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Extended Essay: History

Strategic Value of the Confederate Ironclad Virginia in the American Civil War

Minnie Mouse

Candidate Number 001796-000

Supervisor: Mr. Ezekiel Mouse

International School of Latvia

May 2013 Session

Word Count: 3412


The Confederacy’s first ironclad, the Virginia, was built to compensate for the Confederacy’s lack of a navy. During the American Civil War, both the Union and Confederate governments considered the Virginia as a dangerous machine of war that was capable of drastically affecting the course of the war. However, modern interpretations suggest that the Virginia‘s impact on the American Civil War was negligible. In order to study the Virginia‘s significance to the war in an in-depth manner, this essay will examine the question: to what extent did the ironclad Virginia benefit the Confederacy by achieving strategic goals? Answering this question requires a thorough examination of the Confederacy’s vital strategic goals: the destruction of the Union blockade, the collapse of the Peninsular Campaign and the defence of the naval shipyard at Norfolk. Primary sources, such as the United States government’s official records of the war, are used to discover how the Virginia was originally perceived during wartime. Moreover, secondary sources are examined critically to study interpretations about the Virginia‘s strategic role. The research focuses primarily on the Virginia‘s operational phase during the year of 1862, which includes the historically significant Battle of Hampton Roads. Thorough analysis and evaluation of the strategic goals mentioned previously shows that the Virginia was unable to accomplish any of the goals outlined to any satisfactory extent. The Union blockade was not broken, the Peninsular Campaign still happened, and Norfolk was surrendered to the Union. Although the ironclad attempted to accomplish the aforementioned strategic goals, she was continually thwarted by the Union and rendered ineffective. The unsatisfactory performance of the Virginia allowed the Union to maintain its naval advantage, which continued to affect the Confederate war effort adversely. In essence, the ironclad was of negligible strategic value to the Confederacy.
Word Count: 293

Table of Contents

Abstract.................................................................................................................. 2

1. Introduction........................................................................................................ 4

2. The Blockade..................................................................................................... 5

2.1 The Battle of Hampton Roads.............................................................. 6

2.2 Strategic Analysis................................................................................. 8

3. The Peninsular Campaign................................................................................ 10

4. The Defence of Norfolk....................................................................................12

5. Conclusion.........................................................................................................14

Works Cited...........................................................................................................16

Appendix 1 – Map of the Area Around Hampton Roads......................................18

1. Introduction

On April 12th, 1861, the American Civil War began when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter. This war would eventually produce “more carnage than any other war in American history, before or since” (Brinkley 399). In this bloody conflict, the sea soon became a contested area, primarily because the Union quickly blockaded Confederate ports. However, both the United States of America and the Confederate States of America struggled to create wartime navies at the beginning of the conflict. The Union Navy had only twelve vessels available for immediate use, whereas the Confederacy had virtually none (Commager 796). To combat this disadvantage, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory developed an audacious plan.

His radical plan involved the construction of powerful armoured warships, known as ironclads. Soon after Fort Sumter, he wrote:
I regard the possession of an iron-armored ship as a matter of the first necessity. Such a vessel at this time could traverse the entire coast of the United States, prevent all blockades, and encounter, with a fair prospect of success, their entire navy . . . But inequality of numbers may be compensated by invulnerability; and thus not only does economy but naval success dictate the wisdom and expediency of fighting with iron against wood. (qtd. in Beringer 145-46)

Mallory believed that it would be a strategic move to build a small fleet of ironclads instead of a navy of wooden ships because of the invulnerable nature of the ironclad. Shortly after Mallory’s remarks, the Confederates enacted this plan by converting the Merrimack, a captured Union vessel, into the ironclad Virginia at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia (“Lincoln and His Admirals” 132).

The Virginia was evidently a critical naval strategic asset for the Confederate war effort, and thus had many expectations. These expectations naturally took the form of important Confederate strategic goals. This leads to the question: to what extent did the ironclad Virginia benefit the Confederacy by achieving strategic goals?

Although she was a remarkable vessel, the Virginia was ultimately unsuccessful in her quest to benefit the Confederacy strategically. She failed to achieve three vital strategic goals: the destruction of the suffocating Union blockade, the suspension of McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign, and the defence of the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk. Despite her efforts, the blockade fleet still remained at Hampton Roads, McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign still occurred, and the Union still managed to capture the shipyard at Norfolk. In essence, this ironclad was unable to make any significant difference in the war. Because she was unable to achieve the aforementioned strategic goals, the Virginia was of little strategic use to the Confederacy.

2. The Blockade

The destruction of the blockade quickly became a vital strategic goal for the Confederacy. The Union Navy’s blockade of Confederate ports had the potential to devastate the Confederate war effort. During the spring of 1861, General-in-Chief Winfield Scott developed a plan to slowly suffocate the Confederate States through a naval blockade, which would later be known as the “Anaconda Plan” (J. McPherson 334). On April 19th, 1861, one week after Fort Sumter, the Anaconda Plan was partially adopted by the Union when President Abraham Lincoln officially blockaded all ports in the Confederate States (E. McPherson 149). This theoretically prevented the Confederacy from importing or exporting any goods, which allowed the Union to exploit its advantage in industrialization.

The South was far behind the North in terms of industrialization. In terms of manufacturing establishments, the South possessed a mere 18,026, while New York State alone possessed 23,236 (Blair 25). The Union factories were also more efficient than their Confederate counterparts; the factories in New York State alone produced about four times more manufactured products than the entire Confederacy (Paludan 105). The disparity between Union and Confederate factories in terms of quantities and efficiency naturally limited the amount of weapons that the South could produce. One county in Connecticut, for example, produced more firearms than the entire Confederacy (Paludan 105). Compared to the North, the South evidently lacked the necessary infrastructure to conduct warfare in an effective manner. Therefore, the Confederacy needed to trade with foreign countries to counter the Union advantage in industrialization. Hence the destruction of the blockade was a vital objective for the South.

In order to achieve this goal, the Confederacy turned to the Virginia. As mentioned in the introduction, Secretary Mallory believed that an ironclad could “prevent all blockades” (qtd. in Beringer 145-46). To accomplish this goal, the Virginia started by attacking the Union blockade fleet at Hampton Roads, which was fairly close to the Virginia‘s home base at Norfolk (see Appendix 1 for a map). In essence, Hampton Roads was a trial for the Virginia, since the outcome of the battle would demonstrate the power of ironclad ships. Despite Secretary Mallory’s faith in ironclad ships, the Virginia failed to achieve the strategic goal of the destruction of the blockade; she did not succeed at the Battle of Hampton Roads.

2.1 The Battle of Hampton Roads

Hampton Roads was home to a Union blockade fleet (Simpson 58), which made it extremely attractive for the Virginia to attack. Before the Virginia steamed towards Hampton Roads, Captain Franklin Buchanan sent a message to Secretary Mallory that read:

“I contemplate leaving here to appear before the Enemy’s Ships . . . I feel confident that the acts of theVirginia will give proof of the desire of her officers and crew to meet the views of the Department as far as practicable.” (qtd. in Konstam 137)

Evidently, the goal of the Virginia‘s attack on the ships at Hampton Roads was to demonstrate her potential by destroying the Union blockade fleet there, which would meet the expectations of the Department of the Navy. Although the Virginia initially experienced success at the Battle of Hampton Roads, she was ultimately unable to achieve the strategic goal of the destruction of the blockade; the strategic situation remained unchanged in the end.

On March 8th, 1862, the Virginia steamed towards the Union fleet anchored in Hampton Roads. A telegram from John Wool, a Union general in the region, to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton succinctly described the grim events of that day:

The Merrimack [the Union designation for the Virginia] came down from Norfolk to-day, and about 2 o’clock attacked the Cumberland and Congress. She sunk the Cumberland, and the Congress surrendered. The Minnesota is aground and attacked . . . the St. Lawrence just arrived and going to assist . . . Probably both will be taken . . . It is thought the Merrimack . . . will pass the fort to-night.

(“Official Records” 4-5)

Although the telegram presents the battle from a Northerner’s perspective, the telegram appears to be fairly objective. The facts of the battle are presented in a relatively neutral fashion, which makes it an intriguing piece of historical evidence in the aftermath of such violence, especially since it was among the first telegrams sent to the Union government in regards to the devastation at Hampton Roads.

As illustrated by the telegram, the situation was evidently grim: the Virginia routed Union forces at Hampton Roads on this day. However, the telegram mentions that the Minnesota was only aground, and not destroyed. Thus, the Virginia would have to return on the following day to complete her destruction of the Union blockade fleet stationed at Hampton Roads. Overall, the day appeared to have ended on a strongly positive note for the Confederacy; the Virginia was one step away from destroying the Union blockade.

Moreover, the Virginia was barely damaged, which reinforces Secretary Mallory’s claims that ironclads were invulnerable. Despite the intense battle that had happened at Hampton Roads, shots fired from Union ships and shore batteries rebounded “from her iron sides as if they had been of india (sic) rubber” (Rhodes 112). Thus, Secretary Mallory’s dream of ironclads destroying the Union fleet appeared to be coming true. In fact, only crew exhaustion and the falling tide prevented the Virginia from finishing off the Minnesota on that day (“Decision at Sea” 117). The Virginia was ostensibly close to achieving her strategic goal of decimating the Union blockade at Hampton Roads.

However, the Union also had an ironclad, which had the potential to counter the Confederacy’s perceived advantage in the aftermath of Hampton Roads. The Monitor arrived at Hampton Roads around 11 P.M. (Commager 806), just in time to see the Congress explode (“Decision at Sea” 117). The Union ironclad would undoubtedly serve to protect the Minnesota and the remaining remnants of the Union fleet from theVirginia, because the Union could not afford to let the Confederacy seize a massive strategic victory by annihilating an entire Union blockade base.

On the following morning, the Virginia returned to Hampton Roads to finish her mission. She soon found the “queer-looking Monitor guarding the stranded frigate [Minnesota]” (qtd. in Scharf 167). Despite the presence of the Monitor, the Virginia still intended to destroy the Minnesota. However, neither ironclad was able to inflict serious damage on the other. Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles received the following telegram from his subordinate, G.V. Fox, which describes the battle in a concise manner:

The Monitor met them at once and opened her fire, when all the enemy’s vessels retired, excepting theMerrimack. These two ironclad vessels fought part of the time touching each other, from 8 a.m. to noon, when the Merrimack retired. Whether she is injured or not it is impossible to say . . . TheMinnesota kept up a continuous fire and is herself somewhat injured.

She was moved considerably to-day, and will probably be off to-night. The Monitor is uninjured and ready at any moment to repel another attack.

(“Official Records” 6)

Like the previous telegram, this one is also from a Union perspective, and is also included in the U.S. government’s official records of the war. However, this telegram also appears to be a valid historical resource, since the facts given are consistent with facts mentioned in secondary sources, such as the bookDuel of the Ironclads. The historical significance of the second day of the Battle of Hampton Roads is the shattered image of the Virginia’s invulnerability, which casts doubt on the strategic effectiveness of the ironclad.

In the end, the tactical picture was fairly impressive. The Virginia managed to destroy the USS Cumberlandand USS Congress, damage the USS Minnesota, and inflict an estimated 409 Union casualties, according to the Battle Summary page by the American Battlefield Protection Program. With these losses in mind, the Virginia remained the cause for the worst day in the history of the United States Navy until Pearl Harbor in 1941 (qtd. in Holzer and Mulligan 147). However, tactical success did not necessarily translate into strategic success, since the Union retained control of the region.
2.2 Strategic Analysis

The strategic picture was relatively unchanged after the battle. The Virginia was unable to complete her destruction of the blockade fleet, since the Minnesota still remained at Hampton Roads, and the arrival of the Monitor essentially replaced the tactical role of the two Union warships that were sunk on March 8th. Essentially, the Virginia was unable to destroy the Union blockade fleet at this important Union base, which meant that she was unable to achieve her strategic goal. However, there is another historical interpretation of the events that transpired during this battle.

E. Merton Coulter, Professor of History at the University of Virginia, asserts that “the Confederacy gained potential control of [Hampton Roads and the surrounding] Bay and even theoretical control of the high seas” because the Virginia was “impervious to the most terrific punishment the Federal wooden ships could inflict” (306). This interpretation appears to exaggerate some aspects of the Virginia‘s capabilities. For instance, it claims that one ship—the Virginia—controlled the area around Hampton Roads because it was essentially invulnerable. However, this interpretation fails to account for the innate weaknesses of theVirginia. Lieutenant Jones, a member of the crew, wrote about the Virginia‘s condition prior to battle:

The lower part of her shield forward was only immersed a few inches instead of two feet as intended, and there was but one inch of iron on the (lower) hull . . . The Virginia was unseaworthy; her engines were unreliable, and her draft, over 22 feet, prevented her from going to Washington . . . (qtd. in Konstam 139)

The Virginia was clearly not suited for battle, much less controlling the high seas. This casts further doubt on the Virginia’s ability to achieve strategic goals. Thus, Coulter’s interpretation is rather limited for this battle.

In essence, the Virginia was unable to accomplish the strategic goal of destroying the Union blockade. She attempted to accomplish this goal by attacking the Union fleet stationed at Hampton Roads, but her attempt ultimately ended in failure—the Union blockade fleet was still stationed at Hampton Roads when the Virginia departed. Furthermore, her innate weaknesses, such as her deep draft, essentially restricted her to Hampton Roads, preventing her from attacking the Union blockade at different locations. Therefore, the Virginia was unable to benefit the Confederacy in this regard.

3. The Peninsular Campaign

Besides the blockade, the Union had another major strategic plan: the Peninsular Campaign. Led by General George B. McClellan, this plan proposed the capture of Richmond by moving up the Virginia Peninsula (Linedecker 199). Thus, the Confederates needed to interfere with this campaign.

Richmond, the Confederate capital, was an important Confederate industrial city. Important Confederate war industries were established in Richmond, including the famous Tredegar Iron Works. According to “A Guide to the Tredegar Iron Works Records” by the University of Virginia, Tredegar was “virtually the sole source of heavy guns, projectiles, gun carriages . . . wheels and axles for railroad rolling stock, furnace machinery, and a variety of other products for Confederate munitions factories and navy yards.” Moreover, this was the same industrial establishment that produced iron plating for the Virginia since it was the closest foundry to Norfolk. If it were captured by the Union, the Confederacy would face a weapons production dilemma and Secretary Mallory’s hopes of creating a small ironclad fleet would be dashed. Therefore, the protection of Richmond became a strategic objective because of the city’s industrial and political importance. By extension, the suspension of the Peninsular Campaign became a strategic goal of the Confederacy.

The principal means by which the Virginia interfered with this campaign was through intimidation. Lincoln’s government was too focused on the destruction that had happened on March 8th after General Wool’s telegram arrived on March 9th; in response to that telegram, President Lincoln met with Secretary of War Stanton, Secretary of the Navy Welles, Secretary of State William H. Seward, General McClellan and others in the President’s office (Davis 113). Lincoln’s secretary noted that Stanton was “fearfully stampeded. He said they would capture our fleet, take Ft. Monroe, [and] be in Washington before night” (qtd. in Thomas 179). He went on to say that the Virginia would “destroy every vessel in the service . . . disperse Congress, destroy the Capitol and public buildings” (qtd. in “Lincoln and His Admirals” 137). Even President Lincoln occasionally glanced outside, as if he were expecting the Virginia to attack Washington at any moment (Davis 133). This clearly highlights the psychological effect of the Virginia on the upper echelon of the Union government; these men believed that the Virginia could essentially change the strategic picture of the war.

Their continued fear of the Virginia is reinforced by the fact that Secretary Welles sent every usable ship to Hampton Roads to transport the Army of the Potomac down to Virginia, including ships designed to ram the Virginia (Tucker 175). It is interesting to note that the expedition occurred when the Virginia was undergoing repairs. Tucker also notes that McClellan requested that Flag Officer Goldsborough use his warships at Hampton Roads to attack Confederate defences, but naturally he declined: the Virginia could make an appearance at any time, and weakening his force would put his other ships in danger (176). Clearly, the Virginia‘s mere presence in the area negatively impacted the Union campaign.

However, the strategy of intimidation could not last forever. On April 11, 1862, the Virginia was finally ready for battle after spending weeks in dry dock for repairs, and Mallory ordered the Virginia to interfere with the Peninsular Campaign by attacking Union transport ships (Tucker 176). Once again, the Virginiasteamed towards Hampton Roads. This time, Union forces did not challenge the Virginia because it could jeopardize the Peninsular Campaign. If the Virginia gained control of the area, then the Union’s Army of the Potomac would be cut off from its primary supply line. The Union therefore shifted to a strategy of avoidance because the North could not afford to lose valuable ships to the Virginia, such as the Monitor. This strategy essentially neutralized the Virginia. The Virginia had an average speed of 5 knots (Konstam 48), which meant that virtually any Union ship in the region could outrun her. Furthermore, she could not attack ships that were under the protection of the guns at the local fort, such as the Monitor (Tucker 176). In fact, a crewman on the Monitor stated that “I believe the Department [of the Navy] is going to build us a big glass case to put us in for fear of harm coming to us” (Konstam 182). By altering its strategy, the Union effectively prevented the Virginia from achieving the strategic goal of interrupting the Peninsular Campaign.

Since the Virginia was unable to attack any ship, she was therefore unable to interfere with the Peninsular Campaign. Therefore, there was very little for the Virginia to do, since she failed to break the blockade and delay the Peninsular Campaign. There was only one vital strategic goal remaining: the defence of Norfolk.
4. The Defence of Norfolk

Throughout this tumultuous time period, the city of Norfolk was home to one of the Confederacy’s most valuable naval assets: the Gosport Navy Yard. Besides its role as the Virginia‘s home port, Norfolk was also important to the Confederacy in other ways. The shipyard was the one of the largest naval construction and repair facilities in the entire country (J. McPherson 279). It was located close to the industrial centre of Richmond, which allowed quick transport of manufactured goods from Richmond to the shipyard. Furthermore, Gosport was one of only two shipyards located in the entire Confederacy; the other being New Orleans (Konstam 2). If Norfolk fell, then the Confederates would not have a major shipyard along their entire Atlantic coastline. Norfolk was clearly an important part of the Confederate war effort, and needed to be defended. Thus, the defence of Norfolk was an important strategic goal for the Confederacy. To this end, the Confederates enlisted the Virginia as a part of their defence plan, but she failed to defend the ship yard from being captured by the Union.

During the spring of 1862, the Peninsular Campaign did not make significant progress, as previously mentioned. McClellan managed to land his troops on Confederate soil while the Virginia was being repaired, but he was held up at Yorktown. From Lincoln’s view point, the Union had forgotten about the menace that was the Virginia (Oates 326). The only logical way to defeat the Virginia with minimal direct contact would be to attack the city of Norfolk, which, as mentioned above, contained the Gosport Navy Yard. Capturing the shipyard would deprive the ironclad of a home. However, the Virginia was unable to prevent this disaster for the Confederacy.

The Virginia had the potential to stop an attack. When Union forces began to attack locations near Norfolk not long after the Battle of Hampton Roads, the mere appearance of the Virginia caused the U.S. fleet attacking Sewell’s point (see Appendix 1 for map of area) to move away quickly (“Lincoln and His Admirals” 151). This is another clear example of the Virginia‘s psychological capability. While defending Norfolk, theVirginia‘s psychological effect had more power than it did during her attempt to thwart McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign; the Union could not simply run away if it wanted to attack Norfolk. Thus, theVirginia had the ability to defend the city of Norfolk from a naval assault through her psychological effect.

At around the same time, McClellan began to march up the Virginia Peninsula, and engaged Confederate forces at Yorktown. After being surrounded by an overwhelming number of Union troops, Confederate forces were strategically redeployed to Richmond on May 4th; this left Norfolk isolated (Oates 326). President Lincoln decided to visit the front lines and found out that no one had tried to attack Norfolk, home of the infamous ironclad. With this in mind, he soon led an amphibious assault on Norfolk, which was not obstructed in any shape by the Virginia. In fact, there was no Confederate response to the beach landing. Evidently, the Virginia, with all her potential, did not stop the Union force.

According to Professor Craig L. Symonds of the U.S. Naval Academy, the lack of response was due to a simple reason: the Confederates “had planned to abandon Norfolk in any case once the Confederate army had evacuated the Yorktown line” (“Lincoln and His Admirals” 155). This interpretation highlights the idea that the Confederates decided that the Virginia was ultimately less powerful than the Confederate Army. This illustrates the Virginia‘s slow decline; she was originally designed as a major strategic weapon, but by May 1862, she was just another ship that could not even defend her home. Thus, Symonds’ interpretation of the events at Norfolk appears to have merit.

In essence, the Virginia theoretically had the capability to defend Norfolk, but she was ultimately disregarded. This line of thought likely stemmed from her inability to break the blockade and delay McClellan’s campaign. Therefore, the Virginia‘s past ineffectiveness prevented the Confederates from considering her as an integral part of Norfolk’s defence, which prevented her from achieving this strategic goal. Granted, the odds of an overland attack were extremely high, but the Virginia may have had the potential to assist Norfolk. In the end, she failed to accomplish any of her strategic goals.

5. Conclusion

The story of the Virginia is indeed a most riveting one. Her journey began at a captured Union shipyard in Norfolk, and this journey reached its climax at the engrossing Battle of Hampton Roads. However, her adventure came to an end when she was destroyed by Confederate troops after the fall of Norfolk.

At one point, Secretary Mallory considered her to be a powerful strategic weapon. He claimed that after she attacked New York City, “peace would inevitably follow. Bankers would withdraw their capital from the city. The Brooklyn navy yard and its magazines and all the lower part of the city would be destroyed, and such an event, by a single ship, would do more to achieve our immediate independence than would the results of many campaigns” (Davis 78). This quote illustrates the Virginia‘s initial expectations.

However, she ultimately failed to accomplish any of the strategic goals outlined in the introduction. Each of these goals was of vital importance to the Confederacy. She initially attacked the Union fleet at Hampton Roads, and finished the day with some measure of success, but she was ultimately prevented by theMonitor from completely destroying the blockade in that region. Afterwards, the Virginia attempted to halt McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign which threatened the Confederate capital. To avoid destruction, Union ships merely avoided her or outran her. Once again, she failed to accomplish a strategic goal. When all else failed, she attempted to defend her home base at Norfolk, but her disappointing performance in the past caused the Confederates not to consider her as a serious contender for the defence of Norfolk.

In all these events, the Virginia may have made a difference, but it was not to the extent that the Confederacy expected. After all, strategic goals have the potential to benefit one side significantly and potentially alter the course of a war. This brings Secretary Mallory’s statement in the introduction to mind yet again; however, the Virginia was unable to fulfill any of the expectations he outlined in his statement.

In fact, the Virginia may have detrimentally affected the Confederate war effort. Historian John Elwood Clark viewed the ironclad program as an expensive failure. He claims that the Confederacy foolishly “diverted one-quarter of . . . [its] iron production” (66), since the ironclads were “often underpowered . . . struggled to make headway against tidal or river currents . . . design flaws rendered many unseaworthy . . . only half saw action” (67). Even though the Virginia was unable to benefit the Confederacy in a meaningful fashion, the fact that multiple interpretations still exist a century and a half after the Virginia‘s birth suggests that this topic is worthy of continued exploration.
Word Count: 3412


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Appendix 1 – Map of the Area Around Hampton Roads

Battle of Hampton Roads, VA. Digital image. Civil War Preservation Trust. 28 Nov.



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