Iron fist

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"I wish you would take a glass and have a look over there, sir. I believe that thing is a-coming at last."- Edward Shippen, quartermaster of the USS Congress, just hours before the rebel ironclad Virginia destroyed his ship

Few people imagined the destruction poised to unfold when the CSS Virginia eased from its Elizabeth River berth on March 8, 1862. For most of the officers and all of the crew, this clear, mild, late- winter morning heralded nothing more than the trials of an untested ship making its maiden voyage.

Even the chief engineer, H. Ashton Ramsay, paid more attention to correcting the ponderous ironclad's balky steering and struggling engines than to the momentous plans taking shape in the mind of his captain.

"At that time nothing was known of our destination," Ramsay later wrote. "All we knew is that we were off at last."

Across the water, on the other side of Hampton Roads, the powerful Federal blockading fleet lay hidden in clouds of uniforms left to dry by its sailors. Saturday was wash day in the Union Navy, and - following tradition - the starboard rigging of each vessel hung thick with seamen's whites while the port side blossomed with blues.

That strange and colorful sight had just come into view when Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, the crusty first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, stepped onto the gundeck of the Virginia. His ship was edging past Craney Island when he told his crew to prepare for battle.

His unexpected words - "Go to your guns!" - marked the beginning of what, for many years, would be the bloodiest and most shocking defeat in American naval warfare. Five hours later, two major Union vessels would lie burning or sunken at the bottom of the James River off Newport News. Nearly 300 Yankee sailors would be missing, wounded or dead.

In the first clash between traditional wooden fighting ships and a steam-powered ironclad, these lopsided results left little doubt about which was the stronger.

"Everybody knew a battle like this was going to happen one day, but no one imagined the impact it would have when it finally did," says historian John V. Quarstein, director of the Virginia War Museum.

"In terms of shock, in terms of loss, in terms of historical significance - this was like Pearl Harbor. People couldn't believe it."

More than 135 years later, scholars still puzzle over the Union's lack of preparedness for the historic battle.

Rumors regarding the Virginia's completion had been circulating on the north side of Hampton Roads for weeks. Just the day before, Washington had sent word that the ironclad had taken on a crew and raised its flags.

Still, the first eyes to spot the ship belonged to the officers of the French sloop-of-war Gassendi, one of the many foreign vessels that had waited months for the promised clash between the Virginia and the USS Monitor, the experimental Union ironclad. More than 15 minutes passed before the confused Federal fleet recognized the threat and fired a warning signal.

One Northern sailor later recalled his astonishment at the sight, comparing the black iron case mate of the Virginia to "the roof of a very big barn belching forth smoke as from a chimney on fire."

Pilot A.B. Smith, stationed aboard the USS Cumberland, had an even more sinister description.

"As she came ploughing through the water right onward toward our bow, she looked like a huge half-submerged crocodile," he said.

"It was impossible for our vessel to get out of the way."

Indeed, the ironclad's strange appearance wasn't the only factor that caught the Union commanders sleeping. No one seems to have expected the kind of attack made by the wily and determined Buchanan.

Short on powder and shot, he steered his vessel into the south channel and turned toward Newport News, intent on ramming the only Yankee ship with a gun capable of piercing his armor. Passing the USS Congress on the way, he exchanged broadsides, starting a fire and decimating several gun crews on the stunned Union frigate but sustaining little damage to his own command.

Then, aiming the Virginia's prow directly at the Cumberland, Buchanan drove his 1,500-pound iron ram deep into the wooden hull just under the fore rigging. The daring assault opened a gaping, 7- foot-wide wound in his opponent's side.

"He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He just steamed right up, rammed it and sent it to the bottom within minutes," says historian Joseph M. Judge of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

"It was something that no sailing-ship captain would have thought of. That's not how they did battle."

The Cumberland, to its credit, fought back valiantly even as the ship began to settle into the water. Smoke enveloped both vessels as the Virginia returned fire with deadly effect, literally staining its adversary's deck with blood and gore.

Though the Union cannons blew the ironclad's launches away, riddled its smokestack and shot off its anchors as well as the muzzles of two of its guns, they could not penetrate its armor.

"[Our shot] had no effect on her," reported Lt. Thomas O. Selfridge, "but glanced off like pebble stones."

Still, with its prow stuck deeply in the Cumberland's side, the Virginia might have gone down with its sinking opponent had not a tidal swell - and the breaking off of the ram - freed her to back away.

Even then, the cannon fire between the combatants continued so intensely that the ironclad's sides, slushed thick with grease to help deflect shells, literally began to crackle and pop from the heat.

Midshipman Hardin B. Littlepage recalled that she seemed to be "frying from one end to the other." He also remembered this exchange between two members of his gun crew:

"Jack, don't this smell like hell?"

"It certainly does, and I think we'll all be there in a few minutes!"

Instead, it was the Cumberland that slipped slowly under the water, settling to the bottom of the James just after 3:35 p.m. At least 121 sailors died with her, including many wounded who went down with the ship.

No one on the Virginia lingered to watch, however, as the frigate's decking and hatch covers blew off from the enormous pressure of the escaping air. Intent on pressing his advantage, Buchanan had ordered his vessel to turn around and attack what now looked like a line of wounded geese stuck in the shallows of Hampton Roads.

In addition to the Congress, which was stranded off Newport News Point, the frigates Minnesota, Roanoke and St. Lawrence had all run aground on the Hampton Flats while trying to come to the aid of the stricken Cumberland.

Unable to bring any but its stern guns to bear, the nearby Congress became the Virginia's next victim, striking her colors after a brutal hour of pounding from the Confederate ironclad.

Two Rebel gunboats pulled up soon afterward to accept the vessel's surrender. They were beginning to remove the wounded when the Federal forces onshore, which either ignored or failed to see the white flag, drove the victors off with heavy fire.

Several men were hit, spurring an angry Buchanan to the top of the Virginia to get a better view of the action. "Destroy that ---- ship! She's firing on our white flag!" he reportedly yelled.

Buchanan was still cursing from the shot-riddled railing when a musket ball struck him in the thigh.

"Plug hot shot into her and don't leave her until she's afire," he told his executive officer, Lt. Catesby ap Roger Jones, as he was taken below.

Jones carried out his orders swiftly, transforming the already burning Congress into a growing inferno. Then, with less than an hour of daylight remaining, he backed the Virginia off and headed toward the Minnesota.

Luckily the Union frigate, the same shallows that had trapped the ship off Salter's Creek now prevented the Confederate ironclad from approaching close enough to inflict mortal damage. Thwarted by dusk and the ebbing tide, Jones shelled his quarry for several minutes before breaking away and heading back toward Sewell's Point for the night.

The Rebel officer counted his losses at two men dead and nine wounded. Nearly 100 indentations from the enemy's cannons pockmarked his vessel's armor. The Union, on the other hand, suffered more than 280 casualties all told - as well as the total destruction of two of the most important ships blocking the South's more strategic harbor.

"The shock was tremendous. The loss was horrible," Judge says. "For the North, it was the worst day of the war in naval terms."

Indeed, the telegraph lines to Washington, D.C., virtually burned with the news of the disastrous Federal loss and the awesome strength of the new Confederate super weapon.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who heard the reports early Sunday morning, prepared to have barges sunk in the Potomac River for the protection of the capital. The "whole character of the war" had changed, he said, in a gloomy White House meeting with the rest of the cabinet and a troubled President Lincoln.

There, the feelings of vulnerability ran so high that Stanton and Lincoln repeatedly went to a window and looked out over the river. The danger was so imminent that the Virginia might well send them a cannonball before their deliberations ended, the frantic secretary said.

Cooler heads talked about the effect of the defeat on Britain and France, which had threatened to offer the South assistance. They also asked about the last known location of the Monitor, the untested Federal ironclad that had steamed from New York City toward Hampton Roads just three days before.

"They were scared to death," says historian Jeff Johnston of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, describing the anxiety that gripped the administration.

"They had visions of the Virginia having its way with every Northern city on the coast, and - as far as they knew - they had nothing they could put up against it."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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