Plunge into Civil War history at Hampton Roads Ironclad: The clash of the Monitor and Merrimac, in March 1862, changed naval warfare forever.

December 29, 1996|By Michael Kilian | Michael Kilian,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The "hallowed grounds" of the Civil War include some very hallowed waters.

Americans and foreign visitors alike make pilgrimages to the great battlefields of the War Between the States in an unending stream. The names of these killing grounds have been immortalized and sanctified by the sacrifice they represent and the importance of their outcomes -- Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, Fort Donelson, Shiloh.

But a little more than an hour's drive from Richmond -- indeed, just a half an hour east from such historic destinations as Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown -- is a place that ought to be as honored.

It was as significant to the outcome of the war as any other area of the conflict.

Though some land cannons were involved, it was a battle fought on water -- that wide stretch of the James River called Hampton Roads, just west and south of the confluence with the York. It was one of the most memorable naval engagements in the entire history of warfare: the clash of the first ironclads, the Monitor and Merrimac, in March 1862.

This was the vigorous battle that, though ending in a stalemate, changed naval warfare for all time, abruptly ending the usefulness of the wooden-sided sailing ship as an instrument of war and ushering in an era of steam-driven, ironclad warships and a maritime arms race that has endured until the present day.

And visitors may be thankful that, because of some splendidly preserved forts -- including Fortress Monroe near Newport News and Hampton -- and an abundance of excellent area maritime museums, that waterborne conflict can be relived and restudied as well as any of those major engagements on land.

Union and Confederate ships and gunboats, of course, fought in almost every theater of the War Between the States.

U.S. warships blocked the mouth of the Mississippi and seized the key port of New Orleans. The North captured the Confederate naval stronghold that was Mobile Bay.

Supreme importance

But the waters of Virginia in the lower Chesapeake Bay were of supreme importance. The broad Potomac River led directly to Washington, and in the early days of the war, only Fort Washington on bluffs opposite Mount Vernon defended the Union capital from Confederate warships.

And the James River led directly to Richmond and was guarded by the Confederates at all costs.

Between Cape Henry and Cape Charles, the broad mouth of the Chesapeake offered a chance for Confederate merchant vessels to break into the open sea and reach friendly ports in Europe -- provided the swift Confederate blockade runners could draw off the Union warships on patrol there.

The key was Hampton Roads. Control of it meant control of all shipping to and from Richmond, Petersburg, Suffolk, Portsmouth and Norfolk.

On the north bank of the river were the important ports of Newport News and Hampton, dominated by the impregnable Fortress Monroe, which remained in Union hands throughout the war.

But on the south bank, at Norfolk, was the Gosport Navy Yard.It contained one of only two naval dry docks in the nation, a vast store of gunpowder and some 1,200 assorted cannons. It was also home to a number of important warships. The 40-gun ship of the line Merrimac, one of the most powerful in the U.S. fleet, was there for repairs.

When the Confederates threatened the yard, the base commandant abandoned it, burning the Merrimac but letting the Confederates have 1,195 guns and much of the gunpowder. The Confederates refloated the remains of the Merrimac, converting it into one of the world's first ironclad warships and renaming it the CSS Virginia.

On each side it carried three 9-inch cannons firing 70-pound explosive shells, and a 6.4-inch rifled naval gun. At bow and stern were two 7-inch rifled cannons. The bow was equipped with a sharp ram that could go through the sides of wooden warships below the waterline.

The CSS Virginia was the great hope of the Confederacy. With its armor, it could clear Hampton Roads and the lower Chesapeake of Yankee vessels, ending the blockade and opening Richmond to the Atlantic and possible alliances with France and England.

But word of the Merrimac's conversion had reached Washington, and a countermeasure was in the works. An "Iron-Clad, Shot-Proof Steam Battery of iron and wood combined," as the specifications put it, was begun in October 1861 at Greenport, Long Island.

On March 8, 1862, the Merrimac (Virginia) steamed out of Norfolk to do her worst. At 265 feet long, carrying a crew of about 300, she looked a monster and behaved like it. With Union shells bouncing off it, the Merrimac cannonaded and rammed the Union sail warships Congress and Cumberland, killing more than 300 Union seamen. It tried to get at the USS Minnesota, but could not because of shallow water.

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