March 4, 2012
It was just after noon on March 8, 1862. A gentle northwesterly rippled the water out on Hampton Roads. In the distance, proceeding down the Elizabeth River, a column of black smoke could be seen. A shiver of fear went through the quartermaster aboard the Union ship Congress as he turned to one of his officers. “I wish you would take a glass and look over there, sir,” he said. “I believe that thing is a-comin’ down at last.”
That “thing” was the CSS Virginia, its hour come to test its fearsome prowess on the aging wooden ships of the Union blockade. The Confederate ironclad looked like the roof of a barn with a chimney belching black smoke, one observer felt. Another compared it to a “half-submerged crocodile.” Gleaming with pig fat that had been slathered on its sloping sides to help deflect enemy fire, it appeared to still another witness as, simply, a “dark monster.”
This lethal weapon was the brain child of the South’s secretary of the navy, Stephen R. Mallory, who knew there was no chance of competing with the North’s much larger fleet – unless. “Iron-armored” vessels, he believed, were capable of not only ripping through the blockade but even threatening cities as far north as Washington and New York, striking a blow “from which the enemy could never recover.”
Beginning in July 1861, workers at the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth began transforming what had been the Union steam frigate Merrimack. They cut the ship down to its berth deck, then erected a heavy, slanting oak and pine casemate on top and cloaked it with four-inch sheets of iron. The Tredager Iron Works in Richmond had been pushed to capacity, fashioning the armor with the help of old railroad and trolley tracks.
Rechristened the CSS Virginia, the beast that emerged was the Union’s worst nightmare, an impenetrable gun battery, bristling with weapons and another nasty surprise, a 1500-pound iron ram.
The air was electric as news of the ship’s departure spread.
“In an instant the city was in an uproar, women, children, men on horseback and on foot running down toward the river from every conceivable direction, shouting, ‘the Merrimac is going down’” wrote a Georgia infantry private who watched from the shore. As the Virginia steamed into the Roads, the fragile federal fleet lay waiting like ducks in a shooting gallery.
The Virginia’s first targets were the Cumberland, a 1,726-ton sloop of war, and the Congress, a 1,867-ton sailing frigate, both with long and distinguished careers at sea but both completely dependent on sail power.
Heading straight for the Cumberland at full speed, the Virginia plowed into the Union ship’s starboard side, at the same time reversing its engines and causing the ram to break off in its victim like the stinger of a killer bee, Then, methodically, the Virginia’s gunners mauled the wooden ship. Rivers of blood and gore ran across the Cumberland’s decks as it sank, but the defenders kept firing until their gun ports were under water.
Next, it was the Congress’s turn. Seeing what had happened to the Cumberland, the commander of the Congress ran his ship into shallow water near Newport News and became grounded. Even so, the assassin was able to stand off about two miles and pummel the wooden ship with broadsides.
“The carnage, havoc and dismay caused by our fire compelled them to haul down their colors” and hoist white flags of surrender, flag officer Franklin Buchanan reported.
At the end of the day, 121 men on the Cumberland and 240 on the Congress had lost their lives, one of the greatest losses in American naval history. And there might have been more. The USS Minnesota, had run aground and would have been next had the tide not been falling. No problem, there’d be plenty of time the next day.
The Virginia headed for Sewell’s Point and anchored there for the night.
“We slept at our guns,” one of the officers said, “dreaming of other victories in the morning.”
But that night, as the Virginia crew dozed, a pilot on board noticed a strange shape, silhouetted by the fires of a burning federal ship, gliding across the Roads.
Next: The battle is joined.
Illustration: The wooden ship Congress goes up in flames after being plugged with "hot shot." Mariners' Museum.