The blockading squadron that lay in Hampton Roads during the first week of March 1862 was representative of the blockading forces that encircled the Confederacy. All were unarmored vessels, and almost all were wooden. The most powerful ships were the steam frigates USS Minnesota (Captain Gershon Van Brunt) and USS Roanoke (Captain John Marston), both well armed with the latest shell guns. Marston was also the acting commander of the squadron during the battle. The squadron also included several sailing warships, echoes of a bygone age. While they lacked the maneuverability of steam warships, they did possess a powerful enough armament, and were therefore useful, at least until more modern warships could be found to replace them. These sailing ships included the frigates USS Congress (Lieutenant Joseph Smith) and USS St. Lawrence (Captain H. Purvayance), plus the USS Cumberland (Captain William Radford), formerly a frigate that had been "razeed" or cut down to make a smaller but more useful warship. The squadron included myriad smaller ships, including transports, tugs to move the sailing vessels, supply ships, dispatch boats, small gunboats, a hospital ship, and a storeship. One oddity in the fleet was the Vanderbilt, a former iron paddlewheel steamer that had served as an ocean liner. She was due to be commissioned into the Navy, and was in Hampton Roads for the sole purpose of ramming the Virginia in the event of her appearance. As she had a top speed of 14 knots
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HAMPTON ROADS, MARCH 1862
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Confederate Battery Union Battery Union Fort Union Encampment Confederate Earthwork
The USS Minnesota was the most powerful wooden warship in Hampton Roads during the battle. During the second day of the battle she was also the most vulnerable, having run aground the previous afternoon midway between Old Point Comfort and Newport News Point. Unable to free herself, she lay at the mercy of the Virginia. (National Archives)
and displaced over 3,000 ions, she might well have been successful if she had been given the opportunity to try. Anchored amongst the Union fleet as an impartial observer, the small French warship Gassendi was present under a flag of neutrality. Her commander, Captain Gautier, was charged with determining the effectiveness of the Confederate ironclad. He would find plenty to write about.
The sidewheel steamer Vanderbilt was a transatlantic liner that was donated to the US Navy as a free charter by the multimillionaire shipping tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. Plans were afoot to convert the liner into a giant ram to be used against the Virginia, but work had not yet started at the time of the battle. (US Navy)
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