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Virtual Mirage is back online. I appreciate your patience.



The War of Northern Aggression

Elizabeth River-Near Hampton Roads
March 8, 1862
Art By John Paul Strain

The “CSS Virginia” was constructed from the burned hulk and salvaged machinery of the “USS Merrimack,” a ship imperfectly scuttled by retreating Union forces and subsequently salvaged at Norfolk’s Gosport Naval Yard in April 1861. A steam-powered frigate constructed in Massachusetts in June 1855, the “Merrimack” had once carried forty guns and had seen service in the West Indies and Pacific before being sent to Norfolk for repairs and refitting early in 1860.

Soon after the “Merrimack” was raised, the Confederate secretary of the navy, Stephen R. Mallory, issued what at that point in naval history was a remarkable order: that it be converted into an ironclad ship. The Union navy was debating the idea of ironclads, but perhaps because it was more tradition-bound than its Confederate counterpart, it had not acted. The Confederacy, however, moved quickly, modifying the operations of the Tredegar ironworks in Richmond enough to enable it to produce the two-inch-thick iron plates necessary to meet the specifications outlined by designer Lieutenant John M. Brooke. Iron covered, the ship measured 275 feet long 38.5 feet across its beam, and 27.5 feet deep. It was angled such that cannon shot would harmlessly bounce off its sides. Outfitted with ten guns and resembling a floating barn roof, the ship was rechristened the “CSS Virginia” and released from dry dock into the Elizabeth River on February 17, 1862.

On March 8 of that year, the ship steamed out to Hampton Roads under the command of Captain Franklin Buchanan to take on the wooden warships of the Union’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron anchored near Fort Monroe. The first ship to tangle with the “Virginia,” the sloop “USS Cumberland,” was quickly rammed and sunk, although in the process the “Virginia‘s” ram was snapped off. Meanwhile, the rest of the Confederate James River Squadron had come out to join the fight, and Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, commander of the frigate “USS Congress,” moved his ship into shallow water and grounded it, lest he, too, be sunk. He exchanged fire with Buchanan’s ironclad for about an hour before he finally surrendered.

The “Virginia” suffered a battering in the course of its engagements with the “Cumberland” and the “Congress,” and when it received fire from Union shore batteries, Buchanan fired hot shots on the surrendered “Congress” in a retaliatory attempt to set the ship on fire. While directing the firing of the “Congress,” though, Buchanan suffered a leg wound that forced him to turn command over to Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, a Virginian who had served on the “Merrimack” before the war. (The “ap” in Jones’s name is Welsh and means “son of.”) Jones turned his ship toward the frigate “USS Minnesota,” which had already run aground in the course of maneuvering against the rest of the James River Squadron. Due to the lateness of the day, however, he decided to break off the fight shortly after making contact with the “Minnesota.” The Confederates fully expected to resume their rampage against the Union fleet the following morning.

But when Jones brought the “Virginia” back out on March 9, he found the Union navy now had its own, strange-looking ironclad ship, the “USS Monitor” (famously described as resembling “a cheese box on a raft”), and that it blocked the “Virginia‘s” approach to the “Minnesota.” Shortly before eight o’clock in the morning, the two ironclads began a historic fight that would last about four hours and end with neither side achieving a decisive advantage, even though a fortuitously aimed shot from the “Virginia” managed to strike the Union ship’s pilot house and wound its commander, Lieutenant John L. Worden. Although a tactical draw, the battle ensured that the Union anchorage at Hampton Roads was secure. The “Virginia” would sortie out from Norfolk on April 11 and May 8, but on neither occasion did it become seriously engaged with Union warships. Finally, a little more than two months after the Battle of Hampton Roads, the Confederates were compelled by the Union army’s capture of Yorktown to evacuate Norfolk. They destroyed the “Virginia” on May 11, 1862, to ensure it would not fall into Union hands.


Identify the Aircraft

1 Note the baby coffin to fire the machine gun over the propellor.


36 thoughts on “Renovatio

  1. Thanks for the Merriimac history. As a child, the famous Merrimac/Monitor battle loomed large.

    Now, let’s see some ironclads sail up the Potomac and put things to rights.

      1. Ramming Speed? Our host is fully capable of going to Ludicrous Speed if required.

        Welcome back LL. Hope all is going well with your trip.

  2. Whew, about went into withdrawals…heh. Glad you got things sorted out. Now…what about the hacker perp, IP addresses are like internet DNA.

  3. Two things doomed the first battle of ironclads to just tossing nothings at each other.

    The CSS Virginia had no solid shot aboard. She wasn’t expecting to have to fire at anything ‘solid’ enough for solid shot, so she was firing HE shells only. Which were effective against the wooden ships of the Union blockade, but not against the armor of the Monitor. No need for solid shot even if the Union had shore batteries, because solid shot was pretty much worthless against sand and dirt forts (though very effective against brick and stone fortifications.)

    The USS Monitor’s Dahlgreen cannon were de-rated from maximum powder capacity due to potential issues with other cannons of the series suffering breech explosions (which, on a large cast-iron/steel ‘bottle’ is a very bad thing.) Thus, the Monitor’s guns, firing solid shot, were underpowered and only dented the armor of the Virginia. Of course, subsequent to the ‘Battle of the Ironclads’ it was found that the batch of guns that included the Monitor’s were a-okay for max powder load. Typical government oversite, you know.

    As it is, both the Monitor and Virginia lost a lot of power due to having their smokestacks blown away as that reduced the boiler efficiencies. Both took shots to their wheelhouses, necessitating emergency workarounds. Both suffered more from spalling damage than from actual hit damage.

    Think about that. If the Virginia had some solid shot, the Monitor could have been toast. If the Monitor was firing at full power, the Virginia could have been toast. If both of them were fighting at peak ability, who knows what would have happened, but it would have lasted less than 4 hours for sure.

    Some of the interesting changes to the Monitor design after the battle was to make the top of the turret completely open except for supporting beams and moving the wheelhouse (which was on the forward deck of the Monitor) to above the turret, as the Monitor’s wheelhouse took several hits and moving it to above the turret would mostly move it out of fire and increase the visibility of the bridge crew. And, of course, making them much more seaworthy than the original Monitor, which sunk in a storm due to the wheelhouse being on the deck and the aforementioned smokestacks being not well repaired after being shot to snot.

    Not much to change about the South’s Casement ships, other than armoring the smokestacks and wheelhouses better, protecting steering chains and rudders better. Other than that, basically a better design.

    Which is interesting. Because in the Riverine campaigns, the Union successfully built casement ironclads and woodclads (just like it sounds, made of wood) out of paddle wheelers.

    Sidewheelers were less preferred, as the side paddle houses needed lots of protection and reduced side batteries down. Though the sidewheelers could actually ‘walk’ over sandbars if the boats could get the paddles onto the sandbars.

    As to the USS Merrimac, she was a bit of a cursed ship. Issues with her boilers and propulsion hounded her all her days, including her days as a Confederate ironclad.

    Neato factoid about the Monitor. It was equipped with shutters that opened when the guns were run forward to fight, and automatically closed when the guns retracted after firing. Cool design. Ericksson put a helluva lot of thought, including fume extractors in the hull to keep the occupied areas cool and clear. A very modern design for the times. Very forward thinking, and much easier to build than a conventional ship or even a casement ironclad.

    A lot of this was learned from reading the Time-Life books on the Civil War. And then following the curiosity worms sprouted from reading said books (there was one just on Hampton Roads and the Riverine ironclads and mortar boats, lots of pictures and photos, good detail, you’d never find something like that in a modern school library.)

      1. They worked, and as I said, could handle shallower waters than ‘conventional’ vessels. The twin turreted versions definitely set the stage for modern warships.

        1. They tended to capsize in any sort of weather or alternately swamp and sink (capsizing on the way to Davey Jones)

  4. Renovatio: the anti-viagra (revatio with a “no” in the middle of it)

    Aircraft #2: the ill-fated attempt to kill King Kong with a really big chef’s knife.

        1. Can’t have one without the other, AI needs a platform. Heh

          (BTW, I’m happy to not be ‘AI’…no coffee…and that would be seriously tragic.)

    1. I’m on the run and don’t have it at my fingertips, but it started by putting steel wedges on the propellers to deflect the bullets – and that didn’t work. It just shot away the propellers. The Germans synchronized the gun to the propellor shaft so that it wouldn’t fire when the blade was in the way. It was called “interrupter gear” or “synchronization gear.” Best guess, Spring 1915.

  5. LL, thanks for your persistence and welcome back.

    Interesting info on the early ironclads from both you and Beans. Learn new things every time I stop by here.

  6. In school I was taught that it was the Monitor and the Merrimack that had the first iron clad battle, the CSS Virginia was never mentioned. Live & learn….

    1. Ironclads were used as battery ships by the British during the Crimean War, before the American Civil War.

      1. The people who win the wars write the books. It’s inevitable. The soldiers who win the battle sack the town. They will extoll their cause and pronounce their warriors to have been noble and just.

  7. Sub title under artist rendering….Correctly recognized. Thanks LL.
    Cletus Valvecore

  8. I checked the blog everyday.
    I was starting to think you had become enough of a thorn in the side of TPTB and had been shut down.
    Good to have you back!

  9. The ironclads were ‘works in progress’ for their entire durations. And many different issues arose with them. Welcome back!

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