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Reign of Iron
The Story of the First Battling Ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimack
Sink Before Surrender
Saturday, March 8, 1862, was a beautiful day in Virginia. A gale had blown itself out the night before, and behind it came clear, warm weather, a high-pressure system on the tail of the storm. A day more like May than March, many people felt.
In Norfolk and Portsmouth, towns that faced one another across the Elizabeth River, excitement was spreading like fire, just as it had the year before, in the days leading up to secession and the burning of the shipyard. The Confederate States Ship Virginia, an ironclad built on the burned-out hull of the old USS Merrimack, was getting under way.
There had been no announcement. In the interest of military security, the Gosport Naval Shipyard had been closed to visitors for months. Not even Virginia's crew knew where they were bound.
But there was no concealing her movements. Virginia was a monstrous vessel, 275 feet long. She was 38 ½ feet on the beam, and though the crowds watching from the shore could not see this, she was burdened by a ponderous 22 feet of draft.
With black smoke rolling out of her tall stack she edged away from the dock, heading into the stream. Word spread fast, and people rushed to the riverbank to see her go. They had been waiting eight months for this moment.
Most of Virginia was underwater, not only her massive hull, but also her afterdeck, the last 50 feet or so of the ship, which was 6 inches below the surface. All that the citizens watching could see was a wedgeshaped false bow, barely breaking the surface, and her ironclad shield, like a barn roof floating on the river, 8 feet high. The lengths of plate iron running vertically along the shield gleamed black with the coat of tallow smeared on them to help enemy shot bounce off. On the forward flagstaff flew the red pennant of an admiral. On the ensign staff was the Confederate national flag, the "Stars and Bars."
The roof of the casemate, the "shield deck," was mainly an iron grating to let air and light into the gun deck below. But still the gun deck was "badly ventilated, very uncomfortable," and so gloomy that lanterns were needed the full length of the deck, even on a fine, sunny day such as the 8th.
For that reason most of the Virginia's crew were crowded on the shield deck, about 16 feet wide and 120 feet long. In keeping with traditions of the sailing navy -- men before the mast and officers aft -- the crew stood in front of the smokestack, the officers aft of it, though the helm and pilothouse were at the forward end of the casemate.
Foremost of the officers was Franklin Buchanan, appointed admiral in command of the James River squadron just a few weeks before. Sixty-one years old, balding with a tussle of white hair ringing his head, Buchanan was a hard-driving disciplinarian, navy to the marrow, the "beau ideal of a naval officer of the old school, with his tall form, harsh features and clear piercing eyes." He was a man with a great deal on his mind.
Virginia had never been under way before. She was powered by the Merrimack's old engines, engines that had been condemned by the U.S. Navy. Her engineer, H. Ashton Ramsay, had served aboard the ship while she was still the USS Merrimack, and he reported, "From my past and present experience with the engines of this vessel, I am of the opinion that they can not be relied upon. During a cruise of two years ... they were continually breaking down, at times when least expected."
Buchanan had quizzed Ramsay about the engines before getting under way. He asked about their reliability. He asked how they would endure the shock of Virginia ramming another vessel. He asked if they should first make a trial trip.
Ramsay answered as best as he could. "She will have to travel some ten miles down the river before we get to the [Hampton] Roads. If any trouble develops, I'll report it. That will be sufficient trial trip."
But Buchanan had more than engines to worry about. The crew were new to the ship. Construction had been ongoing until the very end -- that very morning he had ordered workmen off the ship so she could get under way -- and the men had had no chance to drill onboard. They had never fired the guns. "The officers and crew were strangers to the ship and to each other," one of Virginia's lieutenants wrote.
Many of the crew were strangers to ships of any description. The South had a chronic dearth of sailors, and Virginia's men had been hustled from the army or recruited from among the yard workers or from local militia units. Scattered among them were a few veteran sailors, some survivors of the desperate battle for Albemarle Sound. "They proved to be as gallant and trusty a body of men as anyone could wish to command," recalled Midshipman Virginius Newton, "but what a contrast they made to a crew of trained jack tars!"
Virginia was a "novelty in naval construction," her properties unknown, and she was still incomplete. There had been no time to fit the protective shutters over the gunports. The ship was riding too high in the water. The lower edge of her casemate, which was supposed to be two feet underwater, was only a few inches under, leaving her lightly armored waterline vulnerable.
The enemy had at least five major warships on station, protected by heavy shore batteries at Newport News and the guns of Fortress Monroe and Fort Wool.
Any commanding officer would have been excused for insisting on a sea trial, a shakedown, a practice run, before steaming into battle. Most of the men onboard Virginia assumed that was what they were doing. Only a few knew the truth ...Reign of Iron
The Story of the First Battling Ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimack. Copyright © by James Nelson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.