Sunday, March 9, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Sunday, March 9, 1862

Encounter at Hampton Roads

It‘s a big day in the history of naval warfare: the meeting at Hampton Roads, Virginia, of the two most unusual naval vessels on earth, the Confederacy’s Virginia and the Union’s M onitor. The C.S.S. Virginia (known to history as the Merrimack) is a strange-looking, iron-plated, wooden-hulled warship mounting ten guns. The ship mounts one gun in the bow, another in the stern, and four on each side, and it also is equipped with a ram. Four inches of iron and 24 inches oak armor the vessel. The destroyer yesterday of many wooden vessels of the Federal navy at Hampton Roads, it sallies forth from its Norfolk anchorage to do more damage, only to meet…not more wooden-hulled victims, but the U.S. Monitor.

Monitor is the Union’s “secret weapon”—another strange-looking warship, a small, low-riding vessel built entirely of iron, with a rotating turret mounting two powerful cannon. The deck is only a few inches above the waterline and the turret has nine layers of iron armor. The vessel is nicknamed “the cheese box on a raft.” Can its two guns and small target defeat the floating battery of artillery thatias the Virginia? Or will the Virginia pound the Union vessel into chunks of iron?

No and no. After hours of circling, ramming, and firing of their guns, the two vessels withdraw, neither seriously damaged. It’ss a draw, but a draw that works to the Union’s advantage. The Vriginia can no longer attack the Union’s wooden vessel with impunity (and soon will be destroyed by its masters). In fact, the Confederate vessel’s deep draft and weak engines mean she cannot venture far from her home base in Norfolk, even if she wanted to. Union troops can now be moved by water to almost any point on Virginia’s coast without risking destruction from an unstoppable warship. From this will come McClellan’s “Peninsular Campaign.”

ELSEWHERE IN THE CIVIL WAR: In his diminished role at Fort Henry, Grant continues to organize support for the Tennessee River expedition he originally was to command. One of the expedition’s division commanders, William Tecumseh Sherman, has embarked from Paducah at the head of his troops, restored to active command. In Arkansas, Earl Van Dorn is scrambling to re-assemble his routed Confederate army, humiliated at Pea Ridge.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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