« PreviousContinue »
March 9, 1862, was the first action ever fought between ironclad steam men-of-war.
Eleven months earlier the Federal Government had suddenly abandoned the Norfolk Navy Yard; though their strongest garrison was at Fortress Monroe, only twelve miles north along a waterway which was under the absolute control of their
navy, and though the Confederates had nothing but an inadequate little untrained force on the spot. Among the spoils of war falling into Confederate hands were twelve hundred guns and the Merrimac, a forty-gun steam frigate. The Merrimac, though fired and scuttled by the Federals, was hove up, cut down, plated over, and renamed the Virginia. (History, however, knows her only as the Merrimac.) John L. Porter, Naval Constructor to the Confederate States, had made a model of an ironclad at Pittsburgh fifteen years before; and he now applied this model to the rebuilding of the Merrimac. He first cut down everything above the water line, except the gun deck, which he converted into a regular citadel with flat top, sides sloping at thirty-five degrees, and ends stopping short of the ship's own ends by seventy feet fore and aft. The effect, therefore, was that of an ironclad citadel built on the midships of a submerged
frigate's hull. The four-inch iron plating of the citadel knuckled over the wooden sides two feet under water. The engines, which the South had no means of replacing, were the old ones which had been condemned before being sunk. A four-foot castiron ram was clamped on to the bow. Ten guns were mounted: six nine-inch smooth-bores, with two six-inch and two seven-inch rifles. Commodore Franklin Buchanan took command and had magnificent professional officers under him. But the crew, three hundred strong, were mostly landsmen; for, as in the case of the Army, the men of the Navy nearly all took sides with the North, and the South had very few seamen of any other kind.
To oppose the Merrimac the dilatory North contracted with John Ericsson the Swede, who had to build the Monitor much smaller than the Merrimac owing to pressure of time. He enjoyed, however, enormous advantages in every other respect, owing to the vastly superior resources of the North in marine engineering, armor-plating, and all other points of naval construction. The Monitor was launched at New York on January 30, 1862, the hundredth day after the laying of her keel-plate. Her length over all was 172 feet, her beam was 41,
and her draught only 10 — less than half the draught of the Merrimac. Her whole crew numbered only 58; but every single one was a trained professional naval seaman who had volunteered for dangerous service under Captain John L. Worden. She was not a good sea boat; and she nearly foundered on her way down from New York to Fortress Monroe. Her underwater hull was shipshape enough; but her superstructure - a round iron tower resting on a very low deck — was not. Contemptuous eye-witnesses described her very well as looking like a tin can on a shingle or a cheesebox on a raft. She carried only two guns, eleveninchers, both mounted inside her turret, which revolved by machinery; but their 180-pound shot were far more powerful than any aboard the Merrimac. In maneuvering the Monitor enjoyed an immense advantage, with her light draft, strong engines, and well-protected screws and rudder.
On the eighth of March, a lovely spring day, the Merrimac made her trial trip by going into action with her wheezy old engines, lubberly crew, and the guns she had never yet fired. She shoveled along at only five knots; but the Confederate garrisons cheered her to the echo. Seven miles north she came upon the astonished fifty-gun Congress and
thirty-gun Cumberland swinging drowsily at anchor off Newport News, with their boats alongside and the men's wash drying in the rigging. Yet the surprised frigates opened fire at twelve hundred yards and were joined by the shore batteries, all converging on the Merrimac, from whose iron sides the shot glanced up without doing more than hammer her hard and start a few rivets. Closing in at top speed - barely six knots - the Merrimac gave the Congress a broadside before ramming the Cumberland and opening a hole “wide enough to drive in a horse and cart.” Backing clear and turning the after-pivot gun, the Merrimac then got in three raking shells against the Congress, which grounded when trying to escape. Meanwhile the Cumberland was listing over and rapidly filling, though she kept up the fight to the very last gasp. When she sank with a roar her topmasts still showed above water and her colors waved defiance. An hour later the terribly mauled Congress surrendered; whereupon her crew was rescued and she was set on fire. By this time various smaller craft on both sides had joined the fray. But the big Minnesota still remained, though aground and apparently at the mercy of the Merrimac. The great draught of the Merrimac and the setting in of the ebb tide,
however, made the Confederates draw off for the night.
Next morning they saw the “tin can on the shingle” between them and their prey. The Monitor and Merrimac then began their epoch-making fight. The patchwork engines of the deep-draught Merrimac made her as unhandy as if she had been water-logged, while the light-draught Monitor could not only play round her when close-to but maneuver all over the surrounding shallows as well. The Merrimac put her last ounce of steam into an attempt to ram her agile opponent. But a touch of the Monitor's helm swung her round just in time to make the blow perfectly harmless. The Merrimac simply barged into her, grated harshly against her iron side, and sheered off beaten. The firing was furious and mostly at point-blank range. Once the Monitor fired while the sides were actually touching. The concussion was so tremendous that all the Merrimac's gun-crews aft were struck down flat, with bleeding ears and noses. But in spite of this her boarders were called away; whereupon every man who could handle cutlass and revolver made ready and stood by. The Monitor, however, dropped astern too quickly; and the wallowing Merrimac had no chance of catching her. The fight