Friday, April 22, 2011

The Battle of Hampton Roads, 8-9 March 1862

Battle of the Week 2011-10

In our classrooms, the Battle of Hampton Roads gets a curious treatment. We recognize it as a turning point in naval history and treat it as a giant contest between two behemoths--but we give it about three sentences in our textbooks and lectures, and perhaps a question or two on a test or quiz. Every fifth-grader can tell you about the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack (or, if he's from the Deep South, the Virginia), but how many know who won--or what the battle accomplished?

There's a reason for that. See, the short answers to those questions are neither and nothing. Neither side won, in the sense that neither ship sustained critical damage and they both left the area under their own power; and they accomplished nothing in the sense that the Union blockade remained in place, but Confederate waters remained firmly in Confederate hands. Of course, the battle changed naval warfare profoundly--but the Civil War was over before the changes could have any real effect on the conflict.

The Confederate ram CSS Virginia was the second incarnation of the USS Merrimack, a steam-powered warship scuttled by Union forces when they abandoned the Gosport Naval Yard in April 1861. The Confederates raised her, cased her in iron, armed her with the latest guns (which the Federals had generously left in the shipyard), and sent her out to break the Union blockade that kept the south from exporting cotton or importing the weapons it needed to fight the war. She had her baptism by fire at Hampton Roads, a waterway at the head of the Chesapeake Bay where three large rivers come together.

The USS Monitor was the Union response to the news that the Confederates were putting an ironclad into the water. Unlike the Virginia, though, she was designed as an ironclad, mounting a rotating turret with two huge 11-inch guns instead of a more traditional broadside with smaller guns. Of the two ships, the Monitor was clearly the more advanced--but that did not make the Virginia any less a threat to the wooden ships she was built to prey upon.

On the 8th of March, 1862, the Virginia steamed into Hampton Roads, supported by three other Confederate ships and two gunboats, to take on the Union vessels blocking their way into the Chesapeake. She opened the fight by ramming the USS Cumberland, which sank so quickly she nearly took the Virginia down with her. Next the Confederate ships turned their attention to the USS Congress, which surrendered after an hour or so of hard fighting. Their next target was the USS Minnesota, whose captain had run her aground to avoid the Cumberland's fate. The failing light and falling tide forced the Virginia to abandon the fight, and she headed upriver to evacuate her wounded.

Confederate spirits were high that night, and the little squadron returned the next day to finish off the Minnesota and see to the other Union ships in the area. They found the Monitor, which had steamed in during the night, waiting for them. The escorts stood off and let the ironclads fight each other.

After the first few minutes of firing, it must have been clear to everybody that the fight would be a long one. Expecting to do battle only with wooden-sided ships, the Virginia carried only explosive shells and hot shot, neither of which had much effect on the Monitor's armor. But the Union ironclad had her own handicap--her big guns were loaded with half their normal powder charge for fear of explosions in her turret. Had the Virginia carried solid shot, she could have penetrated the Monitor's armor and sent her to the bottom. Had the Monitor been firing with full powder-loads, she could have done the same to the Virginia.

As it was, they wasted their ammunition for three hours. The Virginia rammed the Monitor once--but she had lost her ram when she sank the Cumberland the day before, and the attack did no damage. The Monitor tried to run astern of the Virginia and knock her unprotected rudder off--but the Confederate managed to lumber out of the way without damage.

Finally, a shell burst outside the Monitor's exposed pilot-house, temporarily blinding her captain, and she steamed into shallow water where the Virginia could not follow. The captain's intent was to return and rejoin the fight as soon he could, but the Virginia, after waiting an hour or so and determining the Monitor wasn't coming back, turned and steamed back toward her base at Norfolk. The Monitor returned in time to see her opponent apparently retreating--and both sides claimed the victory, even though neither had accomplished its objectives.

So the results: two ships sunk (the Congress had exploded in the night), four others--including the ironclads--heavily damaged, and three or four hundred men dead and wounded. And that's about it. The blockade remained in place, and the following month the Confederates had to abandon Norfolk, scuttling the Virginia because it couldn't go any farther upriver. The Monitor sank in choppy seas in December.

But the battle's real impact was the changes it wrought in naval warfare. The world quickly recognized the advantages of a turret over a broadside; although it meant a ship could carry fewer guns, those could be heavier, and the ship could bring its guns to bear in any direction without having to maneuver. The Union commissioned several more Monitor-class ships--in fact, the turreted design spread rapidly around the world, changing the way naval ships looked and fought. The design can still be found on battleships today, and turreted heavy guns remained the primary armament of the world's most powerful ships for three quarters of a century--until aircraft launched from Japanese carriers at Pearl Harbor showed the world how naval warfare had changed again.

So the Dreadnoughts and Bismarcks and Missouris and Yamatos all owe their concept to a small ship that changed the way nations thought about ship-to-ship combat. That, I suppose, is the real legacy of the Battle of Hampton Roads.

You can read more about the battle at the link below:

Now go get your nerd on!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Nerd Moment. Has This Ever Happened To You?

I had a Nerd Moment yesterday morning.

You know what I'm talking about. You're buzzing along in your normal world, being responsible, being practical, when something happens that jolts you out of the practical world and sends you somewhere else. And for some time, a minute or an hour or a week, it's hard to see anything else and you feel compelled to focus on whatever caught your attention. In a movie or book, it's the pivotal moment, the moment when the brilliant but unproductive scientist or doctor or engineer watches something happen, drops whatever he's doing, and spends the next week working non-stop, barely sleeping or eating, coming up with the Big Idea the story hangs on. It's the moment that inspires an entrepreneur to start a company to solve one problem.

Some people call it a Eureka Moment, or a Moment of Clarity. I call it a Nerd Moment.

This time, the nerd struck me on my daughter's soccer field. It was a girl on the opposing team that did it.

She was tall--among the tallest players on the field. She was lean, and fair, and freckled. She squinted in the sun, her focus entirely on the game, and in her eyes I read just a hint of coldness. This girl knew just what she wanted and how to get it.

But it was her hair, flame-red and curly and bound at the back of her head to froth down her back to just between her shoulder blades, that really caught my attention. That, and the fact that her team wore vivid emerald green. And in my mind, she became something else.

I saw her as an Irish princess, a cloak around her shoulders and a long sword in her hand in an age before the Vikings ravaged Ireland. At first I thought the sword was hers--that she was a warrior-princess standing guard over her home while her father and brothers and cousins were off making war against one of their neighbors. But as the vision developed, I realized the sword was her father's; she stood holding it for him while he readied himself to leave for war. And she was less than happy to be the one left behind. She had already asked if she could go with him, but he had firmly refused, and her noble pride wouldn't let her beg. But she burned to go with him and share in the glory and adventure of battle, and she vowed to herself that one day, she would--no matter what he said.

To be fair, she could have been nearly anyone: a thrall from Sweden or Norway, a Dane, a Scot. She could even have been Berber. She could have been a stowaway on the Titanic, or working in a factory in London, or sister to a Dane who hoped to prove himself by joining a ship's crew and going i-viking. She could have been crossing the prairie with her family, moving west to a better life in Texas or California, or watching her father leave for the Army in 1861, or 1942. I don't know her or her ancestry--so I'm free to come up with any story I want. And to me, she is an Irish princess in an age before the Vikings.

I've never really had more than a passing historical interest in the Irish. My fascination has always been with the other side of the Irish Sea, with the Britons and Picts and Scots. But thanks to a nameless redhead in a green soccer jersey--I may just have to write an Irish story one day.

My daughter's team lost the game 5-4. But my daughter played hard, and that made me proud. And you know, it's not so bad to do your best and lose a close game when the other team has an Irish princess playing for them.

Be open to the Nerd Moments. You never know where they might take you.

And go get your nerd on!