HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH SPEAKING PEOPLES
by Sir Winston Churchill
The Campaign Against Richmond
THE New Year opened grievously for the South, and a bitter tide of disillusion chilled its people. In the Cabinet and headquarters at Richmond, where facts and figures told their sombre tale, the plight of the Confederacy already seemed grave. The Union blockade froze the coasts. Hostile armies, double or triple the numbers the South could muster, were assuming shape and quality, both in the Atlantic and Mississippi theatres. The awful weight of the North, with its wealth and munition-making power, lay now upon the minds of President Davis, his colleagues and Generals. The Southern states had no arsenals, little iron and steel, few and small factories from which boots, clothing, equipment could be supplied. The magazines were almost empty. Even flintlock muskets were scarce. The smooth-bore cannon of the Confederate artillery was far out-ranged by the new rifled guns of the Union. Nor was there any effectual means by which these needs could be met. It is upon this background that the military prodigies of the year stand forth.
Disaster opened in the Mississippi valley. Here Albert Sidney Johnston commanded the Confederate forces. Davis believed him to be his finest General. He was certainly a man of boundless devotion, whose daring was founded upon a thorough knowledge of his art. In the autumn of 1861 he had advanced to Bowling Green, a railway junction of high strategic value to the south of the Green River, a tributary of the Ohio. Here he stood brazenly, hoping to rouse Kentucky and marshal Tennessee, while to the westward Leonidas Polk, who in peace-time was Bishop of Louisiana, with another small army barred the Mississippi at Columbus. The Federal forces, with their fleets of armoured river gun-boats, descending the Mississippi from St Louis and the Ohio from Louisville, outnumbered both these Confederate Generals by four to one. Still, for months they had remained unmolested in their forward positions, covering enormous territories from whose population and resources much might be drawn. Now with the turn of the year the Union leaders set their men in motion. Masses of blue-clad soldiers began to appear upon the three-hundred-mile front from the great river to the mountain ranges, and all kinds of queer craft cased in steel and carrying cannon and mortars glided slowly down the river-ways from the north. The bluff could be played no longer.
Polk abandoned Columbus, and Johnston retreated from Bowling Green. This carried the fighting line southwards to the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, and to a Confederate fortress called Island No. 10 on the Mississippi.
The Federal General, Henry W. Halleck, who commanded the Western Department was a model of caution. Fortunately among his generals there was a retired Regular officer, Ulysses S. Grant, who since the Mexican War had lived in obscurity, working for a time in his father's leather store in Illinois. The Confederates sought to block the Mississippi at Island No. 10, the Tennessee at Fort Henry, and the Cumberland at Fort Donelson, and their advanced forces garrisoned these armed posts. Fort Henry was weak, and Fort Donelson was an entrenched camp which required a considerable army for its defence. Grant proposed a winter advance up the Tennessee River and an attack upon Fort Henry. Halleck approved. Grant made the advance, and the advance made Grant. Albert Sidney Johnston foresaw with perfect clarity a Federal winter offensive while the rivers were well filled. He clamoured for reinforcements, both to President Davis and the Governors of the Western states. The former could not and the latter did not supply them. In February 1862 Grant seized Fort Henry. It was but ten miles across the tongue of land between the rivers to Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland. Without authority, and in severe frost, Grant struck at Fort Donelson, which was defended by seventeen thousand Confederates under Floyd, the former United States Secretary for War, who in the interval between Lincoln's election and inauguration had allowed the muskets to be transferred to the South. After four days fighting and confrontation Fort Donelson surrendered, with fourteen thousand prisoners and sixty guns. Floyd, apprehending a charge of treason, escaped the night before. He was probably wise.
The fall of Fort Donelson on February 16 was the first great military disaster of the Confederacy; but others followed quickly in the West. Albert Sidney Johnston, now at last furnished with the beginnings of an army, gathered the remnants of his former front at Corinth, behind the Tennessee, and Polk fell back down the Mississippi to Memphis.
At Washington McClellan, General-in-Chief, laboured to prepare his army, and resisted by every means the intense political pressures which demanded an advance "on to Richmond." He exaggerated the strength of the enemy, and furnished Lincoln with endless reports from Pinkerton's Private Detective Agency, which he used as his secret service, showing very heavy forces at Richmond and behind Joseph E. Johnston's entrenchments thirty miles away at Centerville. He strove to gain time to drill his men by repeated promises to advance. As month succeeded month and the swarming Army of the Potomac made no movement the enthusiasm which had greeted McClellan in July 1861 waned. The Radical Republicans began to attack this Democrat General who had been preferred to their own candidate, John C. Fremont. McClellan was known to be opposed to the Radical policy of proclaiming the emancipation of all slaves. Early in December he informed the President that he did not favour a frontal attack on Joseph E. Johnston and a march along the straight road through Fredericksburg to Richmond. He had long been devising a plan for an amphibious movement down Chesapeake Bay to some point on the coast of Virginia close to the rebel capital. He imparted these ideas to Lincoln in general terms early in December. Then in the middle of the month he contracted typhoid fever and was absent for several weeks. The Republican Party leaders had already procured the appointment of a Joint Committee on the conduct of the war, consisting of three Senators and four Congressmen. It was dominated by the Radical enemies of the General-in-Chief. Lincoln and the cabinet, during McClellan's absence from duty, called into council several Generals of the Army, and invited constructive suggestions. But their conferences were abruptly disturbed by the reappearance of McClellan himself. A few days later he explained his plan to the President in detail. Availing himself of sea-power, he proposed to transport an army of a hundred and fifty thousand men down Chesapeake Bay and disembark it at Urbana, on the Lower Rappahannock, where it would be only one day's march from West Point and two more marches from Richmond. He expected to cut off General J. B. Magruder and the Confederate troops defending the Yorktown peninsula, and he hoped to reach Richmond before Johnston could retreat thither.
No one can asperse the principle of this conception. It utilised all the forces of the Union Government; it turned the flank of all the Confederate positions between Washington and Richmond; it struck at the forehead of the Confederacy. Its details were substantially modified on examination. Fortress Monroe, at the tip of the peninsula, between the York and James Rivers, was held by the Union, and was finally chosen as a safe landing-place. President Lincoln had one overpowering objection to the whole idea of a maritime expedition. It would uncover Washington; and Joseph E, Johnston, for the strength of whose army he probably accepted McClellan's own figures, to say nothing of "Stonewall" Jackson, would at once swoop down on the defenceless capital. Hard bargaining ensued upon the number of troops to be left to guard the capital and the mouth of the Shenandoah valley, here at Harpers Ferry the river flows into the Potomac. This was agreed at forty thousand. Eventually on February 27 Lincoln gave a reluctant assent, and everything was set in train for the tremendous enterprise. At the same time Lincoln resolved to keep supreme control, relieved McClellan of the general direction of the United States armies, and restricted him to the command of the Army of the Potomac. For this there were also, sound military reasons. Feeling that he required a military adviser, he decided to summon General Halleck from the West. McClellan learnt of his removal from the higher command through the medium of the newspapers before Lincoln's emissary reached him. Thus the President appeared guilty of a grave discourtesy, so unusual in him that the suspicion naturally arose that the "hidden hand" of the Joint Committee was here at work.
It was a far worse mistake not to appoint a new General-in-Chief. All the generals in command of armies were ordered to take their instructions from the Secretary of War. For the last two months this office had been held by Edwin M. Stanton, who had replaced the incompetent and perhaps corrupt Cameron. Stanton, like McClellan, was a Democrat, and during the last days of the Buchanan administration had held the post of Attorney-General. Possibly Lincoln thought that he would be acceptable to McClellan. It was no doubt his intention to reappoint McClellan as General-in-Chief, if he succeeded in his Richmond campaign, and at the time he could think of no one to fill the vacancy, which he hoped would be only temporary. At the outset Stanton had professed unbounded devotion to McClellan, but the General soon began to doubt the sincerity of his professions and thought that he detected a deliberate design to debar him from free access to the President. It was not very long before Stanton appeared to be in collusion with the Joint Committee. The Attorney-General had given the opinion that "the order of the Secretary of War is the President's order." There now began to issue from the Secretary's office a series of orders seriously crippling McClellan's operations. McClellan's scope was reduced by the creation of the Military Departments of the Rappahannock under McDowell, who had commanded at Bull Run, and of the Shenandoah under Nathaniel P. Banks. A whole corps was thus taken from him. He claimed that he was leaving behind him no less than seventy-three thousand men, of whom but thirty-five thousand belonged to Banks's command in the Shenandoah valley. McClellan was justified in regarding this force as available for the protection of the capital. However, he did not clearly explain his arrangements to Lincoln, and his failure to take the President into his confidence had an unfortunate result. For Lincoln in misunderstanding ordered the First Corps, under McDowell, to remain in front of Washington, thus reducing the force on which McClellan had counted by forty thousand men, at the moment of launching his tremendous operation.
The Confederates lost their best chance of victory when they failed to use the autumn and winter of 1861. Their success at Bull Run proved as injurious as a reverse. Believing with their President that foreign intervention was near at hand, and arrogantly confident that they could beat the North in the field if need arose, they relaxed their efforts. The volunteers who came forward, after the first battle could not be armed. Recruiting fell off; the soldiers in the field began to go home. Efforts to fill the ranks by grants of bounties and furloughs were ineffectual. By the beginning of 1862 the position was desperate. Nearly two-thirds of the Confederate Army consisted of one-year volunteers. In May the terms of enlistment of the hundred and forty-eight regiments which they formed would expire. These regiments were the backbone of the Army. Invasion was imminent. Conscription was contrary to the theory of state independence and sovereignty. But the Confederate Congress rose manfully to the occasion, and on April 16 by a vote of more than two to one passed an Act declaring every able-bodied white man between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five subject to military service. The armies were nevertheless filled by volunteers seeking to escape the stigma of serving under compulsion rather than by the Act itself. Indeed, the Act proved unpopular in the States and was difficult to enforce. Full use was made of its exemption clauses by the disaffected in order to escape service.
Throughout this period President Jefferson Davis rigorously adhered to the passive-defensive. He made no attempt to exploit the victories of Bull Run and Wilson's Creek. Determined to keep the control of military operations in his own hands, he devoted his attention to the East, and largely ignored the West, where chaos reigned until Albert Sidney Johnston's appointment to the supreme command in September. He obstinately refused to draw upon the "seasoned soldiers" who formed the garrisons on the Atlantic coastline. Hatteras Inlet, which afforded the best approach to the North Carolina Sounds, and Port Royal and Beaufort in South Carolina, which threatened both Charleston and Savannah, had been captured by small Federal forces and sea-power. Lee after his return from Western Virginia was sent to organise the coast defences. When a large expedition under the Union General Ambrose E. Burnside entered the inland waters of North Carolina the Confederates were ill-prepared, and lost Roanoke Island and New Bern. President Davis was more than ever determined to maintain at their full strength the garrisons in the threatened states. He recalled General Lee from his coastal defence work in the Carolinas, and employed him in a somewhat ill-defined capacity as his chief military adviser at headquarters.
In the middle of March, Halleck, who had been appointed to the sole command in the Western theatre, directed Don Carlos Buell, who had occupied Nashville, to march with the greater part of his army to Savannah, on the Tennessee, thirty miles from Corinth, to combine with Grant, who had William T. Sherman with him, on the western bank near Shiloh, and attack Albert Sidney Johnston. But before Buell's men were across the river Johnston struck. In the early morning of April 6 he surprised the advanced Federal troops in their tents near Shiloh, and the largest and most bloody battle yet seen in the war was fought. Johnston at first carried all before him; and Grant, who was late in reaching the. field, was by nightfall in grave danger. But Johnston, exposing himself with reckless gallantry at the head of an infantry charge, was wounded and bled to death from a main artery in a few minutes. Whatever results his great personality and wonderful energy could have gained on the morrow were lost. Beauregard, who succeeded him, drew off the Confederate troops, much to the disgust of his subordinate, Braxton Bragg. Each side lost in this furious action ten thousand men; but the proportion of loss was far heavier in the thinner Confederate ranks. The arrival of the cautious Halleck, although he brought Federal reinforcements, stopped any thought of pursuit. Island No. 10 was reduced by General John Pope on April 8, and seven thousand Confederates became prisoners of war. It now seems that a combined naval and military expedition could easily at this time have lunged far to the south and secured the fortress of Vicksburg in Mississippi. But Halleck accommodated himself readily to the President's wish for action in East Tennessee. He moved slowly against Corinth, and spent a month in trying to surround Beauregard, who escaped by a swift and long retreat. By the summer the Union line in the West had moved southwards by two hundred miles on a three-hundred-mile front.
The stage was now set for the military drama of the Richmond-Yorktown peninsula: At the beginning of April McClellan's army began to land in large numbers at the Federal Fortress Monroe, which, served as a bridgehead. As soon as this movement, about which there could be no secrecy, became evident Joseph E. Johnston, to the surprise and relief of the Federal Government, withdrew from Centreville, * abandoned Manassas Junction, crossed the Upper Rappahannock, and stood in the rugged wilderness country behind its tributary the Rapidan. It may seem confusing that there should be two Confederate Generals named Johnston; but after the gallant death of Albert Sidney at Shiloh only one remained. He was Joseph E. Now behind the Rapidan he was in close touch with Richmond, so that McClellan's strategy, vindicated in principle, was baulked in practice. In the middle of April Johnston, leaving his main army eighty miles to the westward, arrived at Yorktown, and assumed the additional command of the troops in the peninsula. He thus enjoyed interior lines and could concentrate all his forces for the defence of Richmond. The Union Navy, after a heavy combat, found itself unable to face the plunging fire of the batteries on the bluffs of the York River on McClellan's right flank. The Confederate entrenchments, manned by Magruder's troops, stretched before him across the peninsula. He conceived himself outnumbered by the enemy, and if Davis had consented to give Johnston the garrisons of the Atlantic towns he would have been.
In these depressing circumstances McClellan acted with more than his habitual deliberation. He spent a month in a formal siege of Yorktown, incessantly appealing to Lincoln for McDowell's corps. Lincoln, on the other hand, urged him to vigorous action. "I always insisted," he wrote drily, on April 9, "that going down the bay in search of a field instead of fighting at or near Manassas was only shifting and not surmounting a difficulty; that we would find the same enemy, and the same or equal entrenchments, at either place." And a month later: "By delay the enemy will relatively gain upon you—that is, he will gain faster by fortifications and reinforcements than you can gain by reinforcements alone." Eventually, after the surrender of Yorktown, which opened the York River to his ships, McClellan advanced upon the Confederate lines. Magruder, who had only eleven thousand men, made no resistance, and though mauled in a rearguard action at Williamsburg on May 5 extricated himself successfully. By the middle of May McClellan had advanced sixty miles up the York, and arrived at White House, on the Richmond-West Point railway, twenty-five miles from the rebel capital. He formed a new base at West Point and became independent of Fortress Monroe. Could he at this moment have brought McDowell from Fredericksburg into his combination the fate of Richmond might well have been sealed.
However, President Davis had in April been persuaded by Lee to reinforce "Stonewall" Jackson for an offensive diversion in the Shenandoah valley. With only sixteen thousand men against four Federal Generals, Banks, Shields, Fremont and Milroy, who disposed of over forty thousand, Jackson fought the brief, brilliant campaign which reinforced his first renown. Striking right and left at the superior forces on either side of him, running daily risks of capture, making enormous marches, sometimes dividing his small force, he gained a series of sharp actions, which greatly perturbed President Lincoln and his advisers. Lincoln had at last promised McClellan McDowell's corps; but six days later, when the Union Army was half across the swampy river Chickahominy, a telegram brought the General the news that McDowell's movement was "suspended." McClellan paused in his advance; violent rains flooded the Chickahominy, and the Union Army found itself divided, with two corps only on the southern side. This was clearly Johnston's opportunity. With his whole force he attacked the two isolated Union corps. President Davis, with Lee at his side, rode out to watch the resulting battle of Seven Pines, or Fair Oaks as it is sometimes called. They had not been consulted by the Commander-in-Chief, who had given all his orders verbally to his Generals. The Confederate attack miscarried. The battle was severe but indecisive, costing each side about six thousand men. McClellan was checked, and heavy rains made him all the more ready to remain inactive. He stood fast with his outposts five miles from Richmond. Lincoln, having learned that Jackson was now in retreat up the valley, again promised McDowell's corps. But when Jackson turned on his pursuers and defeated them on two successive days, June 8 and 9, at Cross Keys and Port Republic, he changed his mind again and would not let McDowell go. It was certainly desirable to guard against any risk of the Federal capital's falling even temporarily into rebel hands, for the effect would have been shattering, though hardly disastrous. But Lincoln's vacillations are a classic instance of the dangers of civilian interference with generals in the field.
Far more important than the fighting was the fact that General Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded on the first day at Seven Pines, and President Davis on June 1 appointed Lee to command what was henceforward to bear the deathless title of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Lee now made the first of his offensive combinations, and immediately his hand was felt in the whole conduct of the war. He procured from Davis the gathering of the Atlantic garrisons which Johnston had been denied. He played upon the fears of Washington by sending seven thousand men to strengthen Jackson in the valley. This ensured the further paralysis of McDowell. Jackson rode in from his army to concert the plans. He was ordered to leave his "enfeebled troops" in the valley, and come secretly with his main force to Ashland, fifteen miles north of Richmond and on the Richmond-Fredericksburg railway. He could thence by advancing turn the flank and the rear of the Union armies and cut their communications with West Point. He was to be ready to act by dawn on June 26. In the interval J. E. B. Stuart, the young Confederate cavalry leader, with twelve hundred horse, made a remarkable reconnaissance of McClellan's right. He actually traversed his communications, and, being unable to return, rode right round the Union Army, arriving south of Richmond with several hundred captives. This was more than Lee had wished, and Stuart's exploit might well have warned the enemy. But McClellan made no change in his array, which still lay in sight of Richmond astride the Chickahominy. Lee's army, counting Jackson, was now over seventy-five thousand strong. McClellan mustered eighty-seven thousand; but of these only the corps of General Fitz-John Porter, twenty-five thousand strong, was now north of the Chickahominy. Lee resolved to move the bulk of his force across that river, and, joined by Jackson, to concentrate fifty-six thousand men against Porter's corps, turn its right flank, destroy it, sever McClellan's communications with West Point, and thereafter cross the Chickahominy in his rear and bring him to ruin. There would be left in the entrenchments defending Richmond only sixteen thousand men under Magruder. It would be open to McClellan, when he saw what was afoot, to march with sixty thousand men straight upon the Richmond lines and assault them with a superiority of nearly four to one. Lee, who knew McClellan well, and judged him rightly, was sure he would not do this. "Anyhow," he said to Davis, "I shall be hard on his heels"—meaning that he would be attacking the Union Army from the rear while it was fighting its way into Richmond. This remark illustrates the agile, flexible grasp which Lee had of war, and how great commanders seem to move their armies from place to place as if they were doing no more than riding their own horses.
During the night of June 25 two Confederate corps crossed the Chickahominy, formed to their right, and fell upon Porter at Mechanicsville. Porter, surprised, made a stubborn resistance. His batteries of rifled cannon wrought havoc in the Confederate ranks. Jackson did not appear upon the scene. The difficulties of the route had delayed him by a day. Porter, having inflicted a loss of over two thousand men upon his assailants, was able to fall back upon his reserves at Gaines's Mill, four miles farther downstream, where the onslaught was renewed with the greatest fury on June 27. Gaines's Mill was the first battle in which Lee commanded personally. It was bitterly contested. Again the power of the Union artillery was manifest. The Confederates were several times repulsed at all points, and the country on Porter's right was so obstructed with forest and swamp that when Jackson came into action in the late afternoon he could not turn the flank. Lee however did not despair. He appealed to his troops. He launched J. B. Hood's gallant Texans at the centre, and as the shadows lengthened ordered the whole army to attack. The Texans broke the centre of Porter's hard-tried corps. The Union troops were driven from the field. Twenty guns and several thousand prisoners were already taken when night fell. Where would Porter go? McClellan had remained immobile opposite Magruder during the two days fighting. What would he do? His communications were cut. His right wing was crushed. Lee's long, swinging left arm, of which Jackson was at last the fist, must curve completely round the right and rear of the Federal Army. Surely the stroke was mortal?
But McClellan was a skilful soldier. When his generals met him at headquarters on the night of Gaines's Mill he informed them that he had let go his communications with West Point and the York River; that, using sea-power, he was shifting his base from the York to the James; that the whole army would march southwards to Harrison's Landing on that river, where all supplies would await them. He had, we now know, made some preparations for such a change beforehand. But he ran a grave risk in leaving the decision till the last moment. What was called, from its shape, a "grape-vine bridge" had been built across the swamps and stream of the Chickahominy, and by this tortuous, rickety structure Porter made good his escape, while the whole Federal Army prepared to make a difficult and dangerous flank march across the White Oak Swamp to the southern side of the peninsula. It was now Magruder's turn to advance and strike at this vulnerable army. He broke in upon them on the 28th at Savage Station, capturing their field hospitals and large supplies. But Lee could not yet be sure that McClellan was really making for the James. He might as well be retreating by the Williamsburg road on Fortress Monroe. Lee therefore delayed one day before crossing the Chickahominy in pursuit. It was not till the 30th that he brought McClellan to battle at Glendale, or Frayser's Farm. This was the main crisis.
It is almost incredible that McClellan spent the day conferring with the Navy and arranging the new base on the James. He left the battle to fight itself. On the Confederate side many things went wrong. The maps were faulty; the timing failed; the attacks were delivered piecemeal; Jackson, from whom so much had been hoped, appeared in physical eclipse. Out of seventy-five thousand men with whom Lee had proposed to deal the final blow barely twenty thousand were really launched. These, after frightful losses, broke the Union centre; but night enabled the army to continue its retreat. At Malvern Hill, in a position of great strength, with the James River behind them to forbid further retreat, and the fire of the Navy and its gunboats to cover their flanks, McClellan stood at bay. Once again at the end of this week of furious fighting Lee ordered the attack, and his soldiers charged with their marvellous impetuosity. Loud roared the Union cannonade; high rose the rebel yell, that deadly sound "Aah-ih!" so often to be heard in these bloody years. But all was in vain. McClellan was saved. Frustrated, beaten, driven into retreat, his whole campaign wrecked, with a loss of enormous masses of stores and munitions, sixty cannon and thirty-six thousand rifles, with Richmond invincible, McClellan and his brave army nevertheless finished the Battle of the Seven Days by hurling back their pursuers with the loss of five thousand men.
Victory in the Seven Days' Battle rested with Lee. The world saw the total failure of the immense Federal plan. This also was the impression at Washington. McClellan, who was undaunted proposed to move across the James to Petersburg and attack Richmond "by the back door," as Grant was to do in 1865. His proposals were not accepted. But to Lee the adventure was hardly less disappointing. He had failed by a succession of narrow chances, arising largely from the newness of his staffs, to annihilate his foe. He had lost over twenty thousand of the flower of his army, against seventeen thousand on the Union side with its overflowing man-power.
Lincoln and his advisers now sought to return to their original plan of massing overwhelming forces on the overland route between Washington and Richmond and breaking through by weight of numbers. But their armies were divided, and Lee at Richmond stood directly between them. The President ordered McClellan to withdraw from the peninsula and bring his troops up the Potomac to the neighbourhood of Washington. Halleck, who was then credited with the successes gained against his orders in the Western theatre, was appointed General-in-Chief. He brought General Pope, who had done well in the Mississippi valley, to command what was to be called "the Army of Virginia." Pope was a harsh, vainglorious man, puffed up with good fortune in the Western theatre, and speaking in derogatory terms of the armies of the East and their achievements. He would show them how war should be waged. McClellan was ordered to hand over his troops, who parted from him in outspoken grief, and was relegated to the defence of the Washington lines. Pope now would be the champion of the Union. He signalised his appointment by severities upon the civil population of Western Virginia not yet used in the war. All male inhabitants in the zone of his army must either swear allegiance to the Union or be driven from their homes on pain of death if they returned. Jackson only with difficulty preserved his habitual calm on hearing this news about his beloved native state.
The strategic situation offered advantages to Lee and his lieutenant. Before McClellan's army could be brought round from the Yorktown peninsula they would deal with Pope. How they treated him must be recounted.
An historical naval episode had meanwhile occurred. When in the spring of 1861 the Federal Government had lightly abandoned the Navy yard at Norfolk to the seceding state of Virginia some stores and several vessels of the United States Navy had been burned. One of these, the frigate Merrimac, was repaired and refashioned in a curious way. It was given steam-engines to propel it, and above its deck a low penthouse of teak was erected. This was covered with two layers of railway iron hammered into two-inch plates. These layers were riveted transversely upon each other, making an ironclad shelter four inches thick. A heavy metal ram was fastened to the prow, and a battery of ten 7-inch rifled guns, firing through portholes, was mounted in the penthouse. Many had thought of this sort of thing before; now it came upon the scene.
This strange vessel was only finished on March 7, 1862. She had never fired a gun, nor had her engines been revolved, when on March 8 she went into action against the all-powerful Navy of the United States, which from Fortress Monroe was blockading the estuaries of the York and James Rivers. The engines, described as the worst possible, were found to make only five knots an hour, and the vessel swam and steered like a waterlogged ship. Out she came, and with no hesitation engaged the two nearest ships of the blockading fleet, the Cumberland and the Congress. These delivered broadsides which would have sunk an ordinary frigate. Besides this, all other United States ships in range and the shore-batteries at Sewell's Point concentrated their fire upon her. Without paying the slightest attention to this bombardment, the Merrimac, rechristened the Virginia, steered straight for the Cumberland, and struck her almost at right angles. On board the Merrimac the collision was hardly perceptible. The ram broke off; the Cumberland heeled over, and, firing her cannon to the last, soon foundered, with most of her crew. The Merrimac then turned upon the Congress, and at two hundred yards range smashed her to pieces and set her on fire. After an hour the Congress hoisted the white flag, and every effort was made by various small Confederate ships to rescue her crew. The Minnesota, which was aground, would have shared her fate if the ebb tide had not prevented the Merrimac, which drew twenty-two feet of water, from approaching her. Although the Merrimac was for a long time under the fire of at least a hundred heavy guns her armour was hardly damaged. Nothing outside the armour escaped. The funnel and two of the muzzles of the guns were shot off. Inside only twenty-one men were killed or wounded by splinters through the portholes. Her triumphant crew lay down by the side of their guns, expecting to destroy the rest of the United States fleet the next morning.
But when daylight came and steam was raised a strange-looking vessel was seen to be protecting the Minnesota. "She appeared," wrote one of the Merrimac's crew, "but a pigmy compared with the lofty frigate which she guarded." This was Ericsson's Monitor, of which there had been much talk, now at last ready. The Merrimac had made the naval revolution, but the Monitor, one day later, was a whole lap ahead of her. She carried only two guns; but they were eleven-inch, and mounted in a revolving iron turret nine inches thick. She had a turtle deck, heavily protected, almost flush with the water-line. As she drew only twelve feet of water she had an advantage in manoeuvre.
Both these ironclad monsters approached each other, while the stately ships of the United States fleet watched spellbound. They came to the closest quarters, and the Merrimac, now ramless, struck the Monitor. None of the Merrimac's shells pierced the Monitor's armour; but when the two eleven-inch guns hit the Merrimac amidships the whole side was driven in several inches, and all the guns' crews bled at the nose from concussion. For six hours these two ironclads battered each other with hardly any injury or loss on either side, and both withdrew at close of day, never to meet again.
As the Merrimac had no armour below the water-line her crew considered her lucky. She returned to the dock-yard to have this defect and many others repaired. The Monitor, which was so unseaworthy that she had nearly foundered on the way to the fight, also required attention. As soon as the news reached Europe it was realised that all the war-fleets of the world were obsolete. The British Admiralty, by an intense effort, in the course of a few years reconstructed the Royal Navy so as to meet the altered conditions. But even now there are fools who build large ships to fight at sea with hardly any armour.1
The combat of the Merrimac and the Monitor made the greatest change in sea-fighting since cannon fired by gunpowder had been mounted on ships about four hundred years before.
When Norfolk was evacuated by the Confederates efforts were made to take the Merrimac up the James River for the defence of Richmond; but although she was so lightened as to become defenceless her draught prevented her escape. By the orders of her captain she was therefore burned and sunk. The joy which her exploit had evoked throughout the Confederacy now turned to grief and anger.
But the Confederate court-martial upon the captain declared that "The only alternative, in the opinion of the court, was to abandon and burn the ship then and there; which in the judgment of the court was deliberately and wisely done by order of the accused."
1 Written in 1939.