The Sortie of the CSS Virginia Saturday 8 March 1862

lag Officer Buchanan's plan to attack the Union blockading fleet in Hampton Roads on Thursday 6 March was cancelled. The CSS Virginia was still not ready for action, and Lieutenant Jones begged for a few more days to finish preparing the ironclad. Buchanan had planned a night attack, but local pilots refused to take responsibility for guiding the ship up the Elizabeth River in the dark. The attack was postponed until Saturday morning. Even then, the gunport shields would still not be fitted, and finishing work on the warship such as the construction of internal compartments had to wait until after her maiden voyage. Lieutenant Wood recorded that prior to her sailing into action, "not a gun had been fired, hardly a revolution of her engines had been made." The ugly, ungainly Virginia would have to go into batde without the luxury of being fully completed, or even having run sea trials to test her performance. Neither her officers nor men knew what to expect. As the ironclad prepared for action, Buchanan claimed that she was only going to

The tug Seth Low towed the USS Monitor out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and then escorted her during the ironclad's eventful voyage south to Hampton Roads. On two occasions the tug had to tow the Monitor inshore to prevent her from being swamped. (US Army Military History Institute)

Css Virginia

Sailors manning the hand-operated pumps inside the USS Monitor. During her voyage from New York to Hampton Roads the ironclad was almost swamped in heavy seas. Nine months later she foundered off Cape Hatteras in similar conditions. (Author's Collection)

The USS Monitor in heavy seas. Given her low freeboard, even a gentle swell could be enough to cause the ironclad to founder. Watercolor by Clary Roy, c.1900. (US Navy)

perform trials on the Elizabeth River. Nobody seemed fooled by this, and the local press and public were well aware that the ironclad would sail into action against the enemy on Saturday morning. Buchanan briefed the commander of the James River Squadron, and requested that the three gunboats be ready to cooperate with him on Saturday morning. Apart from the ironclad itself, everything else was ready for the coming battle.

Lieutenant Jones later wrote of her condition before she went into action. "The lower part of her shield forward was only immersed a few inches instead of two feet as intended, and there was but one inch of iron on the (lower) hull. The port-shutters, etc. were unfinished. The Virginia was unseaworthy; her engines were unreliable, and her draft, over 22 feet, prevented her from going to Washington ..." The surgeon Dinwiddie Phillips wrote that "many of those who watched us predicted failure." A naval friend of H. Ashton Ramsay, the Virginia's Chief Engineer took the opportunity to tease his colleague, exclaiming "Goodbye Ramsay. I shall never see you again. She will prove your coffin." Many others probably shared these sentiments. Ramsay claimed there was an air of desperation in Flag Officer Buchanan as he ordered the workmen to leave the ship, and prepared the ironclad for her

HAMPTON ROADS, SATURDAY 8 MARCH 1862

CONFEDERATE FLEET:

A. CSS Virginia

B. CSS Beaufort

C. CSS Raleigh

D. CSS Jamestown

E. CSS Teaser

F. CSS Patrick Henry

Middle Ground Shoal

UNION FLEET:

1. USS Cumberland

2. USS Congress

3. USS Minnesota

4. USS Roanoke

5. USS St Lawrence

6. USS Vanderbilt

7. Gassendi(French Paddle Sloop) & coaling ship

8. USS Mount Vernon & coaling ship

9. USS Brandywine (store ship),

USS Cambridge & assorted tugs, coal ships & scooners

10. The Army's vessel anchorage, plus assorted gunboats, tugs, scooners & barks and a hospital ship

Note: There were over 60 vessels in Hampton Roads on the morning of 8 May 1862. Many of these were not naval vessels, but instead came under Army control. Only the major vessels have been shown here.

CONFEDERATE FLEET:

A. CSS Virginia

B. CSS Beaufort

C. CSS Raleigh

D. CSS Jamestown

E. CSS Teaser

F. CSS Patrick Henry

0 2 miles

15 foot depth line journey down the river. The tug CSS Beaufort (commanded by Lieutenant William H. Parker, CSN) nudged the ironclad away from the dock, and the Virginia slowly moved into the river channel, the Beaufort following like a protective hen. It was 11.00am.

It was ten miles from the wharf in Gosport to Hampton Roads. The ironclad had a top speed of about five or six knots, but made seven with the river current. It would be at least 1 V> hours before she would engage the enemy, giving ample time for the entire garrison and population of Norfolk and its hinterland to watch her journey down the Elizabeth River. While Flag Officer Buchanan paced the upper spar deck of the Virginia, thousands of onlookers crowded the banks and waved at him. One crewman also noted that some "seemed too deeply moved by the gravity of the moment to break into cheers." Small boats jostled for position as the Beaufort and Virginia steamed past them, but "no voice 46 broke the silence of the scene; all hearts were too full for utterance. All

Css Virginia

A cross-section through the turret of the USS Monitor, showing her guns run forward into their firing position. Thomas Rowland of the Continental Iron Works presented the plan to the Mariners Museum. (Mariners)

present knew that this was a decisive moment for the Confederacy. If the Virginia broke the enemy blockade, then there was a significant chance that the nation would gain the recognition and support of foreign powers such as Britain and France. With their support, the survival of the Confederacy was far more likely. William F. Drake, an artilleryman who had volunteered to crew one of the guns knew "ten thousand waving handkerchiefs told us that in their hearts they were bidding us Godspeed!" A local journalist was more eloquent. "It was a gallant sight to see the ironclad leviathan gliding noiselessly through the water flying the red pennant of her commander at the fore flag staff and the gay Confederate ensign aft..." To the inexperienced eye, all was going smoothly. In fact, the Virginia's steering mechanism was proving to be highly erratic, and two miles below Norfolk, Jones hailed the Beaufort and requested a tow. The ironclad would continue down the river under tow from the tugboat. A second armed tugboat, the CSS Raleigh was also called to help keep the Virginia's bows pointed down river.

It was at this stage that Buchanan stopped pacing and questioned Ramsay, his engineer. He asked him: "what would happen to your

A cross-section through the turret of the USS Monitor, showing her guns run forward into their firing position. Thomas Rowland of the Continental Iron Works presented the plan to the Mariners Museum. (Mariners)

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An artist's rendition of the Interior of the USS Monitor, drawn after the battle. Although inaccurate, it presents an atmospheric impression of the scene inside her pilot house and her turret. (Author's Collection)

engines and boilers if there should be a collision?" Ramsay replied that they would take the shock of impact. Buchanan then turned and addressed his senior officers. "I am going to ram the Cumberland. I am told she has the new rifled guns, the only ones in their whole fleet we have cause to fear. The moment we are in the roads, I'm going to make right for her and ram her." The decision had been made. The hands were piped to dinner, and the crew prepared themselves for battle. Ramsay went to join the other officers behind the curtained-off wardroom, but he passed the assistant surgeon laying out his instruments. "The sight took away my appetite," he recalled.

By noon, the Virginia and her consorts had drawn level with Sewell's Point, guarding the mouth of the Elizabeth River. For the first time, the crew could make out the enemy ships on the northern shore of Hampton Roads. Ramsay remembered seeing: " Congress and Cumberland, tall and stately, with every line and spar clearly defined against the blue March sky." The journalist from the Norfolk Day Book described his first view of the two Union ships "rising like prodigious castles over the placid water." The rigging of the USS Cumberland was covered with sailors' clothing hung out to dry, giving the ship a somewhat festive appearance. It looked as if the Virginia's sortie had taken the Union fleet by surprise.

There were over 60 Union vessels in Hampton Roads that morning; warships, transports, supply ships, tugs, dispatch vessels, and tenders. Most of the vessels were powered by sail, and all lacked any form of armored protection. While many were naval vessels (or at least operated by the Navy), others came under the control of the Army Quartermaster Corps. Even the warships included a strange assortment of vessels, from powerful wooden steam frigates to former New York ferry boats that had been hastily converted into gunboats. The flagship of the Hampton Roads squadron was the USS Minnesota, an unarmored wooden steam-powered frigate mounting 43 large smoothbore guns. Rear-Admiral Louis M. Goldsborough was away at Iiatteras Inlet, so Captain John Marston, the commander of the USS Roanoke was the senior Union naval officer in Hampton Roads that morning. The Roanoke was another

•Vhen Confederate engineers nspected them, they discovered :hat given work, the engines of :he sunken wooden frigate *#errimac could be made to -unction again. Built at the West Point Foundry in New York State, :he engines could produce 869 horsepower. (US Navy)

unarmored steam-powered frigate, but her engines were in the process of being overhauled, and her screw (propeller) shaft had been sent to Brooklyn Navy Yard. In order to join in any fight, she would have to use her sails, or else be towed into action. She carried 44 smoothbore guns. Captain Van Brunt commanded the Minnesota. She was anchored next to the Vanderbilt, one of the oddest ships in the squadron.

As a countermeasure against the Virginia the 5,000-ton transatlantic steamship had been recently chartered by the Navy. It was intended to plate her sides with iron, and to reinforce her bow with timber. If the Virginia appeared, the Vanderbilt would be used to ram her. The unarmed paddlewheel liner was still waiting for the work parties to begin her conversion when the Virginia sortied from the Elizabeth River. Anchored close to her was the USS St. Lawrence, a wooden sailing frigate that carried 42 guns of various sizes. All three of these warships lay off Fort Monroe, to the northeast of the mouth of the Elizabeth River.

Two more sailing warships lay to the northwest, off Newport News Point. The USS Congress was a wooden sailing frigate that carried 50 smoothbore guns. She was short of crew to man her, and although her full complement was 480 men, she was short of 80 men that morning, and even then her crew included a detachment of 89 soldiers from the 99th New York Infantry. She also had two captains. Commander W.B. Smith had just handed his ship over to Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, but the Commander remained on board, waiting for a passage to take him to his new appointment. The Paymaster of the Congress was McKean Buchanan, the brother of the Confederate commander. Neither sibling knew that the other was on board either the Virginia or the Congress. Further to the west lay the wooden sailing sloop USS Cumberland, commanded by Captain William Radford. That morning he was away from his ship, as he was taking part in a court-martial on board the USS Roanoke. This meant his Executive Officer, Lieutenant George U. Morris was left, in command. The Cumberland started her career as a sailing frigate, a sister ship of the St. Lawrence. Commissioned in 1845, she was "razeed" ten years later. This involved having her upper deck removed, making her a lower, lighter vessel. She was reclassified as a sloop. In March 1861 she carried 24 guns, including one rifled gun, mounted in her stern.

ABOVE The Norfolk Navy Yard at Portsmouth, Virginia, pictured soon after the naval base fell into Confederate hands. The lithograph omits to show the numerous vessels that were burned and scuttled in the Elizabeth River (to the right of the picture). These included the USS Merrimac. (LoV)

THE "MEKRIMAC," KROM A »KETCH MADE THE 1>AY BEFOKK rfrf ,«{.» u„M« »

THE "MEKRIMAC," KROM A »KETCH MADE THE 1>AY BEFOKK rfrf ,«{.» u„M« »

The tugboat Zouave (commanded by Acting Master Henry Reaney) began her career towing grain barges on the upper Hudson River. Now she was berthed at the dock at Newport News, where she acted as the tug and guard vessel for the two sailing warships off the Point. Sources contradict each other, but two army transport vessels were probably moored to the same wharf. Of the remainder of the shipping in Hampton Roads, most were clustered around Fort Monroe, either on the eastern, Chesapeake Bay side of Point Comfort, or off her southwest side. Other vessels lay further inshore, closer to the burned remains of the village of Hampton. These ships included the store ship Brandywine, a sister ship of the St. Lawrence and the Cumberland.

Anchored between Fort Monroe and Fort Wool was the small French paddlewheel gunboat Gassendi, commanded by Captain Ange Simon Gautier. She was there to observe any clash between the blockading squadron and the Virginia, and report the outcome to the French government. A group of her officers had just returned from a visit to Norfolk under a flag of truce. As neutral observers, the French naval officers were allowed to see the Virginia, but kept their observations to themselves. They were there as impartial observers, and over the next two days they were presented with a spectacle that her Captain would find "très intéressante."

The Gassendi, provided the Union Navy with the first indication that something was about to happen. Around 10.00am she began taking on coal, an indication that she planned to shift her anchorage. Protocol demanded that she inform the Union flagship of any plan to depart, so that both nations could exchange the correct salutes. No such notification had been made. As the staff in Fort Monroe were well aware

ABOVE The Norfolk Navy Yard at Portsmouth, Virginia, pictured soon after the naval base fell into Confederate hands. The lithograph omits to show the numerous vessels that were burned and scuttled in the Elizabeth River (to the right of the picture). These included the USS Merrimac. (LoV)

LEFT The CSS Virginia as she appeared just before the battle. During the first day of the battle she flew the Confederate ensign from her stern, and a blue Flag Officer's pennant from her forward staff. The latter flag was taken down when Flag Officer Buchanan was taken ashore. (Hensley)

Uss Merrimac

The powerful wooden steam frigate USS Merrimac pictured entering Southampton Harbour during a courtesy visit to Britain in September 1856. In her day she was the most powerful and up-to-date vessel in the US Navy. (Mariners)

that the French had visited Norfolk the previous day, they suspected the French knew something, and planned to get out of the line of fire of the Fort. The Fort's commander, Major General John E. Wool, sent a telegram to Brigadier General Joseph K. Mansfield, commanding the Union troops encamped near Newport News Point. It asked him to keep a sharp lookout. Mansfield duly ordered the gun batteries lining the point to be manned and ready. Despite the warning, there was little other activity among the Union ships and men in the area. Many believed that the Virginia was far from ready, and there was little chance of action that morning. Soon after 11.00am, the signalers manning Mansfield's lookout station on Newport News Point reported seeing smoke rising far up the Elizabeth River. There was some form of Confederate naval activity going on, and Mansfield sent a telegram to Wool, claiming that "the Merrimack is close at hand." Apparently, neither General saw fit to share their suspicions with their naval colleagues. When the Virginia appeared off Sewell's Point, the Union blockading squadron was caught completely unprepared. The washing hanging from the rigging of the Cumberland was ample evidence of the fleet's lack of readiness.

To Lieutenant Tom Selfridge of the Cumberland, the early spring morning was "mild, bright and clear." With hardly any wind to ruffle the glassy surface of Hampton Roads, it promised to be a beautiful day. This all changed at about 12.45pm, when Henry Reaney on the Zouave noticed "black smoke in the Elizabeth River." He cast off and steamed alongside the Cumberland, where Selfridge was the officer of the deck. He had also spotted the smoke, and ordered Reaney to investigate. Within minutes the Zouave was heading south toward Pig Point, on the southern shore of the Roads. Reaney later reported: "It did not take us long to find out, for we had not gone over two miles when we saw what to all appearances looked like the roof of a very large barn belching forth smoke as from a chimney fire." The Zouave fired her 30-pdr. Parrot

Css Shenandoah Ship Board

Representation of the gun crews in action on board the CSS Virginia. Although the gun ports are too large and the wrong shape, the details of the guns, carriages and crew are accurate. The guns shown are her din. Dahlgren smoothbores, part of her broadside armament. (Hensley)

rifle six times, then spun around and headed bark towards the relative safety of Newport News. The time was 1.20pm. Reaney had fired the opening shots in the Battle of Hampton Roads. At the same time as Selfridge and Reaney spotted the Virginia, lookouts elsewhere in the squadron spotted the enemy warships. The logbook of the Minnesota that morning recorded that: "at 12.45pm saw three steamers off Sewell's Point standing towards Newport News; one of these was supposed to be the Merrimack from the size of her smokestack. We immediately slipped chain with buoy and rope attached at the 15-fathom shackle and steamed towards Newport News." Signals alerted the rest of the fleet, and the alarm drum call alerted the garrisons of Fort Monroe and Camp Butler. The French Captain Gautier shared Reaney's views concerning the appearance of the Virginia, which he described as "a barracks room surmounted by a large funnel." On board the Confederate ironclad, Chief Engineer Ramsay recorded the effect the Virginia had on the shipping in Hampton Roads. "The white-winged sailing craft that sprinkled the bay and long lines of tugs and boats scurried to the far shore like chickens on the approach of a hovering hawk." The Minnesota was seen to raise steam, and the clotheslines on the Cumberland were ripped down. Sails were raised on the Congress. The combatants on both sides prepared for battle.

Representation of the gun crews in action on board the CSS Virginia. Although the gun ports are too large and the wrong shape, the details of the guns, carriages and crew are accurate. The guns shown are her din. Dahlgren smoothbores, part of her broadside armament. (Hensley)

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