Monday, March 9, 2015


9 March 2015: Today in 1862, the era of wooden ships passed into history. The Battle of Hampton Roads - often called the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack - proved that survival of a warship depended on it being constructed of iron (later steel). When the Yankees abandoned Hampton Roads, VA early in the Civil War, they burned and sank a frigate, USS Merrimack. Steam propulsion was already in use (USS Constellation - the one in Baltimore - was the last all sail propelled ship built for the U.S. Navy - 1854) and after failing to find a shop that could build an engine suitable to propel the weight of an iron clad ship the South leadership thought that raising the hulk of the Merrimack and taking out the engine would answer nicely. Once they got it up, they determined to use the whole ship, cladding it in iron. They also made it a ram, meaning it was designed to  ... yes, ram another ship and sink it. So they towed the hulk to a graving dock (think Drydock) and began the process. They armed the ship with 10 guns: 6 9" smooth bore Dalhgrens, 2 6.4" and 2 7" Brooke rifles. Initially, she was only given one "shell" of iron; had that remained the case, the Battle of Hampton Roads might have gone somewhat differently! In the end, she wore plates of 2" thick iron backed by 24" thick laminate of iron and pine. She was commissioned on 17 February as CSS Virginia.

The North learned through their intelligence network what was cooking in Virginia and Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, requested of Congress the funding to develop and build an ironclad ship themselves. In August of 1861 the money was approved and a board appointed to consider designs. John Ericsson's design of a monitor was selected and USS Monitor  was born.  
  She was built in Brooklyn NY and was a highly radical design, often  dubbed the "cheesebox on a raft."
 Ericsson armed her with a only two guns, each an  11" Dahlgreen mounted in a cylindrical turret. There was one flaw, a major one, as it turned out: the pilot house was mounted directly in front of the turret which meant that the guns could not fire dead ahead.

CSS Virginia steamed into the Chesapeake Bay on the morning of 8 March with the intent of laying waste to the wooden Union warships anchored off Hampton Roads. While the Yankee ships fired on the ironclad behemoth approaching them, their shot had little effect. USS Cumberland was chosen by Capt Buchanan of  the Virginia as his first target and he rammed her, holing her below the waterline.

She sank quickly, continuing to fire her guns as long as they remained above the water. With 121 of her men dead and another 30 wounded, it was a bad loss for the Union. The Confederate ironclad then turned to the other Union ships and while was unable to sink them, did do considerable damage. The toll was the worst Navy defeat until WWII! But Monitor was on the way!

The two met the morning of 9 March and lasted for hours.

Virginia dwarfs the Monitor
It ended when a shell from Virginia hit the little pilot house on Monitor and  temporarily blinded Capt. Worden with debris that flew into the viewing slits. Monitor had to withdraw, and the exec, Dana Greene took over. But Virginia, seeing their foe pull back, assumed it was over and withdrew themselves to repair the substantial damage she received.

So essentially, it was a draw, but the important thing here is the success of the ironclad ships.

Through a series of events I will not go into here, the Monitor later sank off Cape Hatteras and her sunken hulk was found and partially salvaged in the 1990's. The turret and one of her guns are currently undergoing conservation at the wonderful Newport News Mariner's Museum. 

In a marvelous exhibit devoted entirely to these historic ships, they have recreated the turret of Monitor as it looked just out of the water, full of mud and human remains, as well as a full sized mock up of Virginia loading aboard one of her guns. 

 Maybe we'll do a piece on that in another post.

For now,      

                      Fair Winds,
                         Old Salt

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