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Buchanan barrels full speed ahead
Franklin Buchanan brought an imposing record to the CSS Virginia when he assumed command of the new ironclad vessel.
As a founder and first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, the old Navy tar had trained many of the officers who led the Union and Confederate fleets. He'd served with distinction under the legendary Matthew C. Perry during the Mexican War, then won command of Perry's flagship on the historic 1852 expedition to Japan.
Only his allegiance to his native state, in fact, persuaded the pro-Union commandant of the Washington Navy Yard to resign from the service at the outbreak of the Civil War. Yet, when Maryland failed to secede, his attempt to seek reinstatement was met with scorn.
Not long afterward, the embittered Buchanan offered his services to the Confederacy. That gave the South a commander whose courage and boldness proved to be an ideal match for the ambitious mission of the Virginia.
"Buchanan was, without a doubt, equal to Farragut as one of the greatest naval leaders to emerge during the Civil War," says historian John V. Quarstein, director of the Virginia War Museum.
"He was the perfect choice for this command."
Buchanan's distinguished record wasn't the only reason his officers and crew regarded him with awe.
Though nearly 62, "Old Buck" stood tall and erect as he supervised the hectic, last-minute preparations of the Virginia. He possessed a hawklike mental keenness as well as considerable physical presence.
His chief engineer, H. Ashton Ramsay, left a telling description of Buchanan's vitality and poise.
"The veteran sailor, the beau ideal of a naval officer of the old school, with his tall form, harsh features, and clear piercing eyes, was pacing the deck with a stride I found difficult to match," he wrote, "although he was then over sixty and I but twenty-four."
Buchanan had good reason to hurry, considering the increasingly strident pressure from Richmond to test the Virginia in battle.
Stalled by bad weather and a maddening shortage of shot and powder, he had hoped to bring the ironclad into Hampton Roads several days before it finally left its Elizabeth River berth on March 8, 1862.
Still, no one but a few officers expected to hear his commands only 90 minutes into the untried vessel's maiden voyage.
"Their jaws dropped when he told them he was going to attack," Quarstein says.
Over the next few hours, Buchanan's unexpected aggressiveness may have contributed almost as much to the Virginia's success as its seemingly impregnable armor.
"He took it to the enemy - and he caught them napping," Quarstein says.
The officer's brutal tactics also added to the trauma the Virginia inflicted on the Union fleet. Nervous lookouts turned in false sightings for months after the smoke of the battle had cleared.
"Wooden ships could fight for a long time. But the object was always to kill the people - not the ship," says historian Joseph M. Judge of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
"Buchanan completely destroyed both the Cumberland and the Congress, ramming one and sending it to the bottom within minutes. It was shocking. It was a revolution."
Wounded in the last minutes of the bloody March 8 clash, Buchanan lost his chance to command the Virginia when it met the USS Monitor early the next morning. As the war progressed, however, his courage and boldness made him the South's senior admiral.
He later commanded the ironclad Tennessee in the Aug. 5, 1864, Battle of Mobile Bay. There, he surrendered to a vastly superior force only after being rammed by the USS Hartford and two other vessels.
"He really was a tar of the old school," Quarstein says. "He was tough."