| CSS Virginia: The Ship That Almost Changed The American History
CSS Virginia: The Ship That Almost Changed The American History
150 years ago the US Navy suffered its greatest and bloodiest defeat until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor: the CSS Virginia, one of the two ironclads to see combat during the American Civil War, attacked and sank the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress, killing 261 and wounding 108 sailors, and almost changing the American history!
On the morning of March 8, 1862, the ironclad ram CSS Virginia, built from the hull of the USS Merrimack, made steam for her inaugural voyage – the voyage that was also to become the first naval engagement of two armored ships in history. Despite the fact that her engines had not been tested and parts of her armored shell had not been installed (the Confederacy, starved for iron, had to scrap railroad tracks and melt old cannons for the two-inch armor of the CSS Virginia), the ship’s captain Franklin Buchanan, selected for his ultra-aggressive tactics, decided to try and single-handedly lift the Union sea blockade of Norfolk and Richmond!
The CSS Virginia’s sudden and vicious attack on the US Navy ships at Hampton Roads was a horror for her Union adversaries! In complete silence, without firing a single shot, the formidable iron creature headed, full-speed, at the USS Cumberland, whose shell simply bounced off impotently from the thick iron armor. Then, the huge ram, fitted – in a manner of ancient Greek triremes - to the prow of the CSS Virginia, tore up the wooden hull of the USS Cumberland, which began to sink rapidly, almost pulling the attacker under with her.
Having dispatched with her first and strongest opponent, the CSS Virginia turned her broadside to the USS Congress and started pumping the hapless wooden Union ship with explosive shells from her formidable battery of six large-caliber (229 mm) smoothbore cannons and four Brooke rifles.
Soon, the USS Congress offered her surrender, and it was during the centuries-old ceremony of surrender, that a Union sharpshooter on the shore (obviously, not concerned with the naval traditions and chivalries) shot and heavily wounded Captain Buchanan.
The CSS Virginia would have decimated the rest of the Union fleet cowering in the shallows (the CSS Virginia was unable to traverse shallow waters, which would prove to be her fatal flaw) and lifted the blockade, thus turning the tide of history, if not for the revolutionary turreted ironclad USS Monitor that showed up on March 9…
Several hours of point-blank shelling between the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor ended in a somewhat baffling stalemate: the Union ship simply could not pierce the armor of her adversary because her gun crews had to use weaker charges with the new and untested turret guns, while the Confederacy ship could not damage the USS Monitor because of …lack of armor piercing shells in her casemates!
The CSS Virginia retreated from one of most famous Civil War battlefields without meeting her objectives, and was later blown up at the orders of her new captain, who found the ironclad blocked between a Union blockade and a shallow riverbed it simply couldn’t traverse. Despite fighting on the losing side and her less than glorious end, the CSS Virginia will always remain a part of the history of navy.
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