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Did a radical new Confederate gunship foil McClellan’s plan to end the Civil War in 1862? Images of the CSS Virginia and USS Monitor.
In late 1861, conventional wisdom, North and South, posited that he who controlled Hampton Roads in Virginia controlled the fate of the nation. And achieving that dominion, or so it was supposed, depended on the outcome of the clash of two ironclads—CSS Virginia and USS Monitor—terrifying new weapons that were poised to forever change the face of naval warfare. The stakes increased with every moment as the two sides raced to complete their deadly vessels. At risk for the Union was its hold on Hampton Roads, the spacious roadstead at the foot of the Chesapeake Bay that controlled access to Norfolk via the Elizabeth River, to Suffolk via the Nansemond River, to Richmond via the James River, and to the Virginia Peninsula formed by the James and York rivers. Fort Monroe, at the tip of the peninsula, lay secure in Union hands and served as the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron’s base. For the Federals, losing control of Hampton Roads would not only irretrievably damage their navy’s blockade but would also lay waste to General in Chief George B. McClellan’s best-laid plan to capture Richmond. His grand campaign depended on outflanking the Confederate army then encamped at Manassas, 25 miles southwest of Washington, by way of the lower Chesapeake. McClellan wanted to land the Army of the Potomac at Urbanna, a small tobacco port on the Rappahannock River, and from there march some 50 miles straight to Richmond. To support and supply such a campaign required using the York River and perhaps the James as well, which in turn required the navy’s continued control of Hampton Roads.