No one imagined the destruction about to unfold as the CSS Virginia eased from its berth late on the morning of March 8, 1862, for what was supposed to be its maiden voyage.
But even as the sailors at Portsmouth’s Gosport Navy Yard prepared to loosen the ship’s lines, mechanics swarmed over its monstrous armored casemate, trying to finish such last-minute details as its gunport shutters. So urgent was its departure that many jobs remained undone as the smoke-belching ironclad headed into the Elizabeth River, attracting a crowd of excited spectators that soon swelled into the thousands.
Not until the slow, 10-mile journey to the river’s mouth was complete, however — and the chief engineer had tested the Virginia’s balky steering and suspect steam engines — did the captain decide to forego the usual shakedown cruise and take the lumbering ironclad directly into battle.
And even as he stood on the gun deck with his men, Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan didn’t know that — over the course of the afternoon — his revolutionary vessel would inflict the US Navy’s worst defeat until Pearl Harbor.
So badly would the Virginia’s shot-proof iron casemate and powerful guns mangle the hapless Union fleet blockading Hampton Roads that — by day’s end — the centuries-old era of wooden warships powered by sail would be over.
“(The) whole world is watching you today,” Buchanan said, as he signaled the drummer to beat to quarters.
“Go to your guns!”
The old naval warrior had reasons to worry as his fearsome but untested ship hulked past Craney Island into Hampton Roads.
Grafted onto the salvaged hull and steam engines of the USS Merrimack — which had never performed well even before being scuttled and burned 9 months earlier — the Virginia was a slow, heavy and ponderous vessel that drew 22 feet of water. It also faced daunting shortages of gunpowder and coal, not to mention the shortcomings of a crew that had as many army artillerymen as sailors.
“Buchanan is itchy. He wants to go out. He knows the Monitor is almost ready,” said Anna Holloway, curator of the USS Monitor Center at The Mariners’ Museum.
“But the same storm that almost sank the Monitor as it came down the coast kept him from taking the Virginia out into Hampton Roads.”
Still, Buchanan’s prudence was rewarded with perfect weather conditions that Saturday morning.
As the Virginia swung toward Newport News Point, the wind was calm and the sea state zero. Across Hampton Roads, the USS Cumberland and USS Congress stood motionless, with freshly laundered blue and white uniforms hanging limply from their rigging.
Despite weeks of worry about the new Confederate ship — and reports that it had taken on a crew and raised its flags — the Union fleet was stunned by the strange behemoth. More than 15 minutes passed between the first sighting by the French sloop-of-war Gassendi — which had waited months for the Virginia to appear — and a warning signal.
“I wish you would take a glass and have a look over there, sir,” said Congress quartermaster Edward Shippen.
“I believe that thing is a-coming at last.”
Stranded in the calm, both the Congress and the Cumberland rushed to position their broadside guns by kedging themselves about with their anchors.
But as the Virginia drew near, its slanted iron casemate — which had been slathered with grease — easily withstood a barrage that would have staggered any wooden warship.
“…Suddenly there leaped from her sides the flash of 35 guns,” said Lt. John Eggleston, commander of the Virginia’s two hot-shot guns.
“And as many shot and shell were hurled against our armor only to be thrown from it high into the air.”
Though the Virginia replied with only four guns, the impact of those powerful weapons was lethal.
Several Union gun crews perished as the Congress was set afire.
“Those four shots were devastating. They wreaked havoc,” said historian John V. Quarstein, author of the new book “CSS Virginia: Sink Before Surrender.”
“Witnesses said blood, brains and gore ran from the ship’s scuppers.”
Still, Buchanan’s primary target was the Cumberland, which reportedly was armed with rifled cannon capable of penetrating the Virginia’s armor.
So he continued past the stricken Congress, aiming his 1,500-pound iron ram at the Cumberland’s hull.
“As she came plowing through the water right onward toward our port bow, she looked like a huge, half-submerged crocodile,” pilot A.B. Smith recalled.
“It was impossible for our vessel to get out of her way.”
Within 30 minutes, the mortally wounded Cumberland would sink to the bottom of the James River. But her dazed crew fought back valiantly as their ship settled into the water.
Firing again and again as they went down, the gunners blew away the ironclad’s launches, riddled its smokestack with holes and shot off its anchors as well as the muzzles of two guns.
But even as Lt. George Morris ordered a last broadside, they could not pierce the Virginia’s armor.
“(Our shot) had no effect on her,” reported Lt. Thomas Selfridge, “but glanced off like pebble stones.”
No one on the Virginia paused to watch as the sinking ship’s decking and hatch covers began to blow off from the enormous build-up of air pressure.
Still trapped inside the Cumberland’s hull, the ironclad struggled to break free until its ram broke off. Then it turned in a long, slow arc and headed back to the grounded Congress.
With only its stern guns able to bear, the stranded warship struck its colors after being brutally pounded for an hour. Congress officers were surrendering when Federal batteries at Camp Butler — ignoring the momentary truce — drove the boarding party off.
Several rebels were hit, prompting Buchanan to climb to the deck with his rifle. He was still cursing from the shot-riddled railing when a musket ball smashed into his thigh.
“Plug hot shot into her and don’t leave her until she’s afire,” he yelled as he was carried below.
Lt. Catesby Jones carried out his orders swiftly, transforming the ship into an inferno. With less than an hour of daylight remaining, he then backed the Virginia off and headed toward the grounded USS Minnesota.
Only the failing light and ebbing tide kept the ironclad from destroying another quarry. But as it pulled away toward Sewell’s Point, it left Newport News Point littered with two blasted ships and 300 dead, wounded or missing sailors.
“The magnitude of the defeat is hard to imagine today. It was much worse than anything the Navy saw in the Revolution or the War of 1812,” said Gordon Calhoun of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
“The Virginia was a complete break from anything they had seen — and Buchanan used it to fight in a way no one had dreamed of. So when the day was done, the Union knew they had nothing that could stop it.”Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times