Tuesday, March 08, 2005

On March 8th in military history....in 1862

On this day in military history….in 1862. The ironclad warship, CSS Virginia sinks two Union frigates at the Battle of Hampton Roads. In the spring of 1961, Confederate forces were able to capture Norfolk, Virginia. This gave the Confederacy its only major shipyard and a large cache of heavy guns, but before the Union forces retreated, they burned what they couldn’t take with them, including nine warships. One of them, the USS Merrimack, was eventually raised by the Confederacy and renamed the CSS Virginia. The CSS Virginia was rebuilt with a reduced superstructure and slanted iron plating. She was also equipped with a ram in the bow in order to cause the most damage to wooden warships.

After the loss of Norfolk, the Union forces began a total naval blockade of Hampton Roads. On the morning of 8 March, 1962, the CSS Virginia set sail to break the blockade with a small number of gunboats as escort. She immediately headed strait for the Union frigate, USS Cumberland and rammed the ship below the waterline, which sank very quickly (duh!). Unfortunately, as the Virginia was backing away from the Cumberland, she left a part of her ram in the ship. After the Cumberland, the Virginia headed for the USS Congress. The captain of the Congress ran aground to avoid being sunk like the Cumberland and traded shots with the Virginia for about an hour until the Congress surrendered. After that, the Virginia headed towards the USS Minnesota, which had run aground on a sandbank while trying to escape from the Virginia. However, because of the deep draft of the Virginia, she was not able to get close enough to the ship to do any damage, and retired back to the safety of Confederate-controlled waters.

The Virginia expected to head out the next day and complete the destruction of the Union fleet, but during the night, the Union’s answer to the Virginia was hurried down to Hampton Roads to protect the Union fleet. The next morning, when the Virginia returned to the scene of the previous day’s battle, there was a “cheese box on a raft” standing between it and the Union fleet. The ship was the USS Monitor. It was conceived by a Swedish immigrant named John Ericsson and the ship was built entirely of metal. It consisted of heavy, round metal turret which housed two cannon on an armored deck. The deck was barely above the surface of the water with the bulk of the ship’s systems under the water line to protect them from enemy fire. The Virginia and the Monitor fought for four hours without either side sinking or seriously damaging the other. Although the battle ended in a draw, it was a tactical victory for the Union since the Virginia was prevented from destroying the rest of the Union fleet and also a strategic victory since the Union was able to continue its blockade of Hampton Roads.

After the battle, neither ship met each other in battle again. The Confederates were forced to evacuate Norfolk in May 1962 due to Union attacks. Since the Virginia would not be able to breakthrough the Union blockade and was too large to sail up the James River to Richmond, it was run aground and burned by the Confederates. The Monitor became the prototype for a whole number of river monitors. However, although it was well-suited for fighting on rivers, the low decks made it rather un-seaworthy. As a result, in December 1862, it floundered and sank off Cape Hatteras while it was being towed back to New York.

In 1973, the wreck of the Monitor was found off Cape Hatteras by a team of scientists. She was found upside down with the hull resting on the turret. The area of the wreck was declared a National Historic Landmark (later National Marine Sanctuary) and a number of artifacts have been salvaged and can be seen in Newport News, Virginia at the Mariner’s Museum.


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