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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".