Marcus W. Robbins, Historian & Archivist
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Blog #64, March 9, 2019

History Matters: 157th Anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads

I first wrote this (7) years ago. Update the event to (157) years ago today in 2019.

Locally as you pass over either of the two river crossings between the northern and southern shores of the Hampton Roads harbor the waters between them east to west form the canvas to where this naval revolution took place on March 9, 1862.

Sometimes you don't have to write new text, you just share the story with the next generation. The men and machines that contributed to these great naval innovations on so many levels were indeed ahead of their time. It has been said that the age of wood and sail gave way to the age of iron and steam and that naval warfare worldwide would never be the same but as my friend the great naval historian John V. Quarstein would say "it happened right here in Hampton Roads."

BATTLE OF IRONCLADS, March 8 & 9, 1862 – 150 Years Ago

As the spring of March 1862 approached, the nation had been at civil war within itself for almost a year. No place held more strategic importance in eastern Virginia’s theater of war than the harbor known as Hampton Roads.

This vast natural deep water harbor receives the rivers Nansemond, James and Elizabeth before exiting into the Chesapeake Bay and afforded miles of shoreline for each side to establish defenses. Both the Northern Federal and Southern Confederate forces realized that control of this waterway would be vital to their individual cause.

The Federal forces occupied Newport News Point with a heavily reinforced Camp Butler, the man-made Rip Rap Island found at the channel entrance otherwise known as Fort Wool which gave the Union forces a great forward observation point. Most importantly, Fortress Monroe functioned as a secure base for both land and sea operations.

On the southern shores of the Hampton Roads harbor, the Confederate forces established reinforcements at Pig Point, Craney Island and Sewell’s Point. Also they held control of their grand prize of the war that was abandoned by the Union burning of April 1861, found by sailing 10 miles down the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth: the Gosport Navy Yard.

Sides had been drawn, the center harbor cleared and in a matter of time the contestants would appear to do battle.

The South, lacking material resources and a robust industrial base, had raised and converted the burnt hulk of the steam frigate USS Merrimac. Torched and sunk by the Union abandonment at Gosport, the new ironclad Confederate States Ship, CSS Virginia, was commissioned in about nine months, yet it was still incomplete at time of sailing. Although not ideal, the South was forced to use what it could. To support the goal of survival by holding both Norfolk and Portsmouth (and ultimately Richmond), the South needed control of Hampton Roads and to break the Union blockade.

Virginia drew a great depth of water which would restrict operations and also required much room to turn and maneuver by the very size of the hull. Given marginal performance of the steam engines, Virginia made up for any shortcomings by way of firepower between two seven-inch Brooke rifled guns, six nine-inch Dahlgren smoothbores and two 6.4-inch Brooke rifled pivot guns. It sailed with a casemate of two alternating layers of bolted two- inch iron bars over a 24-inch wooden backing all configured at a 35-degree angle in order to best deflect shot. Virginia also had an iron ram mounted to the bow, a feature that would be soon tested with much success against wood.

On the morning of March 8, 1862, Virginia slipped away from Gosport and sailed into history. Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan commanded his flagship against the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron consisting of the USS Roanoke, USS Minnesota, USS Congress and USS Cumberland which had escaped certain destruction the year prior by being towed away from Gosport as the inferno began under the Union match.

With certain direct maneuver, Buchanan set his target upon Cumberland with a goal of sinking by a massive broadside hit of the ram. It has been said that the resulting impact was wide enough to let in a horse and a cart. Still yet, Cumberland and Virginia exchanged fire as she sank, her flag still flying with honor.

Next, Virginia turned attention back to Congress which up to this point had only received some passing shots and continued to pour shot upon the ship until the white flag was raised. Virginia ceased fire so the smaller vessels of the Confederate James River fleet could approach Congress to remove the surviving officers as prisoners before burning the ship. The Newport News shore batteries would have nothing to do with the surrender and began to fire a hail of bullets from the shore. It was at this time that Commander Buchanan was hit by rifle shot in the leg and was taken out of action. Buchanan’s last order was to heat shells and send hot shot into Congress until the ship was burned. Shortly after midnight the Congress exploded and ceased to exist as the ruins slipped into the deep.

Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones, Virginia’s Executive Officer now found himself in command. With falling tide, proper attention could not be made to the USS Minnesota so Jones took up anchor under the guns of Sewell’s Point for the night. March 8, 1862, is recognized as the demise for the age of sail and wooden vessels against an ironclad; the Union fleet suffered terrible losses.

On the morning of March 9, 1862, naval warfare would be changed forever for it would now be ironclad against ironclad on the second day of the Battle of Hampton Roads.

As the fog burnt away on Sunday morning, something strange was seen alongside of the Minnesota. Described as a cheese box on a raft, it was the USS Monitor, the invention of Swedish designer, John Ericsson. The ship had made the voyage from the Brooklyn Navy Yard leaving Thursday at 11 a.m. and entered into Hampton Roads at 9 p.m. Saturday evening in time to witness Congress on fire.

Monitor was an experimental first-of-its-kind vessel, featuring a round rotating turret that was covered by eight inches of rolled iron plate. Inside the turret were two 11-inch Dahlgren cannon that could be trained in any direction by rotation of the turret. Given the shallow draft required and it being somewhat shorter in length, Monitor had greater maneuverability than Virginia in Hampton Roads.

Lieutenant Worden was Commander of the Monitor from her commissioning till the time of his wounding as the result of a direct hit while he was peering out the observation slit in the pilot house near the close of the battle that Sunday afternoon.

Much has been written pertaining to the first ever battle between two ironclad vessels, but in summary after four hours it was a tactical draw, a stalemate. There was no loss of life or damage to either ship and although worse for the battle, the Minnesota was saved and the Federal blockade remained. Each side claimed its own victory.

Today we can observe actual various artifacts from the ships involved in the Battle of Hampton Roads. Various relics from the CSS Virginia, USS Monitor, USS Congress and USS Cumberland are on display at various local museums and parks in eastern Virginia.

One only needs to travel on either of the two bridge tunnel complexes that cross the Hampton Roads harbor and consider that they act as a natural picture frame showcasing where naval history was made 150 years ago upon these waters because - "history matters".

Circa 1905 postcard depicting the Merrimac and Monitor Duel. First battle of Ironclads. Hampton Roads 1862. (Courtesy of the Marcus W. Robbins collection).


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