Ironclad warships clash in Virginia

Navies: The era of wooden men-of-war came to a dramatic close March 9, 1862, with a historic clash between North and South in the harbor at Hampton Roads, Va.

Grand Review 2000

June 04, 2000|By Christopher Bambury | Christopher Bambury,Special to the Sun

Among the events featured in next weekend's Civil War re-enactments in Harrisburg, Pa., will be a mock naval battle between two replicas of the world's first true iron-clad warships, the Confederacy's Virginia and the Union's Monitor.

The two vessels, which will meet June 9 on the Susquehanna River, played small but important roles in the war and had profound impact on naval technology.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Union navy, which was superior in size and strength to the Confederate navy, began a blockade of Southern ports. In their efforts to break the blockade, the Confederates raised the Union steamer Merrimack, which had been burned and scuttled at Norfolk, Va., when federal forces withdrew from the naval yard, and converted it to an ironclad warship, which was rechristened the Virginia.

The North, hearing reports of the building of a Southern ironclad, began work on its own ironclad at Brooklyn (N.Y.) Naval Yard, launching the Monitor in January 1862.

On March 8, 1862, with the knowledge that the Monitor was steaming to Hampton Roads, the Confederate naval commander, Capt. Franklin Buchanan, was anxious to get his vessel into combat before it would be opposed by another ironclad. Although the Virginia was not completed, Buchanan decided to confront the enemy at Sewell's Point on the southern shore of Hampton Roads. At about half past 1 p.m. the crew of the Union frigate Congress noticed a large, black mass with a strange sheen lumbering down the channel past Sewell's Point. It was the Virginia.

The Virginia, with two supporting gunboats, the Beaufort and the Raleigh, attacked the Union blockading squadron, sinking the 30-gun sloop Cumberland and shelling the 50-gun Congress into submission. The Minnesota, going to the aid of the Cumberland and Congress, ran aground and became a sitting duck, but an ebb tide and approaching darkness compelled the Confederates to withdraw.

The Southerners were resolved to return the next morning and finish the federal fleet, but it was too late for them to have their way with the Union's wooden warships that day. The Monitor arrived during the evening of March 8 and by the morning of March 9 it was on station for its historic confrontation with the Virginia.

From 9 a.m. to noon March 9, the Monitor and the Virginia battered each other, with neither being severely damaged. At noon, the Virginia, running short on coal and gunpowder, withdrew. The Monitor, under orders to protect the Minnesota and other ships in Hampton Roads, stayed behind.

Both sides claimed a victory. The newspapers of the day were filled with details of the battle, but one part of the story was missing: the story of the two iron men who commanded the iron ships.

The Confederate captain

The Virginia was commanded by Buchanan, who was born in Baltimore on Sept. 17, 1800, and had served in the U.S. Navy and commanded Commodore Matthew C. Perry's flagship during the commodore's historic trip to Japan in 1852-1855. His hot temper and impatience for action played a strong role in his decision to attack Union forces on the morning of March 8, 1863.

Buchanan was one of the most distinguished and experienced members of the Confederate navy, which at the onset of the war suffered from a surplus of officers and a lack of experienced and trained crews, according to Katherine Jeter in her book about the Confederate navy, "A Man and His Boat."

Buchanan first saw service in 1815 at age 14 as a midshipman. He gained knowledge and experience through his travels in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, where he fought pirates and bootleggers. Buchanan was the co-founder and first superintendent of the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

At the beginning of the war, assuming that Maryland would secede from the Union and join the Confederacy, he resigned his Navy commission. When Maryland failed to secede, Buchanan attempted to cancel his resignation but was refused. He eventually offered his services to the Confederacy and was appointed as a captain and chief of the Bureau of Orders and Details on June 5, 1862.

For his service at Hampton Roads, he was promoted to admiral, and later in the war he led the Confederate defense of Mobile Bay, Ala.

Buchanan was wounded in the fighting at Hampton Roads. Enraged by Union artillery fire from the shore at Newport News after the surrender flag had been raised by the Congress, Buchanan went to the deck of the Virginia to direct the boarding. Union sharpshooters were quick to focus on him, and a bullet tore through his leg, leaving him unable to command his ship for the following day of conflict between the two ironclads.

It is a testament to the intensity of the Civil War in Maryland that Buchanan's brother, McKean Buchanan, was serving as paymaster aboard the Congress when the Confederates captured that ship. McKean Buchanan was the only Union officer not taken as a prisoner of war when the Congress surrendered.

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