Saturday, March 10, 2012

Mysteries of the Monitor and Merrimack

March 8, 1862. The iron clad steamer Merrimac had come down from Norfolk, sunk the sloop of war Cumberland, fired a number of shots at the Congress. She surrendered and at night was set on fire. Both vessels were lying at Newport News. We stacked our arms and slept in the open air. About midnight the magazine on the Congress blew up with a terrific noise.
March 9. A lovely day today. (Sunday) This forenoon witnessed the naval battle between the rebel steamer Merrimac and the U. S. iron clad steamer Monitor and Minnesota. After 4 hours fighting the rebels retreated.
-- Eugene Goodwin, 99th New York Infantry Regiment

The Civil War Battle of Hampton Roads, fought 150 years ago this week, is often considered the beginning of the end for the wooden warship. The USS Monitor, with a crew of 59, fought the CSS Virginia (formerly the Union vessel Merrimac) with a crew of more than 300, in a battle that, while indecisive, proved the tremendous advantage an ironclad warship had over wooden vessels. Other aspects of this historic battle, however, are not  so clear.

The Ship Without A Captain. Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones was executive officer of the Virginia. He had overseen the repair and refitting of the former Merrimac, but other Confederate officers senior to him wanted the captain’s post on board. To avoid an uncomfortable situation, the Confederate command just never got around to appointing a captain. Thus, Virginia entered the battle with Jones as acting captain only.

The Fog of War. Monitor’s orders were to defend the crippled Union warship Minnesota, which had been damaged by Virginia on March 8. On the morning of the 9th, Jones took Virginia back toward Minnesota, hoping to finish the job. At first he didn’t realize that Monitor was a warship, thinking her a barge carrying a boiler of some kind. As soon as he realized what he was dealing with, however, he ordered Virginia’s guns to fire, and the battle was on

For several hours, and at close range, the two ships fired on each other. Neither had been sent into battle with the proper ammunition for penetrating a metal hull, however. Finally, Virginia fired a shot that blinded the captain of the Monitor, who was the only person who could see to direct the movement of the vessel. Monitor withdrew so the ship’s second-in-command could move into the observer position, but by the time she returned, Virginia has withdrawn as well, Jones thinking he had won the day.

Who Won The Battle? Both sides claimed victory, but at the time the Battle of Hampton Roads was not about the ironclads, but about the Union blockade of the South. Virginia had been ordered to inflict as much damage on the Union fleet as possible in hopes of lifting the blockade. The South may have won the battle in terms of number of ships destroyed and casualties inflicted, but ultimately the blockade held.

Faces of the Dead. Neither ship survived the year. Virginia was destroyed by her own crew in May to avoid her being captured by Union troops. Monitor sank in rough weather off Cape Hatteras in December, with a loss of 16 of her crew. There she remained until her re-discovery in 1973.

In 2002, Monitor’s turret was recovered, along with the skeletal remains of two of her crew. Unable to identify them by other means, scientists reconstructed the faces of the men based on their skeletal structure in the hopes that someone would recognize them from a family resemblance or an old photo. Failing that, the remains will be interred as “unknowns” at Arlington National Cemetery.

Related Posts

Related Articles
Eugene Goodwin Civil War Diary: Battle of Monitor and Merrimac 3/8/62
The Capital and The Bay: Narratives of Washington and the Chesapeake Bay Region ca. 1600 - 1925: The Battle of Hampton Roads.


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