On the rebel side: Baltimore-born officer served the South at sea Civil War: Franklin Buchanan of Baltimore commanded the Southern ironclad CSS Virginia as it headed for its battle with the USS Monitor at Hampton Roads, Va.

March 01, 1998|By Mark St. John Erikson | Mark St. John Erikson,NEWPORT NEWS DAILY PRESS

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- No one asked which was the stronger naval power when the United States broke into Civil War. The North boasted a fleet of 42 warships. The South had virtually none.

Yet, with the fall of Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Va., in April 1861, the Confederacy embarked on a daring gamble. Raising a scuttled Union frigate called the Merrimack, the rebels put more than 1,500 men to work around the clock, building an ironclad vessel that observers in both North and South soon began to describe as a "monster."

Ugly, slow and lethal, the newly renamed CSS Virginia was the primitive first child of the first modern arms race - a contest in which the South hoped to overcome the lopsided numbers of its adversary with a technologically superior weapon. The nimbler and more adventurous USS Monitor was the sophisticated second child in this struggle of innovation, and it ultimately became the symbol of a revolution that shocked the world.

Buchanan's career

The Virginia's commander on the eve of the battle was a son of Maryland, Baltimore-born Franklin Buchanan.

Buchanan was a career officer in the U.S. Navy. He had been appointed as the first superintendent of the Naval Academy in 1845, and in 1847 he was detached at his own request for active service in the war with Mexico.

During the period when regional tensions were building up to the Civil War, Buchanan was superintendent of the Navy Yard in Washington, but when blood was shed in the streets of Baltimore on April 19, 1861, as the 6th Massachusetts Regiment attempted to march through the city on its way south, Buchanan resigned his commission in the belief that his native state was about to withdraw from the Union.

Taking service with the South, Buchanan would up as commander of the Southern ironclad Virginia in Norfolk, Va. On March 8, 1862, Captain Buchanan boldly ran his untried craft into the midst of the Union fleet at Fort Monroe and in a single afternoon obliterated hundreds of years of naval tradition, repelling cannonballs as if they were peas and sending two powerful wooden ships to the bottom of the James River off Newport News.

In a short time, Buchanan had destroyed the Cumberland and the Congress and had driven ashore the Minnesota, the St. Lawrence and the Roanoke, but he was severely wounded while directing the rescue of some of the crew of the Congress under a flag of truce. Buchanan's brother, McKean Buchanan, was serving as paymaster aboard the Congress.

As a result of his injuries, Buchanan was not in command the next day when the Virginia engaged in its historic clash with the Monitor.

The battle with the Monitor, which thousands watched in awe from the shores of Hampton Roads, proved inconclusive. But the thundering, four-hour slugfest of armor against armor set the course of war at sea for generations to come. The historic fight also signaled the emergence of America on the global stage, marking the relatively backward but resourceful country as a force to be reckoned with by the world's great military and industrial powers. In London, the startled Admiralty stopped work on all new wooden vessels almost immediately. The Times lamented the sudden obsolescence of all but the two ironclads in the 149-ship English fleet.

'An arms race'

"This was an arms race - and a very dramatic one - with decades of development distilled into a few months," says historian John M. Coski of The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va. "The world was watching because everybody was developing these weapons. We were simply the first to put to them to the test."

Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory, a former chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Naval Affairs, began to act only days after the Portsmouth shipyard fell into rebel hands.

Keenly aware of the experimental ironclads in Europe, he quickly convinced the Confederate Congress to appropriate $2,000,000 toward the construction of an armored naval force.

"I regard the possession of an iron-armored fleet as a matter of first necessity," he argued. "Such a vessel at this time could traverse the entire coast of the United States, prevent all blockades, and encounter, with a fair prospect of success, their entire Navy.

"Inequality of numbers may be compensated for by invulnerability," he continued. "And thus not only does economy but naval success dictate the wisdom and expediency of fighting with iron against wood."

Still, Mallory ran into problems almost immediately because of the Confederacy's poorly developed industrial base.

The Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond could not produce anything thicker than 1-inch armor plate without a time-consuming retooling process. No place in the South could manufacture the engines needed to power the ships.

Refitting the Merrimack

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