Damaged 9 Inch Dahlgren from the Merrimac, damaged in the March 8, 1862 battle with the U.S.S. Cumberland. Image from the U.S. Navy Historic Collection.
For two short months (or long months, depending on your perspective) in 1862, the C.S.S. Virginia, better known in the north as the captured and converted-to-ironclad U.S.S. Merrimac, was the scourge of the U.S. east coast, at least in the imaginations of many. On March 8, the Merrimac lumbered up to the wooden frigates Congress and Cumberland, and easily dispatched them. The next day, the U.S.S. Monitor appeared, and fought the Merrimac to a stalemate. While the supporting flotillas of these ships were vulnerable, The U.S. fleet off Norfolk was held at bay by the Merrimac, and vice-versa, until Huger’s abandonment of Norfolk forced the Confederates to scuttle the Merrimac on April 11.
Merrimac detail, showing the bow turret ports and smokestack. Image from the U.S. Navy Historic Collection.
The U.S. Navy Historic Collectiondescribes the consternation caused by the Merrimac’s successes:
Virginia made her first combat sortie on 8 March 1862, steaming down the Elizabeth River from Norfolk and into Hampton Roads. In a historic action that dramatically demonstrated the superiority of armored steam-powered warships over their wooden sailing counterparts, she rammed and sank the big U.S. Navy sloop of war Cumberland and shelled the frigate Congress into submission. In Washington, D.C., many of the Federal Government’s senior officials panicked, convinced that Virginiaposed a grave threat to Union seapower and coastal cities. They were unaware that her serious operational limitations, caused by her deep draft, weak powerplant and extremely poor seakeeping, essentially restricted her use to deep channels in calm, inland waterways.
Ironclad warfare was keenly noted in Europe, where historical foes England and France began to build iron ships, as noted in this April 25 issue of the Lowell (Massachusetts) Daily Citizen and News:
IRON-CLAD VESSELS – The late naval contest between the Merrimac and Monitor has stimulated the British to an astonishing degree, lest their boasted supremacy of the sea should yet prove a dry laurel. The course taken by the French emperor in turning out formidable iron vessels from his dockyard has given them much anxlety, but the testing of such vessels has in reality been reserved for the Americans.
England would soon build ships of iron, or iron frames, including the Confederate commerce raider Shenandoah, launched in 1864, capturing 20+ ships of Union commerce, mostly whalers, firing the last shot of the Civil War (after it was long over) on June 27, 1865 near the Aleutian Islands.
From the April 26, 1862 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (New York), the scathing report on the continuing existence seems more like an extremist blog post, rather than professional journalism. Yet this sensationalism was probably the best way to boost newspaper sales.
The Merrimac, supported by a flotilla of smaller vessels, made her appearance in Hampton Roads on the 12th of April, and succeeded in capturing thee small craft lying at a distance from the National fleet. She, however, made no demonstrations, beyond exchanging a few impotent shots with the iron gunboat Naugatuck, and on the 14th, returned to Norfolk. She does not seem inclined to risk an engagement—probably because she is doing best service in keeping the Union flotilla, including the Monitor idle in Hampton Roads, and preventing its much needed co-operation with General McClellan before Yorktown. At present and if only in this respect, she is worth more than an army of 40,000 men to the rebels!
So much for the imbecility of the Secretary of Navy! The whole Army of the Potomac is paralyzed by this “checkmating” monster, at a daily cost equal to that of a half dozen Monitors! And yet the President retains this incubus to the nation in office, apparently ignorant of the fact that his shortcomings will be ultimately visited on his own head!
The Union was not unaware of the criticism of the press, public support was important to the war effort. These stories probably forced the Union to launch the campaign to take Norfolk by land, depriving the Merrimac of its only harbor. The Confederates scuttled their infamous ship, and relied on the shallow waters of the James River and the batteries at Drewry’s Bluff to keep the Monitor and other Federal gunboats at bay. With the destruction of the Merrimac, naval control was never again in question, despite some successes of other ironclads, such as the Neuse, Albemarle, and Arkansas, or submarine and torpedo warfare by a desperate Confederate Navy.
In early 1862, McClellan’s 100,000 man army faced 40,000 Confederates, less than fifty miles from Richmond in the Peninsula campaign, and things looked so bleak for the Confederates, that they began evacuating the capital to Raleigh, North Carolina. But the existence of the Merrimac, combined with Stonewall Jackson’s offensive in the Shenandoah Valley essentially drew a significant number of troops from McClellan’s army, grinding the Union offensive to a halt, and handing the initiative to the new Confederate Commander, Robert E. Lee. How fast can you say, “Antietam?”
CSS Virginia Home Page