2012-03-28 / Features

Civil War Roundtable Remembers Ironclads

By Al Ronzoni

Photo Al Ronzoni
The roundtable group included (L. to r.); Astoria native Patrick Falci, who portrays Confederate General A.P. Hill at numerous Civil War reenactment events including the film Gettsyburg, past President of the Civil War Roundtable of New York Bud Livingston, Bill Finlayso, whose fourth great uncle, Lieutenant John L. Worten commanded the Monitor and George and Janice Weinmann of the Greenpoint Monitor Museum.Photo Al Ronzoni The roundtable group included (L. to r.); Astoria native Patrick Falci, who portrays Confederate General A.P. Hill at numerous Civil War reenactment events including the film Gettsyburg, past President of the Civil War Roundtable of New York Bud Livingston, Bill Finlayso, whose fourth great uncle, Lieutenant John L. Worten commanded the Monitor and George and Janice Weinmann of the Greenpoint Monitor Museum.On March 24, as part of its monthly History Roundtable program, the Greater Astoria Historical Society hosted an event to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the historic Civil War naval battle between the ironclad warships U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia, also known as the Merrimack. The discussion panel included: Patrick Falci, who portrays Confederate General A.P. Hill at numerous Civil War reenactment events and also played the role of Hill in the film Gettsyburg, Bud Livingston, past president of the Civil War Roundtable of New York and author of President Lincoln’s Third Largest City: Brooklyn and the Civil War, Bill Finlayson, whose fourth great uncle, Lieutenant John L. Worten commanded the Monitor and George and Janice Weinmann of the Greenpoint Monitor Museum.

The C.S.S. Virginia was built on the hull of the sailing ship U.S.S. Merrimack, which was partially burned during the attempted destruction of the Gosport Navy Yard in Virginia, by federal troops to prevent it from falling into Confederate hands. The vessel was then reconstructed with a sloped casemate structure that housed 12 cannons, protected by four inches of iron plating. Falci pointed out that at 275 feet, with a crew of over 300 men, the Virginia was a “large ship”, that quickly sunk both 50-gunned, wooden sailing vessel U.S.S. Cumberland and 52-gunned U.S.S. Congress, while forcing a third, the U.S.S. Minnesota, to run aground at the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862.

Falci said further that northern newspapers were aghast with fears that the “Rebel Monster” would soon attack Washington or even New York City. He also claimed that, with some 369 casualties resulting from the Hampton Roads encounter, the Virginia caused more damage to the U.S. Navy than any vessel until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor almost 80 years later. For that reason, Falci said, the Virginia deserved the title of “greatest warship of the Civil War”.

But later that night, in a nick of time, arrived the Monitor, a U.S. ironclad of an entirely original design, the brainchild of Swedish immigrant and mechanical genius, John Ericsson. The Monitor, though only half the size of the Virginia had a much shorter draft, which meant she could maneuver in shallower water and also a revolutionary, revolving turret housing two cannons. The craft’s peculiar appearance was described by one observer as a “cheesebox on a raft”. The Monitor’s hull was laid down at the Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Its engines and machinery were built at the Delamater Iron Works in Manhattan.

Finlayson noted that the Monitor was better designed than the Virginia, being able to complete a full turn in only 15 minutes in contrast to 45 minutes for the latter craft. The Monitor’s revolving turret also made it far easier to maneuver into firing position. Finlayson also claimed that the Monitor’s gunners had been afraid to fully charge the ship’s cannons with gunpowder for fear of their possible explosion. However, it was later determined through testing that if they had been fully charged the Monitor’s shells would have been able to pierce the Virginia’s iron plating.

Tactically, the battle between the two ironclads was a draw and did nothing to alter the strategic situation between the North and South. Neither ship was destined to have a long life span. On May 11, 1862 the Virginia was destroyed on the orders of her own commander in order to prevent the ship from falling into Union hands. The Monitor was lost on December 31 of the same year, when it was swamped by high waves in a violent storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, resulting in the deaths of several crew members.

Nevertheless, while they would persist for a few more decades, the “Duel of the Ironclads” presaged the end of the era of the wooden, sailing warships.

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