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Tidewater Virginia

Showdown at Hampton Roads, Part II

Continued from Showdown at Hampton Roads, Part I

As the Virginia began her run at the Cumberland, the Union ships and shore batteries began shelling the ironclad with little impact. The shot "had no effect on her," noted Lt. Thomas O. Selfridge of the Cumberland, "but glanced off like pebble stones." Methodically passing the 50-gun U.S.S. Congress, the Virginia rammed the 24-gun sailing sloop-of-war Cumberland, creating a hole, according to Lt. John Taylor Wood, "wide enough to drive in a horse and cart." The mortally wounded Cumberland began to sink and trapped the Virginia's ram within her. The Virginia's engines struggled to free her from being pulled under the waves with the Cumberland. The ironclad survived only because her ram broke off.

The Virginia backed clear and continued to pour shot and shell into the Cumberland. Both were now engulfed in gun smoke. The Virginia's sloped sides, coated with grease to help deflect shot, began to crackle and pop from the heat. Midshipman Hardin Littlepage recalled that the ironclad seemed to be "frying from one end to the other." Littlepage later recounted one excited exchange between two crew members: "Jack, don't this smell like hell?" "It certainly does, and I think that we will all be there in a few minutes." It was indeed hell on the Cumberland. Master Moses Stuyvesant remembered it as "a scene of carnage and destruction never to be recalled without horror." Finally, the Cumberland lurched forward and sank with all her flags flying as Lt. George U. Morris called to the crew, "Give them a Broadside boys, as she goes."

Buchanan now turned his ironclad toward the Congress. The Union frigate had run aground trying to escape, and the Virginia could approach only within a hundred yards, pounding the Congress with shot and shell for almost an hour until the Congress surrendered. While overseeing the removal of the wounded from the Congress, musket fire from troops on Newport News Point wounded Buchanan. He ordered the destruction of the Congress and then gave up his command to Lt. Catesby ap Roger Jones. The Virginia moved to attack the U.S.S. Minnesota, one of three vessels that had run aground coming to the aid of the Cumberland and Congress, and was saved from certain destruction only because the tide had ebbed. The Confederate ironclad returned to Sewell's Point determined to finish destroying the Union fleet the next morning. President Abraham Lincoln viewed the sinking of the Congress and Cumberland as the greatest calamity since Bull Run. Secretary of War Edwin W. Stanton feared that the Merrimack would "soon come up the Potomac and disperse Congress, destroy the Capitol and public buildings." Little did Northern leaders realize that the Confederate ironclad was considered by its commander so unseaworthy that it could not leave Hampton Roads.

As the Union high command fretted, the U.S.S. Monitor, which almost had sunk en route from New York, entered Hampton Roads aglow from the flames consuming the Congress. The Union ironclad positioned itself next to the U.S.S. Minnesota to await the return of the C.S.S. Virginia.

On the morning of March 9, Catesby Jones got the Virginia underway only to be amazed by the sight of the Monitor moving away from the Minnesota. One Confederate noted, "Such a craft as the eyes of a seaman never looked upon before — an immense shingle floating in the water, with a gigantic cheesebox rising from its center; no sails, no wheels, no smokestack, no guns. What could it be?" Jones immediately recognized it as Ericsson's iron battery.

During the next four hours, the Monitor and Virginia dueled each other, often at a range of less than 10 yards. Neither vessel was able to gain an advantage. Worden hoped that firing his heavy shot, 168-pound spherical projectiles using 15 pounds of powder, would loosen or break the Virginia's ironplates. In turn, the Virginia was at a disadvantage. She had only explosive shells, hot shot, and canister specifically to use against wooden vessels. Thus, Jones's strategy was to concentrate on the Minnesota and if necessary to try to ram or board the Monitor.

The Monitor's small size and quickness frustrated the Confederates, who tried to fire at the Union ironclad's gun ports but discovered that the turret revolved too quickly. Nevertheless, there were several problems on board the Monitor despite her many technological advantages. The port stoppers proved to be almost too heavy to operate and only one gun could be fired at a time. Both ports were left open because it was the only way to enhance the gun crew's vision since the communications system between the pilothouse and turret failed to perform. The turret's rotating system also malfunctioned. Thus, the turret could not be stopped with any precision. Eventually, the guns were discharged — on the fly as the turret turned past the target.

After two hours of combat, the Virginia finally was able to move against the Minnesota when the Monitor withdrew to replenish ammunition, yet ran aground. For almost an hour the Union ironclad fired shot against the Confederate vessel's iron sides. The Virginia finally freed itself and rammed the Monitor, but only with a glancing blow. The Monitor's evasive action enabled Jones to attack the Minnesota again until the Monitor once again could block the Virginia's attack against the wooden vessel. The Monitor now decided to ram the Virginia, seeking to strike the larger ironclad propeller and disable her. The Union ironclad missed her target because of a malfunctioning steering system. As the Monitor passed the stern of the Virginia, a shot hit the Monitor's pilothouse, blinding her commander, Lt. John Lorimer Worden, and causing the Monitor to break off action temporarily. Jones considered renewing the attack against the Minnesota but the receding tide prompted him to order the Virginia back to Norfolk. Lt. Samuel Dana Greene, the Monitor's executive officer, finally was able to bring the Federal ironclad back into action as the Virginia steamed away. The first battle between ironclads was over. The two vessels were destined never to fight each other again and both were later destroyed, the Virginia by its own crew on May 11, 1862, the Monitor by a storm on Dec. 31, 1862.

Neither ironclad had been damaged seriously during the March 9 engagement, and both claimed victory. Tactical success must be accorded to the Monitor, as the Union ironclad had defended the Minnesota and the rest of the wooden Union fleet effectively. The strategic victor, however, was the Virginia, as the Confederate ironclad retained control of Hampton Roads. The Virginia's ability to defend Norfolk and the James River approach to Richmond altered and delayed Union Gen. George B. McClellan's attempt to strike at the Confederate capital by way of the Peninsula.

Perhaps of even greater importance was the engagement's impact on naval warfare. The Virginia's sinking of two wooden vessels on March 8 and the technological superiority of the Monitor's iron revolving turret in effect sank all of the world's wooden navies. Iron now ruled supreme across the seas.

— John V. Quarstein, director, Virginia War Museum