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Noms de Guerre

April 30th, 2011 No comments

“Nom de Guerre” is a French expression which, translated literally, means “war name”. Think “Maverick”, “Ice Man” and “Goose” in Top Gun. From a more historical perspective, think of General Thomas J. Jackson. Almost everyone calls him only by his nom de guerre: “Stonewall Jackson”. Many of our better-known military leaders have had a nom de guerre. In fact, some have had several, which reflect the relative success (at least as perceived by the public) of their military careers at the time the name is conferred.

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee

Take for instance General Robert E. Lee. At the end of the Civil War, Lee was so venerated in the South (and pretty much in the North, too) that a small boy, learning about Lee in his classroom, asked his mother, “Momma, I’m confused. Was General Lee in the Old Testament or the New?” [1] But Lee was not always so lofty a figure in the public’s eye. At the start of the war, Lee was in charge of the disappointing Cheat Mountain Campaign in western Virginia. He was viewed by the public as being too cautious in battle, and was dubbed “Granny Lee”. After this campaign, Confederate President Jefferson Davis reassigned Lee (who had a background with the Corps of Engineers) to supervise the build-up of coastal defenses in South Carolina. This, and the construction of defensive trenches around Richmond earned Lee the sobriquet “King of Spades”, and it was not conferred in a positive tone. These early names gave way later to more positive nicknames later, after Lee’s brilliance as a field commander was established. Later we see him referred to affectionately as “Bobby Lee” and reverently as “Marse Robert” (marse is slang for master).

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

And how about Lee’s nemesis, General Ulysses S. Grant? After the successful investment of Fort Donelson, Grant received a request for surrender terms from the rebel commander, Simon Bolivar Buckner. Grant’s famous reply was “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” [3] The capture of Fort Donelson in 1862 was one of the earliest Union successes in the Civil War, when the North was hungry for good news. The press seized upon the term “unconditional surrender”, and since it fit neatly into Grant’s initials, U.S. Grant became “Unconditional Surrender Grant”. Later, during the long and bloody campaign against Lee in 1864, when the war seemed interminable and Northern morale was flagging, Grant was nicknamed “The Butcher” or “Grant the Butcher” due to the high number of Union casualties, especially at Cold Harbor. This was not any more descriptive of Grant than “Granny Lee” was descriptive of Lee, since Grant had shown time and again during the war his care of the troops under his command. When Grant was finally able to pin Lee down and force a surrender he offered generous terms, according to Abraham Lincoln’s wishes to “let ‘em up easy” and his own inclinations. After the surrender he was the “Hero of Appomattox” and once again the darling of the North.

George S. Patton

George S. Patton

In World War II, General George S. Patton was known as “Old Blood and Guts” because he was the most aggressive fighting general in the European Theater. Check out his speech to his troops upon assuming command of the Third Army just before D-Day, and you’ll get a little insight to his approach to war. In North Africa, he squared off against a wily opponent in Germany’s Erwin Rommel, respectfully called “The Desert Fox” by the British. Which reminds me of the unstated rule of noms de guerre. A regular pseudonym may be self-imposed, say for example “Mark Twain”, which Samuel Langhorne Clemens chose to commemorate his days as a Mississippi riverboat pilot (“mark, twain” was the boatman’s call at measuring two fathoms, a minimum safe depth for navigation). Not so a nom de guerre, which must be chosen by your friends, the soldiers under your command, the press, or perhaps by your enemy.

Sources:

[1] The History Channel Presents The Civil War, The History Channel DVD Collection
[2] Lee’s Nicknames, Son of the South
[3] Correspondence Between Ulysses S. Grant and Simon B. Buckner Discussing Surrender Terms at Ft. Donelson, CivilWarHome.com
[4] The Famous Patton Speech, by Charles M. Province

Worst U.S. Maritime Disaster

March 19th, 2011 No comments

I would make a bet that if you took a poll, asking the average Joe what is the worst U.S. maritime disaster, you would get “The Sinking of the Titanic” as the number one answer. I would agree that the RMS Titanic is by far the most famous, but it was not really a U.S. disaster, and not the worst in terms of loss of life (in U.S. History). That grim distinction belongs to the explosion and subsequent sinking on April 27, 1865 of the SS Sultana, a Mississippi River steamboat paddlewheeler.

SS Sultana on April 26, 1865

SS Sultana on April 26, 1865

The Sultana was a new, state-of-the-art steamboat, built in 1863. She had been making regular runs up and down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans during the last two years of the Civil War. On her last trip, she was commissioned by the Federal Government to carry Union solders upriver, on their way home as the war came to a close. In fact, most of the passengers were newly released prisoners of war, from the Cahaba and Andersonville prisons.
The high death toll was due to the fact that the ship was dangerously overloaded. She was by law limited to 376 passengers and crew. However, there were thousands of former Union prisoners at Vicksburg, Mississippi, anxious to take the first available ship and get home. The government was paying a lucrative $5 per soldier to get them home, so the ship’s captain, J. C. Mason of St. Louis, was incented to put as many passengers on board as possible. According to some, the military officers were being paid a kickback of $1.15 per person to look the other way and ignore the overcrowding. [2] At any rate, the Sultana was carrying 2,200 to 2,400 people at the time of the disaster, six times the legal limit. So many people were crammed on board they decided not to make out a passenger list. As you can see from the photo taken the day before she sank, the Sultana was packed with people literally shoulder-to-shoulder. Extra stanchions were installed to support the hurricane (top) deck, which was sagging from the weight of the passengers.
At Vicksburg, the engineers discovered leaks and a bulge in one of the boilers. Not wanting to lose time and take a chance on another steamboat getting the opportunity to carry the passengers, the captain decided to patch the boiler rather than replace it, which would have taken three days.

Sultana Burning, Harper's Weekly

Sultana Burning, Harper's Weekly

The Disaster: After stopping in Memphis, Tennessee, Sultana started upriver, headed for the next stop at Cairo, Illinois, where most of the passengers were scheduled to disembark. The spring runoff was underway, so the river was high and the current strong, which meant that the Sultana needed a higher than normal head of steam to make her way upstream. The steamboat, top-heavy from too many passengers, was careening from one side to the other. At 2:00 a.m. on the 27th, about seven miles upriver from Memphis, three of the four boilers exploded. The explosion tore a gaping hole in the Sultana and sent burning pieces of coal flying everywhere, which quickly caught the wooden ship on fire. Men were blown off the ship, or jumped into the icy spring water to escape the flames. Soldiers drowned, burned, died from hypothermia, or were crushed when the smokestacks collapsed onto the stricken ship. About 500 men were rescued from the water, of which some 200 to 300 died later from burns, hypothermia, or their general poor health resulting from their captivity. Altogether some 1,700 to 1,800 people died, making it the worst maritime disaster in American History.
The Cause: The explosion was likely caused by four factors: the steam pressure was probably abnormally high due to the need for extra power to overcome the strong current. The hasty boiler repairs were inadequate to insure safety. The careening could also have played a part – the four interconnected boilers were arranged side-by-side, which meant that water could flow from the highest boiler to the lowest as the ship tilted to one side then the other. If the water level was not properly maintained, hot spots could develop, where the iron boilers become red-hot due to lack of water, then when the water rushes back it would instantly turn to steam, causing a sudden surge in the overall steam pressure.

Coal Torpedo

Coal Torpedo

Sabotage? Another possible cause for the boiler explosion was reported in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in an article on May 6, 1888. [4] In this article, William C. Streetor, a resident of St. Louis, reported that while he worked as a clerk and assistant keeper in the Gratiot and Myrtle street prisons, an ex-Confederate Secret Service agent and boat-burner, Robert Louden (or Lowden), claimed he had smuggled a coal torpedo aboard the Sultana at Memphis. The coal torpedo was a small explosive device made to look like an ordinary lump of coal, but would explode in a coal furnace, causing a secondary explosion of the boiler. (During the Civil War, a broad variety of explosive devices were called “torpedoes”.) Some sixty Union steamboats were destroyed by Confederate agents during the war. [5] The sabotage theory was called “wholly baseless” in one source [2], and given credibility in others. [5]
Why is the Sultana Disaster unknown? When the Sultana’s boilers burst, the nation was inundated with news. Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated, and John Wilkes Booth had been caught and killed on April 26th, the day before the Sultana exploded. Also on the 26th, the last major Confederate Army, under Joseph E. Johnston, surrendered to William T. Sherman. Possibly because of the shady nature of the circumstances around the overcrowding, the Army was not anxious to publicize the story. The public was either tired or desensitized to news of death, having just gone through a war in which at least 618,000 soldiers were killed. Finally, anything which happened in the West received less coverage in Eastern papers.
Vox’s Take: Whether the sinking of the Sultana was accidental or deliberate, it was an especially tragic end for the Union prisoners of war who survived incredible deprivation in Southern prison camps, only to be killed when they were so close to getting home. In a small way, the incident helped bring former enemies together: the people of Memphis cared for the survivors and raised funds to help them. [3] One ex-Confederate soldier in a small boat is said to have single-handedly rescued fifteen Union survivors. [2] Perhaps someday this incredible story will find its way into the history books. Interestingly enough, the remains of the Sultana may have been found in 1982, 32 feet under a soybean field in Arkansas. [3] The Mississippi River has changed course many times, and the wreckage is now two miles from the current location of the main channel.

Sources:

[1] Remembering Sultana, National Geographic News
[2] Death on the Dark River, The Story of the Sultana Disaster in 1865, ancestry.com
[3] SS Sultana, Wikipedia
[4] Sabotage of the Sultana, Civil War St. Louis
[5] The Boat-Burners, Civil War St. Louis

Four Famous Flags

February 27th, 2011 No comments

I love the red, white and blue image of the “Stars and Stripes” against a sky-blue background. Our flag produces a positive visceral reaction for me, as I suspect it does for a lot of Americans. As with any nation’s flag, our flag is more than just the symbol of our country, it becomes a visual representation of our feelings of patriotism and love of home. Certain individual flags, in time of crisis, become a physical channel for our collective passions.

The Star-Spangled Banner

The Star-Spangled Banner

Star-Spangled Banner: One of our most famous flags is the Star-Spangled Banner, the popular name given to the 15-star, 15-stripe flag which flew over Ft. McHenry while the British bombarded it on September 13-14, 1814 during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. The sight of the huge garrison-sized (30 by 42 feet) flag defiantly flying over the fort as the sun rose on the morning of the 14th after an all-night bombardment was witnessed by Francis Scott Key, who was inspired to write the poem “Defence of Fort McHenry”. After being set to the tune of an old British drinking song it became our National Anthem. The flag itself was not well treated during the 19th Century. Modern sensibilities about the preservation of historical artifacts were not widespread, and bits of it (including one of its fifteen two-foot-wide stars) were snipped off and given out as souvenirs, eventually reducing the flag’s length by eight feet. What remains of the original flag is now preserved in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Ft. Sumter Flag

Ft. Sumter Flag

Ft. Sumter Flag:When the seven states of the deep South seceded following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Federal installations in the South were marooned. Most, such as Federal armories, were easily accessible to the Confederates and were quickly taken. A few Federal forts in and around Charleston Harbor, however, were isolated from land approaches and remained under Union control. The Union officer in charge, Major Robert Anderson, moved his garrison to Ft. Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, as hostilities became increasingly likely. After Major Anderson refused their ultimatum to evacuate, Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard gave the order, and the Confederates fired the first shots of the Civil War at Ft. Sumter on April 12, 1861. On the 14th, after some 34 hours of bombardment, out of food and with parts of the fort burning (but with no casualties), Major Anderson was compelled to surrender. He requested as part of his surrender terms permission to fire a 100-round salute to the flag which flew over the fort, which Beauregard granted. Unfortunately, a shell exploded prematurely on the 47th shot, killing one man and wounding another, and the salute was reduced to 50. After lowering the flag, the Union soldiers were allowed to simply board a ship for the North, taking their ensign with them.
Major Anderson was proclaimed a hero in the North, and he and the flag went on a fund-raising tour where the flag was “auctioned” off (and then promptly re-donated by the winner) again and again to raise funds for the nascent war effort. After the four bloodiest years of our history, with the South beaten, (now) Major General Anderson returned to Ft. Sumter with the same flag and raised it again over the fort. The dramatic flag-raising ceremony was on April 14, 1865, four years to the day after the fort’s surrender. Ironically, it was also the night Lincoln became the first U.S. President to be assassinated.
U.S. Marines Raising the Flag on Mt. Suribachi

U.S. Marines Raising the Flag on Mt. Suribachi

Iwo Jima Flag: One of the most iconic images of World War II (or any war, for that matter) was captured by photographer Joe Rosenthal at the height of one of the fiercest fights, the Battle for Iwo Jima. Four days after landing on Iwo Jima, amid terrible fighting, Marines of the 5th Division reached the top of Mt. Suribachi, the highest point on the island. Actually the second flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi that day (February 23, 1945), the moment captured on film was on the front page of newspapers across the country within 18 hours. President Franklin D. Roosevelt immediately saw its value in helping the war effort, and the inspiring image, along with the three survivors of the six soldiers who raised the flag, were soon on a tour to sell U.S. War Bonds. Roosevelt was right: the 7th Bond Tour raised an incredible $24 billion for the war effort, the largest borrowing from the American public in history. To put that amount in perspective, the entire budget of the U.S. Government in 1946 was $56 billion.
Raising the Flag at Ground Zero

Raising the Flag at Ground Zero

Ground Zero Flag: Out of the tragedy of the September 11, 2001 attacks came a new iconic image for a new generation: the sight of three dust-covered New York firefighters raising a flag on an improvised flag pole at Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center. Shot by Thomas E. Franklin of The Bergen Record, the resilience and defiance this photo conveys lifted our spirits even as we mourned the victims of that senseless act of terror. Shortly after the 9-11 Attacks, my son Michael, who was a Damage Controlman (firefighter) in the Navy, deployed on his ship the USS Theodore Roosevelt in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the War on Afghanistan. Soon after the ship embarked, the Navy asked to borrow the Ground Zero Flag, and so New York City lent the flag to the Navy who forwarded it to the Theodore Roosevelt, then in the Arabian Sea supporting the air war in Afghanistan.
On September 30, 2001 a ceremony was conducted on board the Theodore Roosevelt wherein the Ground Zero Flag was presented to the Theodore Roosevelt firefighters. I’m proud to say that Michael was one of the firefighters to participate in that ceremony. On this deployment, the Theodore Roosevelt remained at sea for 159 consecutive days, longer than any warship since World War II. I remember Michael saying they worked 16 hours a day for 79 straight days before they got a day off. When the guys on the ground need air support, they need it now.
Flying the the Ground Zero Flag

Flying the the Ground Zero Flag

While participating in Operation Enduring Freedom, the Ground Zero Flag was flown from the Theodore Roosevelt’s halyards, an especially poignant reminder to the sailors and airmen what we were fighting for, and an especially “in-your-face” reminder to the Taliban what we were fighting for. At the end of Theodore Roosevelt’s deployment, the flag was formally transferred back to police and firefighters representing New York City. There’s a sad footnote to this story, however. In August 2002, New York City lent the flag back to the original owners prior to its transfer to the Smithsonian. To their dismay, the owners realized that the flag the city returned to them was not the flag taken from their yacht the Star of America and hoisted by the firefighters at Ground Zero. They have tried to force New York City to find the original flag, but so far have not met with success.
Vox’s Take: I think it’s a shame that the original Ground Zero Flag has been lost, just as it’s a shame part of the Star-Spangled Banner was cut up for souvenirs over 150 years ago. I hope the Ground Zero Flag can be found. Despite this, both flags have served their purpose, and the images they have given us, which can never be lost, are just as powerful as the actual artifacts.

Sources:
[1] Battle of Baltimore, United States History.com
[2] Star-Spangled Banner, National Museum of American History
[3] Battle of Fort Sumter, Wikipedia
[4] Oral History- Iwo Jima Flag Raising, Naval History & Heritage Command
[5] Battle for Iwo Jima, 1945, Navy Department Library
[6] Bond Tour, IwoJima.com
[7] Raising the Flag at Ground Zero, Wikipedia
[8] Operation Enduring Freedom, Wikipedia
[9] Help Find the Flag, findthe911flag.com

Mound City

February 19th, 2011 No comments

USS Mound City

USS Mound City

During the Civil War, the Union built a little fleet of armored gunboats to contest the Confederate control of the Mississippi River. These gunboats were named after cities and towns along the Mississippi, such as the USS Cairo, USS Carondelet, and USS Mound City. At the time I first heard of the latter gunboat, I thought the name a little strange. Recently, an article in National Geographic mentioned the 19th Century nickname for St. Louis – Mound City. Ah-hah! That explained the name of the gunboat, but isn’t St. Louis rather flat? Isn’t that a bit like a town down in the valley named “Summit” (apologies to O. Henry)?
Well, there actually were mounds in and around St. Louis. Most of these mounds were razed by the white settlers as they moved west and found the huge piles of dirt useful for everything from railroad beds to fill dirt. They were not natural geographic features, but structures built by Native Americans about a thousand years ago. Centuries before Columbus “discovered” America, there was a Native American culture called the Mississippian culture. Contrary to the image of Native Americans as nomadic savages propagated by the European settlers, the Mississippian culture built cities, the largest of which is called Cahokia, although the real name of it is lost to time.
Monk's Mound

Monk's Mound

A few mounds from Cahokia survive today, the largest of which, Monk’s Mound, is truly spectacular – 100 ft (10 stories) high, with a footprint larger than the Great Pyramid at Giza. It was built from some 15 million baskets-full of earth and was the largest man-made structure in North America. The mounds at Cahokia were used as building platforms, burial sites, and probably, in the case of Monk’s Mound, to elevate the central temple or palace. Cahokia was a city of perhaps 10,000 to 15,000 inhabitants at its zenith, but was a ghost town by the time Europeans arrived. Many aspects of Mississippian culture are not well understood, including what caused the demise of the cities like Cahokia.
Vox’s Take: It’s interesting to me to contemplate that at around 1,100 to 1,200 CE there was a city in North America that rivaled the size of many European cities. We didn’t hear about this culture in our American History classes. I think this is partly because the nature of Cahokia and sites like it was poorly understood until the latter half of the 20th Century, and partly because it did not fit neatly into the prevailing stereotype of Native Americans.

P.S. By the way, “Mound City” turns out to be a fairly popular town name, as there is a Mound City in Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri (apart from St. Louis) and South Dakota.

Sources:
[1] USS Mound City, Wikipedia
[2] Cahokia, America’s Forgotten City, National Geographic Magazine, January 2011
[3] Mississippian Culture, National Park Service
[4] Mound City, St. Louis Public Library

Thaddeus Stevens

February 14th, 2011 No comments

Thaddeus Stevens

Thaddeus Stevens

One of the most irascible politicians of the 19th Century was the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. As Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee during the Civil War, Stevens was one of the most powerful members of the House of Representatives and one of the leaders of the Radical Republicans. In this position, Stevens helped set much of the national policy of Reconstruction. Stevens was also known as a witty and sarcastic speaker. During a Civil War course I took, the professor related this, one of my favorite anecdotes about him:
“One day in the 1830s in the Pennsylvania Assembly, a fellow representative spoke sharply against a measure Stevens had presented. Stevens took the floor and made a short speech on the merits of the bill, completely ignoring what the prior speaker had said. As he was about to sit down, he turned to glower upon his critic and said, “Mr. Speaker, it will not be expected of me to notice the thing which has crawled into this House and adheres to one of the seats by its own slime.” Great Leveler, by Thomas Frederick Woodley, page 10.” [1]

Sources:
[1] Thaddeus Stevens Society
[2] Thaddeus Stevens, Wikipedia

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

February 13th, 2011 No comments
Harriett Beecher Stowe

Harriett Beecher Stowe

The best-selling novel of the 19th Century, and the second best-selling book in that century after the Christian Bible, is Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This sentimental anti-slavery novel is an early example of using literature to affect social change. The book was published in 1852, as the nation was beginning to experience significant problems with the “Compromise of 1850″, that series of legislative acts which attempted once more to reconcile the irreconcilable differences between North and South over slavery. [1] Stowe, an active abolitionist born in Connecticut, wrote the book in response to the most abhorrent (to abolitionists) part of the compromise – The Fugitive Slave Act. Her immediate objective was to raise doubts about the Southern portrayal of slavery as a necessary and just institution. The book is listed among the most influential books of all time, among such titles as The Illiad and The Communist Manifesto. [2] It was as popular in Britain as the (Northern) United States, and was translated into all major languages. As you might guess, it was virulently despised in the South. In its time it was widely viewed as a stepping stone on our inexorable path to Civil War, and an urban myth says that Abraham Lincoln, when meeting Stowe in 1862, quipped “So this is the little lady who started this great war”. [3]

Cover of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Cover of Uncle Tom's Cabin

While it is certain that Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a positive social impact in terms of shifting Northern attitudes more strongly against slavery (and possibly helping secure Lincoln’s election in 1860), the book is viewed today with mixed feelings. This is because it inadvertently helped create a number of stereotypes about blacks, some of which persist today. These include the “Uncle Tom” stereotype of the long-suffering but loyal black man who is devoted to his white master, and the “Mammy” archetype of the loud and overweight but good-natured black nanny.

Vox’s Take: From our 21st Century viewpoint, it may be hard to understand how deeply racist our country has been throughout our history, and that for much of that history it was a social norm, not an individual’s character defect. We tend to think that a person such as an abolitionist, who was passionately opposed to slavery, was automatically a believer in racial equality. But that’s not how folks thought back then – views were much more complex than that. There were believers in racial equality at the time of the Civil War, but this viewpoint was radical and on the fringe. The great majority of people, even those opposed to slavery, took it for granted that the black race was inferior to the white. Those beliefs, widespread and entrenched as they were, took a long time to change. That’s part of why there’s 99 years between the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which finally began to codify equality in the law.

Sources:
[1] Compromise of 1850, Library of Congress
[2] The Most Influential Books in History, goodreads.com
[3] Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Wikipedia

Evolution of Naval Armor, Part 2: “Monitor and Merrimac”

January 16th, 2011 2 comments

(To see all the posts in this series, click here: Naval Armor.)
The birth of “modern” naval warfare is sometimes traced to the first engagement between two ships protected by iron armor – the “ironclads”. The Battle of Hampton Roads, more famously referred to as the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac, occurred on March 8-9, 1862 during the U.S. Civil War.

CSS Virginia

CSS Virginia

CSS Virginia (Merrimac)
The USS Merrimac was a wooden-hulled screw frigate launched by the U.S. Navy in 1855. She was in port, due for an engine overhaul at the outbreak of war on April 12, 1861. When the Gosport Navy Yard (later Norfolk Navy Yard) was in danger of being overrun on April 20 by Confederate land forces, the Navy set fire to and scuttled her before abandoning the yard. The Merrimac sank in shallow water without burning completely. The Confederates, desperate for ships, were able to salvage the hulk. Afraid that the North was planning a fleet of ironclads, they decided to rebuild her as an ironclad ram. She was fitted with a four-inch thick iron deck and a sloping casemate (fortified enclosure or roof) of two two-inch plates of railroad iron backed by 24 inches of pine and oak. They mounted ten guns (cannons) on her, four along each side and one swiveling gun each for the bow and stern. Finally, she was fitted with an eight-foot long, 1,500 pound iron ram at her bow. They renamed the rebuilt ship the CSS Virginia. The additional weight was almost too much for the Virginia, whose keel was of course not designed for it. The Virginia also had to make do with the original steam engines meant for the much lighter Merrimac, and so she was woefully underpowered and slow. The additional weight also caused her to draft deeper than before at up to 22 feet, limiting her use in rivers and coastal waters. She was top-heavy, and between the underpowered engines and deep draft she was ”little more manageable than a timber-raft” – she required 45 minutes to turn a complete circle. She wasn’t fit for the open ocean either, so her prospects seemed iffy. In fact, some Confederate newspapers had already pronounced her a failure before her first battle.
USS Monitor

USS Monitor

USS Monitor
The North did not actually have plans in motion to build an ironclad, but they heard about the new ironclad being built by the Confederates, and so embarked on a crash program to produce an ironclad of their own. The Navy employed Swedish engineer John Ericsson who came up with a radical new design. The USS Monitor featured just two large-caliber (11 inch) Dahlgren guns, but these were mounted in a swiveling turret so they could fire in any direction. Most of the ship lay under the water line beneath a flat deck of one inch armor supported by heavy timbers. Her sides had five inch-thick iron plates, backed by oak. The turret was comprised of eight layers of one inch iron plate, bolted together. A ninth plate inside acted as a sound shield. This new style of ship was like nothing anyone had seen before. One Confederate officer thought she looked like a “cheese-box on a raft”. The Monitor had a very modest seven to eight foot draft, making her very suitable for rivers and shallow coastal waters. Like the Virginia, the Monitor was not fit for the open ocean – with the armored turret she was top-heavy, and with the shallow draft she was vulnerable in rough seas.
Battle of Hampton Roads

Battle of Hampton Roads

Battle of Hampton Roads
On March 8, 1862, the Virginia was supposed to go out on sea trials, but the captain instead decided to contest the Federal blockade of the waters around Norfolk and Newport News, Virginia – a body of water called Hampton Roads. The wooden Federal fleet saw an approaching ship that looked like a “barn roof” and soon realized that they were up against the rumored Confederate ironclad. They joined in battle, but they were completely outclassed. The shells from the Union guns simply bounced off Virginia’s sloping iron casemate. Ignoring a small union gunboat, Virginia first attacked and sank the USS Cumberland by ramming her below the water line. The ram became stuck in Cumberland’s hull and nearly dragged the Virginia down with the Cumberland, but then the ram broke off and Virginia backed away. The Cumberland died fighting, firing her guns as long as they were above water.
Next, Virginia engaged the USS Congress. After an hour, the Congress was badly damaged and surrendered. At this point a Union shore battery fired on the Virginia and she retaliated by firing “hot shot” (cannon shot heated red-hot) at the Congress, which caught fire and burned the rest of the day. The Virginia then tried to engage the USS Minnesota, which had run aground in shallow water. But because of her deep draft, the Virginia was not able to get within range. The battle was suspended when Virginia’s captain became concerned they would miss the high tide and not be able to make it over a sand bar and back to port.
At dawn the next day, March 9, Virginia returned to finish off the Minnesota. During the night, however, the Federals had managed to reach the scene of battle with the new USS Monitor. As the Virginia approached the Minnesota, the Monitor interceded. The resulting engagement lasted most of the day, with the Monitor and the Virginia pounding each other, often at point-blank range, with little effect. Despite their other flaws, each ship’s armor was very effective against the other’s shells. At one point the Virginia tried to ram the smaller Monitor, but without her iron ram this tactic failed. At the end, the Monitor and the Virginia disengaged, each thinking the other was quitting, and each claiming victory.

Turret of the Monitor, dented by shells

Vox’s Take:
You know how some innovations can go for decades before they catch the world’s attention? That’s not the case here. News of the “Battle of the Ironclads” sent a shock wave through the navies of the world, as everyone recognized immediately that wooden-hulled ships were hopelessly obsolete compared to the ironclads. The revolving turret was also an extremely important innovation, because for the first time you did not have to position the whole ship in order to bring your guns to bear on an opponent. This made the Monitor, not the Virginia, the model for future warship development.
Neither ship fought again, and neither survived the year. In May, the Virginia was ordered blown up by her own Navy in order to avoid capture, and in December the Monitor foundered and sank in rough seas. However, their one battle changed the course of naval warfare as radically as the switch from sails to steam.

Sources:
[1] Battle_of_Hampton_Roads, Wikipedia
[2] The Battle of the Ironclads, CivilWarHome.com
[3] USS Monitor (1862-1862), Naval Historical Center
[4] National Archives