burned to the waterline but its hull was intact. Likewise its engines, which even before the sinking were seriously in need of replacement, were intact.

Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory realized that innovation was the key to Confederate hopes at sea and he told the Naval Affairs committee in the new Confederate Congress “I regard the possession of an iron-plated ship as a matter of first necessity.” [8] Mallory sent agents to Europe to contract with French and British yards to build such ships but those efforts fell through when both countries decided to enforce their neutrality laws which forbade them from producing warships for a belligerent nation.

This caused Mallory to embark on converting the Merrimac into a large ironclad ram. In 1861, not long after the seizure of Norfolk and the Gosport Naval Shipyard, Mallory’s Chief of Ordnance and Hydrography, Lieutenant John M. Brooke, “had drawn up a design for transforming Merrimac’s hull into the iron plated CSS Virginia.” [9] The ship was cut down to the waterline and rebuilt with a “170 foot long casemate sloped at an angle of 36 degrees” [10]bolted onto the hull. Construction was agonizingly slow despite the efforts of officers on the scene. The ship’s executive officer, Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones “pressed the workmen to labor overtime, seven days a week” [11] but despite their efforts the ship was completed nearly four months after its projected completion date of November 1861. This was largely due to issues that would plague the Confederate shipbuilding industry throughout the war; “shortages of iron, congestion on the railroads hauling materials, and the necessity of retooling the Tredegar Iron works[12] to roll the armor plate slowed her construction.

The ship’s casemate had a four inch layer of armor plate, and the hull below was given a one inch armored belt extending to three feet below the waterline. Armed with six 9 inch Dahlgren smoothbore naval guns on the broadside, two 7 inch rifles forward and two 6.4 inch rifles aft and equipped with a seven foot iron ram on her bow, when complete, the new Virginia was unlike anything seen before. [13]

During construction Union spies leaked the plans to the North which catapulted the Lincoln and his Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles into action. “When Welles learned of enemy plans for Merrimac, he appointed an Ironclad Board to study the problem. It recommended that the Navy Department let contracts for three experimental ironclads, one of them designed by John Ericsson and known as the Monitor.[14]

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Ericsson, a Swede, was the inventor of the screw propeller and designer of the first U.S. Navy Screw Frigate the USS Princeton. The Monitor too was like nothing ever seen on the ocean. Described by some as a “cheese box on a raft” the small ship had all of her machinery located below the waterline on a completely iron hull that only drew 11 feet of water. The hull was protected by armor plate, but the most notable and innovative feature was a heavily armored revolving turret with eight inches of armor, mounted two massive 11 inch Dahlgren smoothbore guns which “could fire a 170-pound shot or 136-pound shell in any direction except straight ahead, where the pilot house sheathed in nine inches of armor was located.” [15] Future ships remedied this defect. Ericcson’s ship was mocked around the navy and by naval designers, but he and it would prove them wrong.

Monitor was completed two weeks before Virginia, but the Confederates elected to strike quickly. On March 8th 1862 the Virginia sailed under the Command of Franklin Buchanan, a veteran officer who had left the U.S. Navy to confront the Federal blockade force off Hampton Roads. During the battle she rammed and sank the large sailing Sloop of War USS Cumberland and shelled the sailing Frigate USS Congress, one of the Navy’s original six frigates until that ship caught fire and exploded during the night. The steam Frigate Minnesota, a sister ship of Merrimac and the flagship of the blockade force had run aground attempting to come to the aid of the two doomed ship and was at the mercy of Virginia. But tides and darkness caused Buchanan to withdraw for the night. March 8th was the “worst day in the history of the U.S. Navy. The Virginia sank two proud ships within a few hours – a feat no other enemy would accomplish until 1941. At least 240 bluejackets had been killed, including the Captain of the Congress – more than the navy suffered on any day of the war.”[16]

That night the tiny Monitor arrived and when Virginia steamed out on March 9th to complete the work she had begun the previous day, her crew saw a strange craft laying aside Minnesota. They did not realize that this was the new Union ironclad. As the Virginia approached Minnesota to finisher her off, the Monitor went into action. The ships fought a fierce engagement for several hours. The engagement was a draw and never fought again as neither side wanted to risk their only operational ironclad. Virginia had to be scuttled to avoid capture when Union forces captured Norfolk in May of 1862. However, the encounter had revolutionized naval warfare and doomed the graceful wooden wall of the sailing ships of the line and frigates. When the news of the action reached London the effect was shattering. The London Times commented:

“Whereas we had available for immediate purposes one hundred and forty-nine first class warships, we now have two, these being the Warrior and her sister Ironside. There is not now a ship in the English Navy apart from these two that it would not be madness to trust to an engagement with that little Monitor.” [17]

Designers on both sides experimented with various designs of ironclad warships. The Confederacy focused on building ironclad rams based on the Virginia, which featured a central armored casemate where all the ships guns were mounted. Eventually they completed twenty-one more such vessels which were used mostly in harbor defense activities. All of these ships faced construction challenges largely due to the shortage of iron plating, adequate propulsion systems and weapons. Some ships had armor plating consisting of railroad tracks which were bolted onto wooden casemates.

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The U.S. Navy, with more shipyards and resources had a number of designs including the Eads river ironclads, the ironclad frigate USS New Ironsides and various types of “Monitors” featuring heavily armored revolving turrets designed by John Ericcson. Other designs were rejected for various reasons. While ironclads were the preferred type of ship, neither navy had the ability to build completely ironclad fleets and wooden ships still had a decided speed advantage over ironclads. Thus field-expedient protection was devised used which resulted in ships being protected by lumber, cotton and tin. However, by the end of the war the United States Navy had 58 monitors in operation. In addition to the monitor fleet another dozen or so ironclads of various types served in the U.S. Navy.

When the Ironclad Board of the United States Navy prioritized the types of ship to construct to meet the demands of the war, they rightly recognized that first priority had to be given to what we now call “the Brown Water Navy.” The Board determined that:

“Our immediate demands seem to require, first, so far as practicable, vessels invulnerable to shot, of light draught of water to penetrate our shoals, rivers, and bayous. We therefore favor the construction of this class vessels before going into a more perfect system of large iron-clad sea-going vessels of war.” [18]

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The new designs which featured steam propulsion and armor protection instantly made all previous ships obsolete and by the 1880s these features would be incorporated in warship design by navies around the world. The effect was immediate in England where “After 1865 all the Royal Navy’s new ships were built of iron; the most modern of the old were cut down and iron clad.[19] France and Russia followed, but the United States, in its post war draw down allowed its fleet to crumble and it would not be until the 1880s that the first steel ships would be built to replace the now obsolete monitors and the remaining wooden steam frigates.

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Two other naval developments from the Civil War still play an important role in naval warfare and strategy. Two were related to the modern submarine. The first that of a semi-submersible “torpedo boats” known as Davids, one of which disabled the massive USS New Ironsides, hitting the ironclad with a 60 pound charge on the tip of a spar torpedo mounted on its bow off of Charleston on October 5th 1863. The fifty foot long craft and two of her crew returned it to a heroes’ welcome. A Union torpedo boat under the command of Lieutenant William Barker Cushing, brother of Army Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing, a hero of “the Angle” at Pickett’s Charge, sank the ironclad CSS Albemarle on the Roanoke River with a spar mounted torpedo on October 27th 1864.

On February 17th the fully submersible CSS Hunley exploded a spar torpedo on the side of the USS Housatonic a steam sloop anchored off Charleston. The torpedo sank Housatonic and swamped the tiny Hunley taking her and her nine man crew to their watery grave. These early Confederate innovations spurred the development of submarines, something that the U.S. Navy pioneered and still leads the world in many ways. In many ways the submarine is the most deadly naval and strategic weapon system in the world today, and they trace their roots to the humble CSS Hunley, the first to sink a warship in combat.

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The Hunley and Monitor remain today the most famous ships of the Civil War, each of which irrevocably changed the character of naval warfare for generations to come.

The last development was the development of what were then called torpedoes, but are now known as mines by the Confederate Navy. Authorized by the ever innovative Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, these weapons were used to protect blockaded ports from Union Naval forces and by the end of the war these “infernal devices” had sunk or damaged forty-three Union warships.” [20]

The lessons learned from the battles along America’s Littorals demonstrate the importance of being able to conduct both blue water as well as actions along contested shorelines and inland waterways. Likewise they demonstrate to naval strategists the importance of not ignoring any means that a weaker opponent can use to defend his coastline. The surprise attack on the guided missile destroyer USS Cole by terrorists with an explosive laden craft on October 12th 2000 demonstrate the vulnerability of even the most modern warships to technology not much different than that used against New Ironsides, Housatonic and Albemarle in the Civil War.

Notes

[1] Keegan, John The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare Penguin Books, New York and London 1988 p.110

[2] Ibid. Keegan The Price of Admiralty pp.110-111

[3] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.382

[4] Currant, Richard N. God and the Strongest Battalions in Why the North Won the Civil War edited by Donald, David Herbert A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York 1996 p.33

[5] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.381

[6] Jones, Archer. Military Means, Political Ends in Why the Confederacy Lost edited by Boritt, Gabor, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1992 p. 75

[7] Millet, Allan R. and Maslowski Peter For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States, Revised and Expanded Edition The Free Press, New York 1994 p.220

[8] McPherson, James War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies 1861-1865 p.96

[9] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation pp.129-130

[10] Ibid. McPherson War on the Waters p.97

[11] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.130

[12] Ibid. McPherson War on the Waters p.97

[13] Ibid. McPherson War on the Waters p.97

[14] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense Revised and Expanded edition p.221

[15] Ibid. McPherson War on the Waters p.99

[16] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.376

[17] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.377

[18] _____________ The Daybook: Civil War Navy Special Edition – Technology U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Center retrieved from http://www.history.navy.mil/content/dam/nhhc/browse-by-topic/War%20and%20Conflict/civil-war/cwsetech.pdf 16 January 2015 p.9

[19] Ibid. Keegan The Price of Admiralty p.111

[20] Ibid. McPherson Battle Cry of Freedom p.314

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