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!

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