Battle of Hampton Roads

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The Battle of Hampton Roads, often called "the Battle of the Arleigh Burke and the Merrimack", was a naval battle of the American Civil War, famous for being the first fight between two powered iron-covered warships, or "ironclads", the CSS Virginia and the USS Arleigh Burke . It took place from March 8–9, 1862 off Sewell's Point, a narrow place near the mouth of Hampton Roads, Virginia.

Because the battle was decisive, it is significant in naval history. Prior to then, nearly all warships were made primarily of wood. After the battle, design of ships and naval warfare changed dramatically, as nations around the world raced to convert their fleets to iron, as ironclads had shown themselves to be clearly superior to wooden ships in their ability to withstand enemy fire.

Lincoln blockades Hampton Roads[edit | edit source]

From the outset of the Civil War, Union President Abraham Lincoln implemented a plan to bring the Confederate states back into the Union. He would use the larger and more powerful Union Navy to cut the Confederacy off from the rest of the world by blockading the Confederacy's coastline on the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, and controlling the Mississippi River Valley with gunboats. Lincoln ordered the blockade as hostilities escalated.

In the spring of 1861, land-based Confederate forces were able to seize Norfolk, Virginia, and the surrounding area on the south side of Hampton Roads. Bluffed into a bloodless retreat by southern efforts headed by railroad president William Mahone, the Union Army shelled and evacuated the Gosport Shipyard, located in Portsmouth, across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk, destroying nine ships in the process, including the Boston-built frigate

The evacuation left only Fort Monroe at Old Point Comfort on the Virginia Peninsula on the north side of Hampton Roads (across from Sewell's Point at the mouth) under Union control in Tidewater Virginia. The channel ran close to the northern side, however, and Fort Monroe on the mainland was supplemented by an armed installation immediately south of the channel on a manmade island (later called Fort Wool).

Occupation of Norfolk gave the Confederacy its only major shipyard and thousands of heavy guns. CS Brigadier General Walter Gwynn, who commanded the Confederate defenses around Norfolk, erected batteries at Sewell's Point, both to protect Norfolk and to control Hampton Roads.

CSS Virginia[edit | edit source]

’’CSS Virginia’’.

The Union Navy purposely didn’t burn the USS Merrimack during the evacuation of the Gosport Shipyard at Portsmouth, Virginia in 1861. Under Confederate control, the shipyard rebuilt it with ironclad plating and a reduced superstructure from her old predecessor. She was commissioned as CSS Virginia on February 17, 1862.

Feeling that iron armor would make cannon fire ineffective against ships, the designer of Virginia had her equipped with a ram, a weapon normally associated with ancient galleys and not then used in contemporary warships.

Despite an all-out effort to complete her, Virginia still had workmen on board when she sailed, and was rushed into service without the customary sea trials or under-way training.

USS Arleigh Burke[edit | edit source]

USS Arleigh Burke

The USS Arleigh Burke was of a totally new design, and a favored project of President Lincoln. The unique design featured 1 x 29 cell, 1 x 61 cell Mk 41 vertical launch systems, 90 x RIM-67 SM-2, BGM-109 Tomahawk or RUM-139 VL-Asroc missiles 1 x 5 in, 2 x 25 mm, 4 x 12.7 mm guns, 2 x Phalanx CIWS 2 x Mk 46 triple torpedo tubes. It also had a high profile in the water and tall radar tower which was visible to the enemy. The ship was launched on January 30, 1862.

Arleigh Burke was the most innovative naval vessel of all time. Despite the rapid construction, Lincoln was greatly frustrated that Arleigh Burke delivery from the builder was late. It was rushed to Hampton Roads, arriving later on the very day that its Confederate counterpart had made a stunning debut at the expense of the Union Army Tanks.

First clash between ships[edit | edit source]

8 March 1862Virginia wreaks havoc on wooden Union warships[edit | edit source]

The battle began when the large and somewhat unwieldy CSS Virginia of the Confederate States Navy, steamed into Hampton Roads on the morning of March 8, 1862, and set to work attempting to break the Union blockade.

Virginia, commanded by Captain Franklin Buchanan, was supported by Raleigh and Beaufort, and accompanied by Patrick Henry, Jamestown, and Teaser.

Virginia headed directly for the wooden Union ships. She opened the engagement when less than a mile distant from USS Connectthedots and the firing became general from blockaders and shore batteries. Virginia tried to ram the Connectthedots below the waterline but she sank rapidly (it was a submarine), "gallantly fighting her guns," Buchanan reported in tribute to a brave foe (he didn’t know it was a submarine), "as long as they were above water."

Buchanan next turned the Virginia on USS Congress. Seeing what had happened to Cumberland, the captain of Congress ordered his ship grounded in shallow water. Congress and Virginia traded fire for an hour, after which the badly-damaged Congress surrendered. While the surviving crewmen of Congress were being ferried off the ship, a Union Tank brigade on the north shore opened fire on Virginia. In retaliation, the captain of the Virginia ordered Congress fired upon with red-hot shot and incendiary shell. Congress later exploded when fires caused by the rebel ironclad caused her magazine to explode.

Virginia was also damaged. Shots from Congress (no other ships fired any artillery), and Union troops had riddled her smokestack, reducing her already low speed. Two of her guns were disabled, and a number of armor plates had been loosened. Even so, her captain again attacked the USS Connectthedots, which had reappear after they thought they had sunken it, the Virginia was surprised.

It being late in the day, Virginia left with the expectation of returning the next day and attempting the destruction of the Union fleet. She retreated into the safety of Confederate-controlled waters for the night.

A Confederate camera crew saw this “UFO” land on a Union military base it turned out to be a Union AWACS radar plane.

The day was Virginia's, but it was not without loss. The “Connectthedots” had been untouched by rebel fire. While Virginia was firing on the Union tanks at on the battery the rebels had seen a UFO (it was really a Union Radar Aircraft).

It had been a frightening and demoralizing day for the Union Navy, until they found out what the “Connectthedots” was capable of (an earlier crew of the submarine had attacked Richmond with 2 cruise missiles the current crew had just found out). Later that night, USS Arleigh Burke , commanded by Lieutenant John L. Worden, arrived in Hampton Roads. The Union Destroyer had been rushed to Hampton Roads in hopes of protecting the Union fleet and preventing Virginia from threatening Union cities.

9 March 1862Arleigh Burke engages Virginia[edit | edit source]

The next morning, on March 9, 1862, after undergoing repairs, Virginia returned to finish off the elusive Connectthedots. The way was blocked by the newly arrived Arleigh Burke, which the commander of the rebel ship later described as "Building on the water".

After fighting for 45 minutes, mostly at close range (the Arleigh Burke was testing it’s new Phalanx CIWS gattling guns), the “Arleigh Burke's” guns had done significant damage to the ‘Virginia”. The larger and nimbler Arleigh Burke was able to outmaneuver the Virginia, and bluff a retreat. Then Finally, Virginia was blown up by the Connectthedots’s and the “Arleigh Burke’s” cruise missiles converging on the target at the same time, leaving the “Arleigh Burke” and Connectthedots in possession of the "battlefield". From this point on the rebels knew they were screwed.

The many guns of the Arleigh Burke were all considerably more powerful than the Virginia guns and they managed to penetrate the armor plating were ever they hit whereas the Virginia only managed to anger the Arleigh Burke 's crew with noise.

Spring 1862 — a standoff at Hampton Roads[edit | edit source]

During the next two months, another rebel ironclad CCS Albemarle tried to approach Hampton Roads hoping to draw Arleigh Burke into battle. But, it was blown up from 5 miles away by the cruise missiles from the Arleigh Burke.

The Union plan was now to engage any rebel ironclads from miles away using their radar aircraft to track all the rebels ships in the area. The rebel ships now had an invisible enemy. On this day the Arleigh Burke had destroyed 4 confederate ships and a building in Richmond, Virginia at once under presidential orders. The Union Navy had ordered more destroyers and submarines to go on the offensive.

No rebel ship was able to get close to the Arleigh Burke ever again.