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Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Sinking and Loss of the USS Monitor ~ 150 Years Ago on December 31, 1862

Blog #24. December 29, 2012 by Marcus W. Robbins

The following is a mixture of my own words and personal observations while drawing upon existing postings from both the Naval History & Heritage Command and the National Monitor National Marine Sanctuary websites concerning the USS Monitor sinking, my visit to the Mainers Museum on March 8, 2012, and my attendance today at the Hampton National Cemetery for the dedication of the USS MONITOR MEMORIAL MONUMENT.

USS Monitor, a 987-ton armored turret gunboat, was built at New York to the design of John Ericsson. She was the first of what became a large number of "monitors" in the United States and other navies. Commissioned on 25 February 1862, she soon was underway for Hampton Roads, Virginia. The Monitor arrived there on 9 March, and was immediately sent into action against the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia, which had sunk and destroyed the USS Cumberland & USS Congress the day before. The resulting battle, the first between iron-armored warships, was a tactical draw. However, Monitor prevented the Virginia from gaining control of Hampton Roads and thus preserved the Federal blockade of the Norfolk area.

As I like to provide with each of my writings some obscure lesser known yet direct connection to the old Norfolk Navy Yard, here are a couple of lesser known tidbits of information concerning USS Monitor.

First, tempting as it might have been for Monitor to attack the Gosport Navy Yard before CSS Virginia ever came out, it was deemed too risky to attack for fear of being trapped by a physical blockade once in the narrows of the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River thus preventing Monitor's escape. Virginia was also able to return to the Gosport drydock for further repairs and alterations after the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862, and continued to remain unmolested at home in Gosport due to the same reason. The stalemate continued between the two ships into the spring of 1862, never directly engaging each other again.

Secondly, yet in due time, Monitor did indeed sail down the Elizabeth River, now escorting President Lincoln on the USS Baltimore to observe the Navy Yard in ruins as it smoldered again, this time due to the self-inflicted Confederate torching the day before. The President and his small fleet had just visited the area where Virginia was blown up by her own crew off Craney Island just a few hours prior before sailing past Norfolk and the Gosport Navy Yard the early morning of May 11, 1862. The Monitor most likely turned around and headed north to carry the President back to Washington DC after observing the old stone drydock, the birthplace of the Virginia at the southern extreme of the shipyard.

Monitor remained in the Hampton Roads area and in mid-1862 was actively employed along the James River in support of the Army's Peninsular Campaign. It is at this time various photos are taken of Monitor's officers and crew. Photos have a way to preserve and document naval service on a more personal level. Who were these men, what did they look like and how did they live aboard ship? Today is a day of remembrance to Monitor's men.

After a hot summer of routine duty in the Hampton Roads area, Monitor badly needed an overhaul. This work, done at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC, fitted the ship with a telescopic smokestack, improved ventilation, davits for handling her boats and a variety of other changes to enhance her fighting power and habitability. She returned to the combat zone in November 1862, remaining in vicinity of Newport News for the rest of that month and nearly through the next.

In December, Monitor was ordered south to join the blockading forces off the Carolinas. After preparing for sea, on 29 December she left Hampton Roads in tow of USS Rhode Island, bound for Beaufort, N.C. The weather, expected to be good for the entire voyage, stayed that way into the 30th as the two ships moved slowly along several miles off the North Carolina coast. However, wind and seas picked up during the afternoon and turned to a gale by evening. The Monitor labored heavily as she neared Cape Hatteras, famous for its nasty sea conditions. Water began to enter the ship faster than the pumps could expel it and conditions on board deteriorated dangerously.

Shortly before midnight, it was clear that Monitor was in grave danger. Her steam pressure was fast failing as rising water drowned the boiler fires. The tow line was cut, the anchor dropped, and distress signals were sent to the Rhode Island. Boats managed to remove most of the ironclad's crewmen under extremely difficult conditions, but several men were swept away. Finally, at about 1:30 in the morning of 31 December 1862, the historic Monitor sank. Sixteen of her crew of sixty-two were lost with her.

Loss of the "Monitor" in a Storm off Cape Hatteras, December 30th, 1862.
– Gallant efforts to rescue the Crew by the "Rhode Island".
(Naval History & Heritage Command image NH 51957)

The above line engraving was published in "The Soldier in Our Civil War", Volume I, page 248. It shows USS Monitor sinking at left with a boat picking up crewmen as USS Rhode Island stands by in the right background firing rockets.

The Monitor shipwreck was discovered in 230 feet of water approximately 16 miles off of Cape Hatteras in 1974. It has been now designated the nation's first national marine sanctuary. In August of 2002 the turret was raised, then taken to its new home at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia, for long term conservation and display. It is well worth the trip and you will also wish to return again in future years to observe their continuing progress of bringing the USS Monitor back to life.

Of those sixteen crew members that perished, two sets of remains were found during the recovery effort. The remains of these two unknown sailors currently reside with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii. NOAA is making every effort to identify these sailors and to have them interred at Arlington National Cemetery in 2013.

When I toured the Mariners Museum this year on March 8, 2012, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads, I was privileged to be in the right place at the right time just after opening and before the crowds got there. I was able to view up close the Monitor's famous gold ring as it was taken out of its display case by the staff. It was an honor for me to be within inches of such an iconic historic artifact that day. I will forever realize and appreciate the very personal and yet tragic side to this story, as there were two sets of human remains recovered in the turret. Now it wasn't just about the ship but about the men that sailed, operated and ultimately gave their lives for USS Monitor.

On Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, together with the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, dedicated a memorial to honor the USS Monitor and the memory of the 16 sailors who died that night the Monitor sank. Placed in the Civil War section of Hampton National Cemetery, located on the Hampton University campus, the monument memorializes the iconic vessel and the heroic efforts of the brave men who served their country.

Memorial to honor the USS Monitor and the 16 sailors who died when the ship sank.
(Photo taken by Marcus W. Robbins at dedication ceremony on December 29, 2012)

Wreath to honor the USS Monitor and the 16 sailors who died when the ship sank.
(Photo taken by Marcus W. Robbins at dedication ceremony on December 29, 2012)

It is so important now 150 years later to remember both the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor for each of their unique designs and contributions that changed naval warfare forever. It is equally important for us to pause and remember the men that served upon each ship and even gave their lives because – "history matters".

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Great White Fleet Departs Hampton Roads ~ 105 Years Ago Today, December 16, 1907

Blog #23. December 16, 2012 by Marcus W. Robbins

Hampton Roads, the world's greatest natural harbor was the gathering and departure point 105 years ago today and bore witness to President Theodore Roosevelt's vision of the largest naval deployment of steam and steel warships in order to project America's strength as a global naval power.

USS Connecticut leading the Atlantic Fleet's Battleships, 1907
(Naval History & Heritage Command image NH 59537)
Again, the world's eyes are focused upon eastern Virginia and the Norfolk Navy Yard gave full support to final preparations in order to sustain this historic journey.  In this same harbor where wooden warships were rendered obsolete by the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862 a short forty-five years later, sixteen of the newest type battleships had gathered after months of planning and shipyard drydock and pier side work at four east coast Navy Yards.  With fresh white paint except for ornate gold gilding on each bow they were all fully burdened with initial loads of coal to carry them for what would turn out to be a voyage of near 44,000 nautical miles covering twenty port calls on six continents that spanned over fourteen months of time before returning back to Hampton Roads in 1909.

The shear amount of planning and final preparations for such a venture was monumental.  As extracted from the Naval History and Heritage Command the following summary is offered:

            During September and October 1907 all sixteen of Atlantic Fleet's modern battleships steamed to East Coast Navy Yards for repairs and alterations. Boston worked on four: Vermont, New Jersey, Missouri and Illinois. New York did five: Connecticut, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Ohio and Alabama. Four (Kansas, Georgia, Maine and Kearsarge) received the attentions of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, while the Norfolk Navy Yard performed work on Virginia, Minnesota and Kentucky. The three Norfolk ships had to go north to New York (first two) and Boston (Kentucky) for the drydock phases of their overhauls. This shipyard work was finished by early December and the battleships gathered in Hampton Roads, Virginia, to complete preparations for their forthcoming cruise around South America to the Pacific Coast.

The Norfolk Navy Yard being the home of the Atlantic Squadron well before the modern day Naval Station was established in 1917 no doubt provided untold last minute supplies, coal and various logistical support to the bulk of these sixteen warships in the final days leading up to the Presidential review off of Old Point Comfort on the northern side of Hampton Roads on a bright sunny morning exactly 105 years ago today, December, 16, 1907.

Being the naval collector I am; events such as this mean so much more when you can weave a real person into the very fabric of the story.  My artifacts that once belonged to a sailor off of the USS Georgia; Mr. Forest Edward Frost lend a personal side to what he would experience along with the other 14,000 sailors that made the voyage around the world for what would be later known as – The Great White Fleet.  As stated above, the Georgia was assigned to Philadelphia Navy Yard for preparations.  While there, Forest has his photograph taken in his sailor suit and tally cap proudly displaying: USS GEORGIA at the Lipp Studio.  On the reverse in his own handwriting he personalizes this photo meant for those he is about to leave behind with the following notation: "ON THE GEORGIA IN 1907 – Forest".

1907 Lipp Studios, Philadelphia, Forest Edward Frost (courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

It is a fact of Navy life you are issued identification, uniform and for these sailors also a ship to live on for fourteen months.  Two of the most common items that would have held closeness in the everyday life of our featured sailor from the USS Georgia are shown below.  There is no doubt that these items did travel with him around the world and were a part of his life daily.

1907 Forest Edward Frost dog tag and belt buckle (courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
USS Georgia (circa 1909 postcard courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Finally shown above is a look at the USS Georgia, as it and the other battleships appeared when they returned to Hampton Roads as part of the largest battle fleet to ever circumnavigate the globe because – “history matters”.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Gosport Shipyard – U. S. Navy Yard, Norfolk ~ First Accomplishments (1794-1862)

Blog #22. November 11, 2012 by Marcus W. Robbins

On November 1, 2012 as promised I stated that we would soon revisit some of the "first accomplishments" of our shipyard in celebration of its 245th birthday.  This blog will look at several up until the 1860's time period; there will always be future blogs to continue tracing our many historic roots forward.  Please enjoy looking back and take pride of these major naval events that took place on the shores of the southern Elizabeth River:


The frigate Chesapeake can trace its history to 27 March, 1794 when Congress passed "An Act to Provide Naval Armament".  Six frigates were built; United States, Constellation, Constitution, President, Congress and Chesapeake. Also known as frigate "D" the keel was laid on 30 April 1798 then launched on 2 December 1799 with formal commission on 22 May 1800.  The Chesapeake was built near the site of the present day Building 74 in the historic north end of the shipyard.  It is always interesting to reflect back on the importance of Gosport's physical location for the construction of wooden ships from the day of sawpits to the rigging of sail.  In 1794 the state of Virginia leased this riverfront property to the young United States government, the same formerly belonging to the British agent Andrew Sprowle due to its superior location.  Chesapeake will always be remembered as one of President George Washington's first six frigates and namesake of a local Virginia city.

USS Chesapeake (Naval History & Heritage Command image NH 59556-KN)


Following the War of 1812 Gosport expanded its shipbuilding capacity in not only physical size of the yard but also in the class of war ships it would be capable of constructing.  Delaware had its keel laid in August of 1817 and was launched 21 October 1820 again near the present day site of Building 74 in the historic north end of the shipyard.  What made Delaware unique is the sheer size of the vessel, being rated as a "74 gun ship of the line", it was the largest ship to that date constructed at Gosport.  Also as a result of "An Act for the Gradual Improvement of the Navy of the United States", passed by Congress, 3 March 1827 there was constructed at Gosport one of two drydocks in the United States, the other being at Boston.  Begun in 1827 and finally completed in 1834 the dock at Norfolk is still in use today with only the cassion being repaired or replaced as required.  Before the drydock was formally completed it was christened on 17 June 1833 by USS DELAWARE, the first vessel to be dry docked in the northern hemisphere.

USS Delaware entering Gosport stone drydock, 17 June 1833 (traditional image)


The steam frigate Merrimac, 40 guns, which had been under repair at the yard was burnt to the waterline and sunk on 21 April 1861 by Union forces that abandoned Gosport attempting to destroy valuable warships and industrial shops.  While somewhat successful the effort was not complete.  Confederate forces gained control of Gosport as their own and were successful in converting Merrimac into the CSS Virginia by the spring of 1862.  Virginia went on to make history at the Battle of Hampton Roads on 8 March 1862 by sinking USS Cumberland and burning USS Congress then engaging in the first ironclad vs. ironclad with USS Monitor on 9 March 1862 resulting in a draw; thus forever changing naval warfare making obsolete wooden ships under the power of sail.

USS Merrimac burning at Gosport 21 April 1862 (circa 1905 postcard courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

CSS Virginia conversion at Gosport (circa 1880's steel engraving image courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Battle of Ironclads, March 9 1862 (circa 1905 postcard courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

The site of the modern Norfolk Naval Shipyard has been the home to so many "first accomplishments" it is impossible to consolidate them all in a single blog.  Over the next few months please check back as we examine the neglect of Gosport regarding post Civil War reconstruction, the eventual expansion supporting the age of steel and steam in the 1880's then the departure of the Great White Fleet, which would only get us up to 1907!  There can be much also written about the unique German Village we hosted in 1915, Norfolk's contributions to the birth naval aviation, vast expansion due to World War I, the battleship modernization program of the late 1920's, the great depression, our awesome industrial output and physical growth during World War II with over 43,000 employees and forward into the 21st century supporting the nuclear navy because – “history matters”.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

NNSY @ 245 Years ~ A Look Back at Key Dates

Blog #21. November 1, 2012 by Marcus W. Robbins

History of the Nation's Oldest Continuous Operating Naval Shipyard

Gosport Shipyard established in Colonial Virginia then operated under British Flag:
Andrew Sprowle & Co., Proprietors, 1 November 1767
Andrew Sprowle, British Navy Agent, 1775

Confiscated in American Revolution by the Commonwealth; operated by the Navy of Virginia under the Virginia flag; burned 11 May 1779, in British invasion:
Superintendents, 1776-1782, not known
Shipyard inactive, 1783-1793

Loaned to the United States under Act of Congress, 27 March 1794; operated under the Secretary of War and flag of the United States.

United States Navy Department created, 30 April 1798; Shipyard designated Gosport Navy Yard.

Gosport Navy Yard site purchased from the State of Virginia by the United States, 15 June 1801.

Gosport Navy Yard evacuated and burned by U. S. N., 20 April 1861; immediately occupied and operated by Virginia State Navy under the Virginia state flag.

Gosport Navy Yard transferred to, and operated by, Confederate States Navy, 1 July 1861, under flag of the Confederate States.

Gosport Navy Yard evacuated and burned by C. S. N., 10 May 1862; reoccupied and operated by U. S. N. under the flag of the United States and designated U. S. Navy Yard, Norfolk, Virginia.

Designated: Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia;
13 February 1929. 
Designated: Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Portsmouth, Virginia;
1 December 1945.

Today; November 1, 2012 marks our official 245th birthday as a shipyard.

 Over that time we continue to answer the call to serve our country.  In evidence of the shipyard motto, "Any Ship, Anytime, Anywhere," NNSY's work is certainly not limited to its Portsmouth waterfront.  On any given day, upwards of 3,000 NNSY employees can be performing maintenance on ships as close as Norfolk Naval Station, and as far away as Japan.  We exist to serve the fleet where ever they maybe found.

Over these 245 years we may have operated under different flags and different names but always, we have excelled in being a leader by providing the Navy a long line of "first this" and "first that"; historic naval accomplishments.  In my next post we shall examine some of those "first accomplishments" because - "history matters".

Friday, May 4, 2012

The 3rd Burn of Gosport – 150 Years Ago

 Blog #20. April 22, 2012 by Marcus Robbins

Setting the match to a waterfront industrial facility is a very efficient way to cease its productive war capacity. The shipyard at Gosport along the shore of the Elizabeth River has suffered three separate fires: first by the British on May 15, 1779, then by the Union forces on April 21, 1861, and finally by the Confederate forces on May 10, 1862.

War is like a chess match with tactical moves made by both sides and the end game vision of capture and victory. Once again as the premiere industrial ship building and repair facility of the south, Gosport and the Confederates are victims of a slow deliberate vice-like grip by the North, a hundred and fifty years ago.

In the weeks after the Battle of Hampton Roads during of March 1862, the Confederate forces continued to make the Gosport Navy Yard the heart of their industrial war machine. There was certain feeling of pride and victory in the streets of both Norfolk and Portsmouth. The craftsmen at Gosport worked upon CSS VIRGINIA in the drydock, then re-floated it stronger than ever. Several attempts of engagement were made over the next few weeks but the USS MONITOR kept a respectful distance, always staying close under the protective guns of Fortress Monroe.

As late April 1862 turned into May, the Confederate command soon realized that Norfolk would not be able to be saved as Burnside approached from the southern Outer Banks and McClellan occupied the northern side of the harbor. Railroad and river routes were being squeezed that connected both Norfolk and Portsmouth.

Gosport stood as the South's principle workshop for ship building and supporting the war effort by its foundry and valuable machinery. The loss of such an industrial base would surely hamper the southern cause.
Under direction by a visit to Gosport in early May, 1862, Secretary Mallory of the Confederate States Navy arrived in Portsmouth and informed Captain S.S. Lee, commanding the Navy Yard from March 24, 1862, that it was the intention of the Government to abandon the city.

Steps were being taken to remove all rolling stock, munitions and other items of military value. Preparations were made also to evacuate and render useless the Navy Yard. Vessels were sent to Richmond under cover of the darkness on the following nights and what could not be towed was destroyed at the pier side.

Options were weighed for saving the VIRGINIA including the unsuccessful effort to lighten her and sail up the James River to protect Richmond. The doomed VIRGINIA also was destroyed off of Craney Island. Covered with tar, oil, fat and grease the crew was sent ashore before the ship was set afire, exploded then ceased to exist.

On Saturday morning May 10, 1862, General John E. Wool under the direction of President Lincoln's visit to the Rip Raps from the prior day, landed 6,000 troops for a march upon Norfolk, landing at what today is Ocean View beach. Norfolk's Mayor William W. Lamb went out to the outer northern limits of the city for what would become the peaceful surrender of Norfolk without a shot being fired. In the end, all of the Confederate defenses that were erected around the harbor with much care and labor supporting heavy guns were abandoned without a struggle and in such haste that no effort was made to remove the guns.

As the Federal forces occupied Norfolk and Mayor Lamb stalled for as long as he could, the Confederates were setting fire to the Gosport Navy Yard for a third time in its history and the second time within 13 months. Destruction again was wrought upon the finest shipbuilding facility in the country, this time by the retreating Southern forces. The drydock was mined again but without total damage. Gosport's fine buildings were torched and remaining ships and machinery were destroyed.

A first hand account letter survives written by a Union solider on May 15, 1862, from within the walls of Gosport and he states:

"I was saying that the Sucesh had not destroyed anything but I was mistaken for I never saw such destruction of property as there is here at the Navy Yard and all the machinery is burned. There were some of the largest and nicest brick buildings I ever saw. Uncle Sams property is burnt. Most of the private property is saved, most all the folks are here yet. There is still some fire here yet."

Looking North with current building 705 seen in center

At the Norfolk Naval Shipyard today, some of these very buildings provide service to the Navy, continuing as a testament to the strength of which they were built some 175 years ago. If one knows where to look, the buildings still show the effects of both war and fire. Gosport has always been known as having facilities worth fighting for, because - "history matters".

Union capture of cannon, circa 1862 along western boundary wall.

Looking from north of the drydock, ex-Building 18 in the view, circa 1864 photo.

Horseshoe recovered from Civil War era stables beside south-western boundary wall.

Actual letter written from Gosport May 15, 1862

Drydock, Machine Shop and Foundry, May 1862.

Rotten Row, off of the drydock showing burnt ruins of DELAWARE & COLUMBUS.

Friday, March 30, 2012

On Location ~ The Battle of Hampton Roads – Today & 150 Years Ago

Blog #19. March 19, 2012.
by Marcus Robbins, NNSY historian
   Milestone dates spur celebrations, and if ever there was a milestone in our current lifetime it is the celebration of an event that changed naval warfare forever 150 years ago this month. On March 8th & 9th, 1862, both the Southern and Northern Navies had their novel ironclad creations enter into the large body of water known as Hampton Roads in eastern Virginia. What would happen over that weekend in a matter of hours on each day is now known as The Battle of Hampton Roads, an event that I covered in-depth with my last "History Matters".
   It was this specific event that put an end to the wooden ship and sailcloth vessels in favor of creations driven by steam and surrounded by thick iron. At the same time cannon and projectiles had reached such an advanced stage from just a few years prior that the killing effect proved lethal upon wood, yet again here in Hampton Roads that calm Sunday morning verified iron had come of age by lending complete protection to the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor from each other.
   For those of us fortunate to call southeastern Virginia home or a place that we work daily, it is witness to a great many naval "firsts". For this edition of "History Matters" I wanted to reach out to my world-wide readers who may never have a chance to actually visit where this actual event took place. On the morning of March 8, 2012, I visited along the shorelines of both Newport News and Hampton to pause, reflect and now share some images with you.

Looking east towards Fortress Monroe. (Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Foot Wool (Rip Raps) near Fortress Monroe. (Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
   As shown in the above two pictures the combination of Fortress Monroe and Fort Wool (Rip Raps) to the east proved effective to reinforce the Federal blockade and to keep the CSS Virginia contained to the Norfolk side of the harbor, well almost. On the morning of March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginia finally came out commanded by Franklin Buchanan and assisted by Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones of the Confederate States Navy to begin breaking the blockade; thus destroying both USS Cumberland and USS Congress off of Newport News Point to the west.
Marker at Newport News observation area. (Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Marker at Hampton observation area. (Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

   Today from the Newport News shoreline looking back at the I-664 modern bridge tunnel complex one would have for sure seen the CSS Virginia take on both the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress as the age of wooden war vessels ended on March 8, 1862, yet the Virginia needed to stay in the deeper water of the channel.
Looking west towards I-664 Bridge Tunnel. (Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
Looking southwest at Middle Ground Lighthouse. (Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins

   The second day battle of Hampton Roads actually begins on the night of the 8th with the arrival of the USS Monitor commanded by John L. Worden and assisted by Lieutenant Dana Greene. Upon their arrival the USS Congress is still ablaze and shortly thereafter its magazines explode and the ship slips beneath the waves. The USS Monitor now takes on the mission to protect the USS Minnesota awaiting the return of the CSS Virginia. By sunset of March 9, 1862, the Battle of Hampton Roads was fought to a tactical draw. Each side was able to claim victory for their own cause and the stalemate resumed till early May of 1862. These ships never directly engaged each other again and within the same year each ceased to exist.
Marker at Newport News observation area. (Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Marker at Newport News observation area. (Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

   Much has been written on the Battle of Hampton Roads but it is summarized quite nicely on the marker found at the Newport News observation point. Naval warfare was changed forever in this harbor. It is so very important to visit and explore historical events that took place in your own backyard because - "history matters".

Thursday, March 8, 2012


The Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8 and 9, 1862
By Marcus Robbins, Command Historian
As the spring of March 1862 approached, the nation had been at civil war within itself for almost a year. No place held more strategic importance in eastern Virginia’s theater of war than the harbor known as Hampton Roads.
This vast natural deep water harbor receives the rivers Nansemond, James and Elizabeth before exiting into the Chesapeake Bay and afforded miles of shoreline for each side to establish defenses. Both the Northern Federal and Southern Confederate forces realized that control of this waterway would be vital to their individual cause.
The Federal forces occupied Newport News Point with a heavily reinforced Camp Butler, the man-made Rip Rap island found at the channel entrance otherwise known as Fort Wool which gave the Union forces a great forward observation point. Most importantly, Fortress Monroe functioned as a secure base for both land and sea operations.
On the southern shores of the Hampton Roads harbor, the Confederate forces established reinforcements at Pig Point, Craney Island and Sewell’s Point. Also they held control of their grand prize of the war that was abandoned by the Union burning of April 1861, found by sailing 10 miles down the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth: the Gosport Navy Yard.
Sides had been drawn, the center harbor cleared and in a matter of time the contestants would appear to do battle.
The South, lacking material resources and a robust industrial base, had raised and converted the burnt hulk of the steam frigate USS Merrimac. Torched and sunk by the Union abandonment at Gosport, the new ironclad Confederate States Ship, CSS Virginia, was commissioned in about nine months, yet it was still incomplete at time of sailing. Although not ideal, the South was forced to use what it could. To support the goal of survival by holding both Norfolk and Portsmouth (and ultimately Richmond), the South needed control of Hampton Roads and to break the Union blockade.
Virginia drew a great depth of water which would restrict operations and also required much room to turn and maneuver by the very size of the hull. Given marginal performance of the steam engines, Virginia made up for any shortcomings by way of firepower between two seven-inch Brooke rifled guns, six nine-inch Dahlgren smoothbores and two 6.4-inch Brooke rifled pivot guns. It sailed with a casemate of two alternating layers of bolted two- inch iron bars over a 24-inch wooden backing all configured at a 35-degree angle in order to best deflect shot. Virginia also had an iron ram mounted to the bow, a feature that would be soon tested with much sucess against wood.
On the morning of March 8, 1862, Virginia slipped away from Gosport and sailed into history. Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan commanded his flagship against the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron consisting of the USS Roanoke, USS Minnesota, USS Congress and USS Cumberland which had escaped certain destruction the year prior by being towed away from Gosport as the inferno began under the Union match.
With certain direct maneuver, Buchanan set his target upon Cumberland with a goal of sinking by a massive broadside hit of the ram. It has been said that the resulting impact was wide enough to let in a horse and a cart. Still yet, Cumberland and Virginia exchanged fire as she sank, her flag still flying with honor.
Sinking of the Cumberland
   Next, Virginia turned attention back to Congress which up to this point had only received some passing shots and continued to pour shot upon the ship until the white flag was raised. Virginia ceased fire so the smaller vessels of the Confederate James River fleet could approach Congress to remove the surviving officers as prisoners before burning the ship. The Newport News shore batteries would have nothing to do with the surrender and began to fire a hail of bullets from the shore. It was at this time that Commander Buchanan was hit by rifle shot in the leg and was taken out of action. Buchanan’s last order was to heat shells and send hot shot into Congress until the ship was burned. Shortly after midnight the Congress exploded and ceased to exist as the ruins slipped into the deep.
   Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones, Virginia’s Executive Officer now found himself in command. With falling tide, proper attention could not be made to the USS Minnesota so Jones took up anchor under the guns of Sewell’s Point for the night. March 8, 1862, is recognized as the demise for the age of sail and wooden vessels against an ironclad; the Union fleet suffered terrible losses.
   On the morning of March 9, 1862, naval warfare would be changed forever for it would now be ironclad against ironclad on the second day of the Battle of Hampton Roads.
   As the fog burnt away on Sunday morning, something strange was seen alongside of the Minnesota. Described as a cheese box on a raft, it was the USS Monitor, the invention of Swedish designer, John Ericsson. The ship had made the voyage from the Brooklyn Navy Yard leaving Thursday at 11 a.m. and entered into Hampton Roads at 9 p.m. Saturday evening in time to witness Congress on fire.
   Monitor was an experimental first-of-its-kind vessel, featuring a round rotating turret that was covered by eight inches of rolled iron plate. Inside the turret were two 11-inch Dahlgren cannon that could be trained in any direction by rotation of the turret. Given the shallow draft required and it being somewhat shorter in length, Monitor had greater maneuverability than Virginia in Hampton Roads.

   Lieutenant Worden was Commander of the Monitor from her commissioning till the time of his wounding as the result of a direct hit while he was peering out the observation slit in the pilot house near the close of the battle that Sunday afternoon.
USS Monitor Commander Lt. Worden

Much has been writtepertaining to the first ever battle between two ironclad vessels, but in summary after four hours it was a tactical draw, a stalemate. There was no loss of life or damage to either ship and although worse for the battle, the Minnesota was saved and the Federal blockade remained. Each side claimed its own victory.

Today we can observe actual various artifacts from the ships involved in the Battle of Hampton Roads. Various relics from the CSS Virginia, USS Monitor, USS Congress and USS Cumberland are on display at various local museums and parks in eastern Virginia.

Rifle miniƩ balls from the Hampton Roads harbor,
circa 1862 (author’s collection)

32 pounder 6” solid shot from the Hampton Roads harbor,
circa 1862 (author’s collection)

Catesby ap C. Jones shown here visiting Mariners Museum is
great-grandson of Catesby R. Jones, Commander of CSS Virginia
that fought USS Monitor (photo by William E. Lockridge)

One only needs to travel on either of the two bridge tunnel complexes that cross the Hampton Roads harbor and consider that they act as a natural picture frame   showcasing where naval history was made 150 years ago upon these waters because - "history matters".

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Transformation into the CSS VIRGINIA – 150 Years Ago

by Marcus Robbins, NNSY Historian                                                         Blog #17. January 02, 2012.
I previously shared in Blog #14 the entire written contents of a report dated June 25th, 1861, that Constructor Porter, Engineer Williamson and Lieutenant Brooke prepared for Confederate Secretary Mallory. It provided an outline pertaining to their beliefs that the Merrimac could be salvaged, loaded with sufficient armament, make use of the existing engines and out-fitted with iron plating to cover the new shield.

With those assurances, Secretary Mallory went forth to the Confederate Congress on July 18th, 1861, and presented the estimated cost of $172,523 and asked Congress for the necessary appropriation.

The summer of 1861 finds Gosport at the center of the Confederate Navy, the central hub of activity.

Soon contracts are let to the various surrounding Portsmouth and Norfolk shipyards, foundries and machine shops to provide labor, tools and supplies in order to support the South's number one assignment, transforming the burnt hulk of the Merrimac into something never before seen in North America, an iron-clad vessel.

As so happened 28 years prior when the stone drydock made history with the first dry docking in North America in 1833 with DELAWARE, now again in 1861 Gosport is the central focus of attention. From the burnt hulk of MERRIMAC will rise a phoenix: the VIRGINIA is soon to be born and sail into the pages of naval warfare history forever.

The following various statements are gleaned from John W. H. Porter's History of Norfolk County 1861-1865 published in 1892.
"The plans to be adopted in the arrangement of her shield for glancing shots, mounting guns, arranging the hull and plating," were not submitted simultaneously with the report, as it was necessary for Mr. Porter to return to the Gosport Navy Yard and make an accurate measurement of the vessel, so that he could calculate her displacement and prepare the plans. Engineer Williamson also went to the Navy Yard to superintend the preparation of the machinery, and Mr. Brooke remained in Richmond. Mr. Porter measured the vessel without assistance from anyone, except a laborer to hold the end of the tape line.

He therefore raised the line one foot at the stern and cut her down on a straight line running from a height of nineteen feet forward to twenty feet aft, so that when completed, she drew twenty-one feet forward to twenty-two feet aft. This additional displacement increased her buoyancy about two hundred tons and had to be overcome by pig iron or kentlege, which was placed on her deck ends in her spirit room to bring her eaves to the proper depth below the waterline."

Mr. Porter completed his drawings on the 10th of July, without having to consult anyone, took them to Richmond the next morning, and submitted them to Secretary Mallory, who immediately approved them, without re-convening the board or calling in the advise or opinion of anyone, and wrote in his own hand the following order, which he handed to Mr. Porter for delivery to Commodore Forrest, commanding the
Gosport Navy Yard:
Navy Department Richmond, Va., July 11th, 1861
Flag Officer F. Forrest:

Sir—You will proceed with all practical dispatch to make changes in the Merrimac, and to build, equip, and fit her in all respects, according to the designs and plans of the Constructor, and Engineer, Messrs. Porter and Williamson. As time is of the utmost importance in this matter, you will see that the work progresses without delay to completion.
S. R. MALLORY, Secretary Confederate States Navy.
Mr. Porter returned immediately to the Gosport Navy Yard, appointed Mr. James Meads Master ship carpenter, and commenced work on the vessel in the dry-dock. The burned part was cut away, and a deck built from one end to the other. Inside the shield the deck was covered with plank, on beams, but outside the shield, at both ends, it was built of solid timber, and covered over with iron one-inch thick. Figure 3 represents the shape of a cross section amidship.
VIRGINIA ~ cross section amidship showing gun and berth decks
(page 335 History of Norfolk County 1861-1865)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

The ship had only two decks, gun and berth decks, and her boilers and engine remained in their original positions.

As the work progressed, Secretary Mallory became very urgent for its speedy conclusion, and on the 19th of August, a little more than a month after it was begun, he wrote the following order:
Flag Officer F. Forrest, Commanding Navy Yard, Gosport:

Sir.—The great importance of the service expected of the Merrimac, and the urgent necessity of her speedy completion, induces me to call upon you to push forward with the work with the utmost dispatch. Chief Engineer Williamson and Constructor Porter, severally in charge of the two branches of this great work, and for which they will be held personally responsible, will receive therefore every possible facility at the expense and delay of every other work on hand if necessary.

S. R. MALLORY, Secretary Confederate States Navy.
Thus the entire mission of Gosport centers on successful completion of the transformation of the former USS MERRIMAC into the CSS VIRGINIA. Time was marching on and specific people were to be held accountable. The North also had a contest of its own as they were constructing what was to become known as the USS MONITOR, the stress level must have been incredible as each side raced to put their creation into its element for the fight yet to come.

Next we shall discuss the shield construction, touching on dimensions and discussion of materials used along with viewing pictures of some surviving VIRGINIA iron artifacts because - "history matters".