Posts Tagged ‘ironclads’

As I type, the end of another year is just a few hours away.  I’ve managed to do a small piece each December 31st, so it only seems appropriate to continue the tradition.  And since the previous two “year-enders” had to do with endings (the breakup of AT & T and Thomas Jefferson’s resignation as our country’s first Secretary of State), I should write something involving some sort of beginning.

Who am I kidding?  Let’s talk about the USS Monitor…but only for a minute.

Many of you are already familiar with the battle fought between the Monitor and the CSS Virginia (which was actually the USS Merrimack in Confederate garb) in March of 1862.  As the first battle fought between ironclads, it pretty much ended in a draw, which shouldn’t be that big of a surprise since both had cannon capable blowing holes in wooden ships, but not in each other.

Anyways, two months after their engagement (the Battle of Hampton Roads), the Virginia was scuttled by Confederate forces to keep it from falling back into the hands of the Union.

And as 1862 came to a close, the life of the Monitor ended as well.  On December 31, 1862, she was being towed in the Atlantic Ocean just off Cape Hatteras.  The seas were rough that evening and the Monitor, designed for river travel, couldn’t handle the conditions.  She foundered and sank about 16 miles from shore.  It’s a bit ironic that the first two ironclads, built to dominate in war, both met their demise in circumstances that had pretty much nothing to do with the Civil War in which they fought.

So that’s it…pretty simple this evening.  2010 is nearly over.  I hope it’s been a great year for you, and I wish you a wonderful…and very safe…New Year.

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When I was around 10 or 11, I found a reproduction print called “Battle of the Ironclads” in a discount store called Hammer’s and convinced my mom I needed it.  There was something about the funny-looking ships that I just loved and I remember thinking that this was “real adult history,” and I needed to learn more.  It, of course, immediately got put in some stack of other things I “needed” as a kid.  I’d run across it every 2 or 3 years, and even as a old, wise teenager, I’d stare at the explosions of what I knew as the Monitor and Merrimac and remember that first glimpse of what real history looked like.

On March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) went out for her first trial run – and immediately sank two ships.  Its 4 inches of armor more than made up for its lack of mobility.  And if it couldn’t get its 10 guns into position, there was always the four foot long ram on the front.  After sinking the first 2 ships on the 8th, three more suddenly-outdated wood ships – run aground and virtually helpless- awaited the Virginia on the next day.  

Months earlier when the Confederates were changing history and turning the former USS Merrimack into an unstoppable weapon, rumors of the plans reached New York, and a decision was made to build their own ironclad from scratch.  The USS Monitor turned out have fewer guns – just two – but they were mounted on a rotating turret, so navigation of the ship was not as important.  But just in case, the Monitor sat higher in the water making it faster and more maneuvrable than its nemesis, and it also had thicker plating – up to 9 inches in its most critical areas.

Now to March 9th…  As the Virginia set out to continue the work of the day before, it set its sights first on the USS Minnesota.  But unknown to the Rebels, the Monitor had appeared in the middle of the night and lay waiting.  To the soldiers on board the Virginia, this strange-looking ship appeared as if “dropped from the sky.”  In fact, some of them weren’t even sure it was a ship.

“We thought at first it was a raft on which one of the Minnesota’s boilers was being taken to shore for repairs, and when suddenly a shot was fired from her turret we imagined an accidental explosion of some kind had taken place on the raft.”

It didn’t take much longer for them to figure out what that oddly-shaped thing was, and the battle began.  Neither ship could do much damage with their guns at first, and the Virginia was unable to take a shot with its ram since the Monitor was so nimble.  But enough damage was done to each ship eventually that they both retired, and officially the battle must go down as a draw.  But it was a history-making fight that literally changed the way naval battles were fought.

Interestingly, while both ships eventually met their demise, neither was lost in a battle.  The Monitor, while nimble, was not very good in high, open waters and sank in a storm at the end of ’62.  The Virginia did not even make it that long.  After Union troops captured her home base of Norfolk, she was purposely blown up to keep her out of enemy hands.

Recommended reading: The Civil War: A Narrative–Fort Sumter to Perryville, Vol. 1

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