1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hampton Roads

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HAMPTON ROADS, a channel through which the waters of the James, Nansemond and Elizabeth rivers of Virginia, U.S.A., pass (between Old Point Comfort to the N. and Sewell’s Point to the S.) into Chesapeake Bay. It is an important highway of commerce, especially for the cities of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Newport News, and is the chief rendezvous of the United States navy. For a width of 500 ft. the Federal government during 1902–1905 increased its minimum depth at low water from 251/2 ft. to 30 ft. The entrance from Chesapeake Bay is defended by Fortress Monroe on Old Point Comfort and by Fort Wood on a small island called the Rip Raps near the middle of the channel; and at Portsmouth, a few miles up the Elizabeth river, is an important United States navy-yard.

Hampton Roads is famous in history as the scene of the first engagement between iron-clad vessels. In the spring of 1861 the Federals set fire to several war vessels in the Gosport navy yard on the Elizabeth river and abandoned the place. In June the Confederates set to work to raise one of these abandoned vessels, the frigate “Merrimac” of 3500 tons and 40 guns, and to rebuild it as an iron-clad. The vessel (renamed the “Virginia” though it is generally known in history by its original name) was first cut down to the water-line and upon her hull was built a rectangular casemate, constructed of heavy timber (24 in. in thickness), covered with bar-iron 4 in. thick, and rising from the water on each side at an angle of about 35°. The iron plating extended 2 ft. below the water line; and beyond the casemate, toward the bow, was a cast-iron pilot house, extending 3 ft. above the deck. The reconstruction of the vessel was completed on the 5th of March 1862. The vessel drew 22 ft. of water, was equipped with poor engines, so that it could not make more than 5 knots, and was so unwieldy that it could not be turned in less than 30 minutes. It was armed with 10 guns—2 (rifled) 7 in., 2 (rifled) 6 in., and 6 (smooth bore Dahlgren) 9 in. Her most powerful equipment, however, was her 18 in. cast-iron ram. In October 1861 Captain John Ericsson, an engineer, and a Troy (N.Y.) firm, as builders, began the construction of the iron-clad “Monitor” for the Federals, at Greenpoint, Long Island. With a view to enable this vessel to carry at good speed the thickest possible armour compatible with buoyancy, Ericsson reduced the exposed surface to the least possible area. Accordingly, the vessel was built so low in the water that the waves glided easily over its deck except at the middle, where was constructed a revolving turret[1] for the guns, and though the vessel’s iron armour had a thickness of 1 in. on the deck, 5 in. on the side, and 8 in. on the turret, its draft was only 10 ft. 6 in., or less than one-half that of the “Merrimac.” Its turret, 9 ft. high and 20 ft. in inside diameter, seemed small for its length of 172 ft. and its breadth of 41 ft. 6 in., and this, with the lowness of its freeboard, caused the vessel to be called the “Yankee cheese-box on a raft.” Forward of the turret was the iron pilot house, square in shape, and rising about 4 ft. above the deck. The “Monitor’s” displacement was about 1200 tons and her armament was two 11 in. Dahlgren guns; her crew numbered 58, while that of the “Merrimac” numbered about 300. She was seaworthy in the shallow waters off the southern coasts and steered fairly well. The “Monitor” was launched at Greenpoint, Long Island, on the 30th of January, and was turned over to the government on the 19th of the following month. The building of the two vessels was practically a race between the two combatants.

On the 8th of March about 1 p.m., the “Merrimac,” commanded by Commodore Franklin Buchanan (1795–1871), steamed down the Elizabeth accompanied by two one-gun gun-boats, to engage the wooden fleet of the Federals, consisting of the frigate “Congress,” 50 guns, and the sloop “Cumberland,” 30 guns, both sailing vessels, anchored off Newport News, and the steam frigates “Minnesota,” and “Roanoke,” the sailing frigate “St Lawrence,” and several gun-boats, anchored off Fortress Monroe. Actual firing began about 2 o’clock, when the “Merrimac” was nearly a mile from the “Congress” and the “Cumberland.” Passing the first of these vessels with terrific broadsides, the “Merrimac” rammed the “Cumberland” and then turned her fire again on the “Congress,” which in an attempt to escape ran aground and was there under fire from three other Confederate gun-boats which had meanwhile joined the “Merrimac.” About 3.30 p.m. the “Cumberland,” which, while it steadily careened, had been keeping up a heavy fire at the Confederate vessels, sank, with “her pennant still flying from the topmast above the waves.” Between 4 and 4.30 the “Congress,” having been raked fore and aft for nearly an hour by the “Merrimac,” was forced to surrender. While directing a fire of hot shot to burn the “Congress,” Commodore Buchanan of the “Merrimac” was severely wounded and was succeeded in the command by Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones. The Federal steam frigates, “Roanoke,” “St Lawrence” and “Minnesota” had all gone aground in their trip from Old Point Comfort toward the scene of battle, and only the “Minnesota” was near enough (about 1 m.) to take any part in the fight. She was in such shallow water that the Confederate iron-clad ram could not get near her at ebb tide, and about 5 o’clock the Confederates postponed her capture until the next day and anchored off Sewell’s Point.

The “Monitor,” under Lieut. John Lorimer Worden (1818–1897). had left New York on the morning of the 6th of March; after a dangerous passage in which she twice narrowly escaped sinking, she arrived at Hampton Roads during the night of the 8th, and early in the morning of the 9th anchored near the “Minnesota.” When the “Merrimac” advanced to attack the “Minnesota,” the “Monitor” went out to meet her, and the battle between the iron-clads began about 9 a.m. on the 9th. Neither vessel was able seriously to injure the other, and not a single shot penetrated the armour of either. The “Monitor” had the advantage of being able to out-manœuvre her heavier and more unwieldy adversary; but the revolving turret made firing difficult and communications were none too good with the pilot house, the position of which on the forward deck lessened the range of the two turret-guns. The machinery worked so badly that the revolution of the turret was stopped. After two hours’ fighting, the “Monitor” was drawn off, so that more ammunition could be placed in her turret. When the battle was renewed (about 11.30) the “Merrimac” began firing at the “Monitor’s” pilot house; and a little after noon a shot struck the sight-hole of the pilot house and blinded Lieut. Worden. The “Monitor” withdrew in the confusion consequent upon the wounding of her commanding officer; and the “Merrimac” after a short wait for her adversary steamed back to Norfolk. There were virtually no casualties on either side. After the evacuation of Norfolk by the Confederates on the 9th of May Commodore Josiah Tattnall, then in command of the “Merrimac,” being unable to take her up the James, sank her. The “Monitor” was lost in a gale off Cape Hatteras on the 31st of December 1862.

Though the battle between the two vessels was indecisive, its effect was to “neutralize” the “Merrimac,” which had caused great alarm in Washington, and to prevent the breaking of the Federal blockade at Hampton Roads; in the history of naval warfare it may be regarded as marking the opening of a new era—the era of the armoured warship. On the 3rd of February 1865 near Fortress Monroe on board a steamer occurred the meeting of President Lincoln and Secretary Seward with Confederate commissioners which is known as the Hampton Roads Conference (see Lincoln, Abraham). At Sewell’s Point, on Hampton Roads, in 1907 was held the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition.

See James R. Soley, The Blockade and the Cruisers (New York, 1883); Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. i. (New York, 1887); chap. ii. of Frank M. Bennett’s The Monitor and the Navy under Steam (Boston, 1900); and William Swinton, Twelve Decisive Battles of the War (New York, 1867).

  1. For the idea of the low free-board and the revolving turret Ericsson was indebted to Theodore R. Timby (1819–1909), who in 1843 had filed a caveat for revolving towers for offensive or defensive warfare whether placed on land or water, and to whom the company building the “Monitor” paid $5000 royalty for each turret.