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Did a radical new Confederate gunship foil McClellan’s plan to end the Civil War in 1862?

In late 1861, conventional wisdom, North and South, posited that he who control Hampton Roads in Virginia controlled the fate of the nation. And achieving that do- minion, or so it was supposed, depended on the outcome of the clash of two iron- clads—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 led 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.

For the Rebels, the Virginia represented the best and perhaps only hope of breaking the blockade that in time would surely strangle the South. Winning control of Hampton Roads would save Richmond and indeed Virginia from invasion by water. But Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory had an even greater ambition. He asked the Virginia’s captain, Franklin Buchanan, “Could you pass Old Point”—that is, Fort Monroe—“and make a dashing cruise on the Potomac as far as Washington?”

It was difficult to keep military secrets during the Civil War, especially in the early months of the conflict, and so it was not long before the Yankees learned the Rebels were up to something with USS Merrimack. The capture of Fort Sumter in April 1861 found the big steam frigate laid up for engine repairs at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia, and when a week later the Federal garrison there evacuated, it set the Merrimack afire and scuttled the ship. By June the Confederates had the hulk raised and resting in Gosport’s dry dock, and the best naval minds in the South contemplated turning it into a radically different warship, an ironclad ram.

By fall, rumors of the Merrimack’s reconstruction began leaking out of Norfolk and making their way north, but it was an enterprising newspaper reporter who got the scoop. One night in October, New York Herald reporter B.S. Osbon rowed a pilot boat up the Elizabeth River from Hampton Roads to view, and sketch, the Virginia (as the Confederates had rechristened the Merrimack) in dry dock.

Agents of Allan Pinkerton, the spymaster for McClellan, subsequently obtained details of the conversion. The spy known only by the initials C.A.H. reported that “the steam frigate Merrimac has been iron plated throughout and with a heavy armament is ready for sea.” Spy Timothy Webster added details: “the Merrimack is decked over with timber 16 inches thick, 2 thicknesses of iron, 1 2 inches, 1 1½ inches thick, both reaching down to water line.” He counted eight heavy guns in broadside and single pivot guns at bow and stern, and thought them all rifled.

Webster was not that far off. The Merrimack’s hull was cut down to the berth deck and decked over fore and aft. Amidships rose a long citadel, its sides slanted at 45 degrees, of pine and oak 24 inches thick, covered with two layers of two-inch iron plate. Ten guns was indeed the ironclad’s armament, although only four of them were rifled.

It is not known if General McClellan shared these spy reports with the navy, but in any case the navy, from its own sources, was well aware of the menace posed by the Confederate ironclad— and anxious to do something about it. On October 17, 1861, Louis M. Goldsborough, the blockading squadron’s commander, reported the Merrimack’s reconstruction to Washington and added, “I am now quite satisfied that…she will, in all probability, prove to be exceedingly formidable.”

The navy’s first thought was to dispose of the Virginia before it ever got to sea. Lt. Thomas O. Selfridge, an officer aboard USS Cumberland on blockade duty in Hampton Roads, submitted a plan for “a sudden and secret attack upon Norfolk.” He proposed amphibious landings against the Rebel batteries on Sewell’s Point and Craney Island that guarded the entrance to the Elizabeth River, supported by fire from the warships Cumberland and Minnesota. With the batteries silenced, Norfolk could be taken and the ironclad destroyed in dry dock. Surprise was essential, and for that Lieutenant Selfridge wanted preparations carried out under cover of night and all newspaper reporters “muzzled.”

Selfridge addressed his plan to Gustavus V. Fox, assistant secretary of the navy. Energetic and innovative, Fox liked the idea and pursued it with Brig. Gen. John G. Barnard, chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac. The navy needed troops for the landings, either from the Fort Monroe garrison or from the Army of the Potomac at Washington. Barnard enthusiastically supported the plan: “It captures not only Norfolk and the Navy Yard—but the entire defensive Army.”

The snag in all this proved to be McClellan, who in his dual role as commanding general of the Army of the Potomac and general in chief of all the Union armies was the court of last resort for all matters military. When Fox and Barnard took their case to McClellan, wrote Fox, “The General admitted its force, but took no action.” Barnard was more blunt: “Gen. McClellan alone seems to have been insensible to its importance.”

Throughout that first fall and winter of the war, McClellan focused everything inward, toward his evolving grand campaign for conquering Richmond. He regarded the scheme to take Norfolk as a distraction; in due course, he said, his campaign would sweep it up without firing a shot. Meanwhile, he needed every available soldier to cope with a Rebel army he had deluded himself into believing hugely outnumbered his own. Should the Virginia appear before he had his grand campaign in hand, well, that would be the navy’s problem.

The navy, frustrated by McClellan’s intransigence and strategic myopia, had to rest its hopes on an ironclad of its own, the Monitor, then under construction in New York City. The Monitor was Swedish inventor John Ericsson’s brainchild. Whereas the Virginia was a brilliant improvisation, Ericsson’s ironclad was pure invention, all new from the keel up—an iron-hulled armored raft on which sat an armored revolving turret mounting two 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbores.

With the support of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, the contract for “an Iron-Clad Shot-Proof Steam Battery of iron and wood” was signed on October 4, 1861, to be completed in 100 days. The Monitor’s mission was clear and specific. In the words of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, “the battery should, immediately after reaching Hampton Roads, proceed up Elizabeth river to the Navy Yard at Norfolk, place herself opposite the dry-dock, and with her heavy guns destroy both the dock and the Merrimac.”

The race was on, and builders of both the Virginia and the Monitor were uncomfortably aware of each other’s progress. On November 18, for example, Commodore Joseph Smith, of the Ironclad Board riding herd on the Monitor project, wrote disgustedly that he had just received the latest issue of Scientific American “and regret to see a description of the vessel in print before she shall have been tested.” When the Virginia was floated out of its Norfolk dry dock on January 25, 1862, word promptly leaked to Gus Fox, who telegraphed Ericsson that he must hurry the Monitor to sea, “as the Merrimack is nearly ready at Norfolk.” On the launch of the Yankee ironclad five days later, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle presented detailed coverage, noting the “impregnable armor upon its sides and a bomb-proof deck, on which is placed a shot-proof revolving turret, that will contain two very heavy guns.”

While the Virginia had a head start in the race to go to sea, there were problems of every imaginable sort with engineering and fitting out the ship. Machinery, tools, and skilled labor were in short supply. The Merrimack had been laid up at Norfolk in the first place because its engines and boilers had been condemned and needed much work. But the worst delays involved the 800 tons of iron plate for the armor. In the straitened Confederacy, only the Tredegar Iron Works at Richmond was capable of rolling iron plate, and just then Tredegar was overwhelmed with demands for war materiel of every description. The Monitor’s builders faced no such shortages in the materiel-rich, engineering-rich North, but there were inevitable delays in assembling such a radically new vessel.

As February turned to March there were almost daily rumors of the Virginia “coming out,” and indeed Captain Buchanan, well aware of the threat posed by the Yankee ironclad, was making every possible effort to do just that. “Buck” Buchanan was 61 and had served in the U.S. Navy for 46 of those years. His assignments had included stints as superintendent of the new Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1845 and later commandant of the Washington Navy Yard. Since taking the Virginia’s helm on February 23, Buchanan had experienced exasperating holdups, such as a three-day delay in delivering powder for the battery, but once that essential was aboard, he brooked no more delays.

Yet the only thing anyone could say for certain about the Virginia as the warship lay at its Gosport Navy Yard mooring was that it floated.

There was little certainty about the balky engines or what speed it might make or how (or if) it could be steered or the effect on the handling of the 1,500-pound cast-iron beak fixed to its prow as a ram. Buck Buchanan would have to take the vessel out into Hampton Roads to find answers to these questions and issues.

At the same time, the Monitor was being readied at its Brooklyn Navy Yard mooring for sea trials to prove seaworthiness for the long voyage to Hampton Roads. The contract deadline of 100 days was well past, but the novelty of the vessel’s design justified the extension. The Monitor’s captain, John L. Worden, was a 28-year navy veteran who had the peculiar distinction of being the Civil War’s first prisoner of war, captured by hotheaded secessionists in Alabama one day before the firing on Fort Sumter. He had been exchanged in November 1861, and the Monitor was his first command.

As early as February 26 Worden guided the ironclad into the East River for the voyage south, only to turn back when the vessel proved unsteerable. Ericsson himself set about making the needed adjustments to the rudder, but it was not until March 4 that there was a final trial at sea off Sandy Hook. The turret was revolved, the guns fired, the steering tested and approved.

At 11 A.M. on March 6, 1862, the Monitor finally steamed off down the East River and was taken in tow by a tug. Worden’s orders were to report to the senior naval officer at Hampton Roads—in time, he hoped, to catch the unprepared Virginia in the Elizabeth River. He sent back word with the pilot boat that the weather was favorable, and that being in tow should speed the voyage appreciably.

Late that afternoon, a telegram reached the Brooklyn Navy Yard from Secretary of the Navy Welles that read, “Let the Monitor come direct to Washington, anchoring below Alexandria.” It had been decided to divert the ironclad to the capital’s defense—especially as defense against a rumored sortie up the Potomac by the Virginia. Fortuitously for the Union, this change of orders arrived too late to catch the Monitor before it left New York.

What Welles’s misguided order failed to do, Mother Nature came close to accomplishing. On March 7 the weather turned, and the Monitor nearly foundered. Lt. S. Dana Greene, her executive officer, would write, “The sea was breaking over our decks at a great rate and coming in our hawse pipe forward in perfect floods. Our berth deck hatch leaked in spite of all we could do, and the water came down under the tower like a waterfall.” The fires were drowned, stopping the engine. Fumes filled the engine room.

They sought calmer seas inshore, and by evening the weather moderated enough for the engine to be restarted. But they had lost five hours. That night there was another episode of foul weather and the ironclad again came close to foundering, causing further delay. Finally, at 4 P.M. on Saturday, March 8, the Monitor with its bedraggled, exhausted crew rounded Cape Henry and steered toward Hampton Roads. The sound of distant cannonading met their ears, and then a scene of naval disaster met their eyes. The Monitor came late to the battle by just 12 hours.

At 11 A.M. that day lookouts aboard the blockading squadron had sighted a pillar of black smoke rising above Norfolk. At first it appeared stationary, but then it began to move very slowly down the Elizabeth River, toward Hampton Roads. The word was passed: the Merrimack—as the Federals then and thereafter insisted on calling her—was coming out. As an onlooker put it, “We saw what to all appearances looked like the roof of a very big barn belching forth smoke as from a chimney on fire.”

The sloop Cumberland (24 guns) lay off Newport News Point, west of Fort Monroe, and not far away was the frigate Congress (50); the two were stationed to blockade the James River. Farther toward Fort Monroe were the steam frigates Minnesota (47) and Roanoke (46), both sister ships of the old Merrimack, and the frigate St. Lawrence (52). Squadron commander Goldsborough was attending to blockade matters on the North Carolina coast, leaving Capt. John Marston of the Roanoke as senior officer. Marston signaled the alarm, and the squadron cleared for action.

The Cumberland and Congress were closest to the Rebel ironclad as it rounded Craney Island at the Elizabeth’s mouth. Captain Marston in the Roanoke signaled the Minnesota and the St. Lawrence to join him in going to their aid. (The Roanoke, disabled with a broken propeller shaft, would have to be towed into action by tugs.) That day Yankee seamanship left something to be desired, however. Maneuvering to avoid fire from Confederate batteries on Sewell’s Point, all three of the would-be rescuers ran aground.

By the time he reached the roadstead, Buck Buchanan had gained certain basic information about CSS Virginia. It was very slow, five or six knots, and was exceedingly cumbersome to steer. So much for a sea trial, Buchanan decided. Now he would see if the ship could fight. He called all hands and reminded them of their duty, promising, “You shall not complain that I do not take you close enough. Go to your guns!” Making a ponderous left turn toward the mouth of the James, he steered straight at the Cumberland.

Buchanan took a bows-on path toward the Cumberland, and at an easy range his 7-inch rifled bow gun put a series of shells through the sloop’s bulwarks, wrecking the forward gun and strewing the gun deck with dead and wounded. The ironclad bore inexorably on a collision course to strike the Cumberland on its starboard bow, the wedge-shaped iron ram punching a gaping hole below the water line. As the Virginia backed off, the iron beak tore loose and the ironclad swung parallel to the rapidly settling Cumberland. This finally brought the Yankee guns to bear, and they loosed three broadsides at 100 yards’ range. Some damage was done— the muzzles of two of the Virginia’s broadside guns were broken off, and the smokestack was badly holed—but otherwise the shot bounded harmlessly off the citadel’s sloping side. Abandon ship was ordered aboard the Cumberland, and it plunged bow first to the bottom, “gallantly fighting her guns as long as they were above water,” Captain Buchanan admiringly wrote in his official report. All that remained above water was the tip of the after mast, flag still flying.

Buchanan made a slow, labored turn to take on the Congress, whose captain slipped its cables and with the assistance of a tug managed to get his ship aground where the Virginia could not follow to ram. This only delayed its destruction. Buchanan stood off in a raking position and systematically knocked the Congress to pieces. The guns that could bear were disabled. Its captain (the son of Commodore Joseph Smith of the Ironclad Board) was killed and a third of the crew killed or wounded. “The carnage was frightful,” wrote the Virginia’s executive officer. “Nothing remained but to strike their colors, which they did.” White flags were run up the gaff and mainmast. Buchanan immediately ordered his men to cease firing and sent in two of his gunboat consorts to take off the surviving crewmen and burn the stricken ship.

All the while, at Newport News Point, Federal infantry and artillery were firing whenever the Rebel ironclad came within range. Union Brig. Gen. Joseph K.F. Mansfield, a crusty old regular, was in charge. When the white flags were raised aboard the Congress, one of Mansfield’s gunners thought they should cease firing and honor the enemy’s capture. “I know the damned ship has surrendered,” snapped Mansfield, “but we haven’t,” and ordered his men to keep firing.

This infuriated Captain Buchanan. The protocols of war at sea dictate that once a vessel surrenders, all firing ceases and to the victor go the spoils. But the Yankees, at least those ashore, continued blazing away at the Virginia. It was a situation calling for discretion rather than valor on Buchanan’s part—after all, the fire from shore was doing no harm to his vessel—but he let his outrage get the best of him. Grabbing a musket, he climbed out atop the Virginia’s citadel and started shooting back. It was a foolhardy act, but then Buchanan was well known for his short-fused temper.

General Mansfield had sent two rifle companies of the 20th Indiana Infantry down to the water’s edge, and one of these Hoosier soldiers put a bullet through Buck Buchanan’s left thigh, nicking his femoral artery. In regard to the future fortunes of the Virginia, it was the single most important shot any Yankee fired that day. Buchanan would never again serve aboard the ironclad.

Under command of the executive officer, Lt. Catesby ap R. Jones, the Virginia stood off and sent hot shot crashing into the Congress, setting it afire from stem to stern. The day was well gone by now, and the tide was ebbing. The Virginia was taking on water at its bow where the iron beak had been wrenched off, and there was other damage to repair, so Lieutenant Jones decided to return to base. The Minnesota, Roanoke, and St. Lawrence were all aground and could be dealt with the next day.

At 9 o’clock that evening the Monitor anchored alongside flagship Roanoke, and Captain Worden was briefed on the day’s disasters. Marston directed him to take station to defend the grounded Minnesota. No pilot was available, but Worden easily steered the Monitor to its assigned station by the bright light of the burning Congress. At about midnight the fires reached the stricken vessel’s magazines, and the frigate blew to pieces in a series of thunderous explosions.

The next morning, Sunday, March 9, the Virginia steamed slowly into the roadstead expecting to finish off the previous day’s destructive  work. Instead Jones was challenged by the improbable-looking Monitor. Whereas on Saturday spectators thought the Virginia looked like a large barn roof adrift in a flood, on Sunday a bemused Southerner described the Yankee ironclad as “an immense shingle floating on the water, with a gigantic cheese box rising from its center; no sails, no wheels, no smokestack, no guns. What could it be?” What it was, in fact, came as no surprise to the Virginia’s officers, who by now had considerable intelligence on Ericsson’s invention. As one of them wrote, “She could not possibly have made her appearance at a more inopportune time for us, changing our plans, which were to destroy the Minnesota, and then the remainder of the fleet below Fort Monroe.”

The ensuing battle, the first ever between ironclad vessels, was at once suspenseful and uneventful. For some four hours the two gladiators, wreathed in gun smoke and coal smoke, threw iron punches at each other, without apparent effect. The Virginia, drawing 22 feet of water, proved even more cumbersome to maneuver than the day before. Its splintered smokestack furnished limited draft for the boilers, and it barely made headway. “The ship was as unwieldy as Noah’s ark,” an officer complained.

At one point Catesby Jones tried to butt his opponent with his ramless prow, but the agile Monitor evaded most of the blow; indeed, its only effect was to spring a leak in the Virginia’s bow. Captain Worden in turn tried to ram the Virginia’s stern, aiming at the vulnerable rudder and screw, but missed his target by a few feet. The armor on both vessels was dented but not broken by the repeated blows.

The Monitor’s executive officer, Dana Greene, directing the guns in the revolving turret, found his greatest problem was figuring out where he was. Orientation marks had been chalked on the deck under the turret—port, starboard, bow, stern—but the gun crews soon obliterated them as they worked, and then Greene’s only view was over the gun barrels when the gun ports were open. Captain Worden steered the Monitor from the foredeck pilothouse, communicating with the turret by speaking tube. The tube soon broke, however, and word was passed by messengers, a slow process in the midst of battle. It also proved difficult to start and stop the turret’s turning mechanism with any precision, so often enough shots were fired on the fly rather than by careful training on the target. At one point the stock of ammunition in the turret was exhausted, and Warden pulled off to shallow water to replenish. It took some 15 minutes to hoist the shot and powder cartridges into the turret. Warden took advantage of the lull to come out on deck to survey the scene; then it was back to action.

The Monitor’s one bad moment came when a shell from one of the Virginia’s 7-inch rifles exploded squarely on the face of the pilothouse, a cramped structure framed with iron bars, and drove shards of paint and powder through the eye slot, temporarily blinding Worden. By the time Lieutenant Greene came forward, got Worden safely below, and took over the con, the Monitor had broken contact with the enemy ironclad. Catesby Jones took advantage of the break to go after the Minnesota.

In return, the frigate’s captain, G.J. Van Brunt, unleashed at close range a full broadside—two 10-inch guns, fourteen 9-inch, seven 8-inch—which, he said, “would have blown out of the water any timber-built ship in the world.” Yet, shot and shell glanced harmlessly off the Virginia’s citadel. Greene soon had the Monitor back in action, forcing his opponent away from the Minnesota, and the thrust and counterthrust continued.

By now, however, it had become obvious to both captains—each a second-in-command thrust by circumstance into command— that neither ironclad was doing much visible harm to the other. The Virginia was in need of repairs after two days of battle, and the pilots warned that they had to catch the tide by noon to return up the Elizabeth to her Norfolk base. As Jones turned the Virginia toward home, Greene made no effort to pursue, holding the Monitor in position to guard the Minnesota. The historic first battle of ironclads ended quietly, accounted a draw that day but with nothing marked certain for the future.

News of the Virginia’s Saturday depredations in Hampton Roads only reached Washington on Sunday morning, sending an immense shock wave through the administration. Cabinet and military officers filled President Lincoln’s office. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was “very much excited, and walked up and down the room like a caged lion.”

Stanton envisioned no end of disasters to come: the sinking of the rest of the blockading squadron, the loss of Fort Monroe, the capture of the Federal foothold in North Carolina, the bombardment and burning of Washington. The Rebel ironclad would put every seaboard city under tribute, he claimed.

Throughout this diatribe Stanton glared accusingly at Secretary of the Navy Welles, but Welles remained calm. His sources told him, he said, that the Merrimack was hardly seaworthy enough to go ranging up and down the Atlantic coast, and it drew too much water to ascend the Potomac as far as Washington. In any case, he understood that the Monitor ought to be on the scene by now, and he had sent his assistant secretary, Gus Fox, to Hampton Roads to report on what ensued. Welles also pointed out that when General McClellan and the army had refused to act against Norfolk the previous fall, the navy had been left to handle the problem on its own.

For McClellan, this first report from Hampton Roads seemed suddenly to put his whole grand campaign at risk. As he telegraphed Fort Monroe, “The performances of the Merrimac place a new aspect upon everything, & may very probably change my whole plan of campaign, just on the eve of execution.”

Finally, in late afternoon, came a dispatch from Fox at Fort Monroe. He reported the Monitor’s arrival at Hampton Roads Saturday evening, and its challenge to the Confederate ironclad the next morning. “These two ironclad vessels fought part of the time touching each other, from 8 A.M. to noon, when the Merrimac retired….The Monitor is uninjured and ready at any moment to repel another attack.”

Simultaneously with this welcome news came reports from McClellan’s outposts around Washington that the Confederate army camped all winter at Manassas had decamped that very weekend, apparently intending to fall back behind the Rappahannock River. This had happened independently of the Virginia’s “coming out,” but McClellan imagined it was all a coordinated effort to derail his impending campaign against Richmond.

Indeed, that was its effect. The repositioned Rebel army would threaten his intended landing place at Urbanna on the Rappahannock. McClellan now had no choice but to change his base of operations to Fort Monroe and to advance from there up the peninsula toward Richmond. Fort Monroe itself was a secure base, but putting the Army of the Potomac ashore there necessitated securing Hampton Roads from the threat posed by the Virginia. McClellan telegraphed Gus Fox to seek assurances on that score. Fox replied, “The Monitor may, and I think will, destroy the Merrimac in the next fight, but this is hope, not certainty.” Thus McClellan rested his entire Peninsula campaign on the hope (despite the uncertainty) of a standoff between the two ironclads.

The Virginia offered no challenge to the Army of the Potomac’s landing at Fort Monroe, as it was laid up in the Norfolk dry dock for repairs. A new iron beak replaced the one wrenched off in ramming the Cumberland. Mechanics banded four feet of hull below the citadel with iron, patched the smokestack, and fitted shutters to the gun ports. They replaced two damaged guns, and equipped the rifled guns with steel-tipped solid shot. One hundred tons of ballast was added to cause it to ride lower in the water.

All these changes made the Virginia a more formidable fighting machine, but slowed the ironclad to four knots and increased the draft to 23 feet. Still, the most important change of all was a change of command.

Buck Buchanan had been too badly injured in the fighting on Saturday to resume command, and logic pointed to his executive officer, Catesby Jones, continuing the command. As another Virginia officer argued, “Lieutenant Jones should have been promoted, and should have succeeded [Buchanan]. He had fitted out the ship and armed her, and had commanded during the second day’s fight. However, the department thought otherwise.”

Richmond went with seniority over hands-on experience in promoting Josiah Tattnall to be the Virginia’s next, and last, commander. Tattnall was 66, the oldest officer of rank in Confederate naval service. He had gone to sea during the War of 1812 and served against the Algerian pirates and in the war with Mexico. From his record, Tattnall seemed a feisty old sea dog like Buchanan. In fact, over the years he had grown cautious and conservative.

In his new command, Tattnall felt overburdened with responsibilities—defending against the Yankee fleet, guarding Norfolk, blocking the James River route to Richmond. For all these tasks he considered the Virginia slow, cumbersome to maneuver, and at constant risk of engine failure. Gen. Robert E. Lee, military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, urged Tattnall to take the Virginia past Fort Monroe some night and get in among McClellan’s transports. “In this manner,” said Lee, “she could so cripple their means of supplying their army, as to prevent its moving against Richmond.” Tattnall was horrified at the very thought of it.

Tattnall decided his best course was to stay within the confined waters off the mouth of the Elizabeth and try to lure the Monitor into a one-on-one joust. His battle tactic would be one of the oldest in sea warfare—boarding. While he engaged the enemy’s attention, his consort craft would dart in from several directions. Boarders would leap onto the Monitor’s deck, throw a wet sailcloth over the pilothouse to blind the ship, drive wedges under the turret to immobilize its battery, and pitch lighted waste down the ventilators to drive out the crew.

“I will take her if hell’s on the other side of her!” Tattnall was heard to say. Capturing the Yankee ironclad would free him to take on the rest of the blockading squadron and threaten McClellan’s waterborne supply line.

On the morning of April 11 a tall column of black smoke once again announced the Virginia coming out. Transports in the roadstead scattered, and the Monitor and others in the blockading squadron cleared for action. Tattnall dipped his colors to invite the joust, but there was no response and no movement among the Federals. As Lieutenant Greene later wrote, “We, on our side, had received positive orders not to attack in the comparatively shoal waters above Hampton Roads, where the Union fleet could not maneuver.” The Virginia shifted about trying to provoke a response, then finally turned back to its berth.

The missions of the two ironclads were thus confirmed. The Virginia would guard Norfolk and block passage on the James, and stand as an ongoing threat to the blockade and to McClellan’s army. The Monitor, for its part, had no other duty but to guard against a sortie by the Confederate ironclad. General McClellan, laying siege to Yorktown, wanted the Monitor to attack the Rebel shore batteries there, but a direct order from the president prohibited risking the ironclad against any target other than the Virginia. And thanks to the Virginia, McClellan’s campaign was restricted to a York River supply line; the James, the direct route to Richmond, was out of his reach.

As April turned to May, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate army at Yorktown, announced that he could not hold on there for long. If he retreated, Norfolk would be lost. It therefore became essential that the Virginia find a new berth somewhere up the James.

But the Richmond authorities seemed incapable of salvaging what they could from the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk and ensuring the Virginia’s safety. Tattnall’s pilots told him that to pass the bar at the mouth of the James, he would have to lighten ship by some five feet, to an 18-foot draft. For that he required the navy yard crane to lift out some of his armament and the ship’s ballast.

Then on the morning of May 10, from the Virginia’s anchorage at Sewell’s Point, lookouts saw no flags flying over the Confederate shore batteries. Without notice to Captain Tattnall, Norfolk had been abandoned to the Yankees.

The catalyst for this action was Abraham Lincoln. The president had come to Fort Monroe to prod his generals and admirals into action. He organized an amphibious landing to turn the Rebel shore batteries and sent troops marching into Norfolk. Tattnall had to act quickly. He told his crew they had less than 12 hours to lighten ship enough to get over the James River bar at high tide at dawn on May 11.

At 1 A.M. on the 11th the work was well along when the ship’s pilots came to Tattnall and said that the wind was wrong; it was westerly, pushing against the tide. Even raised to an 18-foot draft, the Virginia would not make it across the bar.

This was suspect speculation, and Buck Buchanan had warned Tattnall not to put much trust in the Virginia’s pilots. Nonetheless, for Tattnall it came as the last straw. He had been let down by the army and then by the Richmond authorities, and the spark went out of him. Surely Buchanan (or Catesby Jones) would have growled damn the bar and damn the Yankees and damn the pilots and full speed ahead.

If Josiah Tattnall had ever had such instincts, he lost them that night. He could see only risks and what could go wrong. He might run hopelessly aground; the pursuing enemy might take advantage of the ironclad’s vulnerable state; the balky engines might fail.

In the small hours of the morning of May 11, Tattnall steered the Virginia to Craney Island and ran the ironclad aground. He set a powder train, fired it, and abandoned ship. At 4:58 A.M. the fire reached the magazine, and with a thunderclap CSS Virginia was no more, “thus forever laying this terrible ghost which has haunted us for so long,” as Lincoln’s secretary put it.

Richmond roundly condemned Tattnall’s decision. President Davis termed it “hasty.” “The destruction of the Virginia was premature,” according to Confederate Secretary of the Navy Mallory. “May God protect us & cure us of weakness & folly!” A court of inquiry judged the loss of the Virginia “unnecessary at the time and place it was effected.” However, a court-martial would later acquit Tattnall of the charges of culpability, negligence, and “improvident conduct.”

In the ship’s short, 65-day life, the Virginia had dramatically cracked but not broken the blockade. Of greater strategic importance, its mere presence seriously hampered and delayed McClellan’s Peninsula campaign, crimping his naval support on the York River and denying him use of the James. The Virginia survived just long enough for Richmond to block the James at Drewry’s Bluff and prevent the Union navy from bombarding the capital.

The Virginia’s destruction left Southerners with a tantalizing might-have-been. Had Captain Tattnall defied hell and low water and succeeded in saving his vessel to serve as a floating battery on the upper James, many speculated that the Peninsula campaign would surely have taken a different turn. In the Seven Days’ Battles (June 25–July 1), McClellan’s beaten Army of the Potomac found a final refuge at Harrison’s Landing on the James, and thereby lived to fight another day.

That outcome, it is safe to say, would have been highly unlikely had CSS Virginia survived to take up its intended anchorage in the James—at Harrison’s Landing.


Originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.