Saturday, March 10, 2012

Clash of the Ironclads 1862

There will be other battles, but no more such tests of seamanship and manhood as the battles of the past.
Nathaniel Hawthorne.

"The rumors were true" is what the sailors aboard the five Union ships guarding the mouth of the James River at Hampton Roads, Virginia probably thought as the late U.S.S. Merrimack, now the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia, approached from Norfolk. First the Virginia went for the Cumberland, an already outdated vessel dating to the 1840s, ramming and sending her to a watery grave. Then, she went for the Congress, with an outcome exactly the same as the fate of the Cumberland: the Congress took a journey to the bottom. The Minnesota, Roanoke, and St. Lawrence were spared... for the time being, the Confederates hoped. Until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, March 8, 1862 would go down as the worst day in U.S. Naval History.

The Yankees, however, had their own trick up their sleeves: their own ironclad, the U.S.S. Monitor. Arriving that night at Hampton Roads, she had not even been tested to see if her performance was satisfactory. In other words, she would have to prove her worth fighting the Virginia.

The Monitor and Merrimac: The First Fight Between Ironclads by L. Prang & Co., 1886.
"We thought at first it was a raft on which one of the Minnesota's boilers was being taken to shore for repairs," remembered a Virginia midshipman; but the "boiler" brought out a cannon and fired it. "You can see surprise in a ship just as you can see in a man," a Monitor crewmember recalled, "and there was surprise all over the Merrimac [the Yankees still referred to it by its original name]." It was March 9 now, and the titanic struggle clash of the ironclads had just begun.

Suffice it to say the battle was a draw, both beasts thrusting and parrying, the shots from one unable to penetrate the other's armor plating. While the Virginia had the most guns, the Monitor was more manuverable; hence, the Monitor circled round and round its opponent. At one point the Virginia ran aground, and with the Monitor moving in for the kill, many of the crew thought this was end of their vessel; fortunately for the Confederacy, it got out of its fix, although an officer aboard noted she was "as unwieldly as Noah's Ark" with engines hardly running. The Rebels and Yankees tried to ram their way to victory, but the attempts were failures. After two hours of this, the battle ended, both sides believing themselves the victor. The amount of casualties for the opposing sides were not and still have not been determined.

"This day saw the completion of a revolution in naval warfare begun a generation earlier by the application of steam power to warships." historian James M. McPherson notes. "Doomed were the graceful frigates and powerful line-of-battle ships with their towering masts and sturdy oak timbers." The first step towards the modern navies of the 21st Century had been taken.

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