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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.