March 8, 1862, Hampton Roads at the mouth of the James River, Virginia: A large squadron of some of the best wooden warships in the U.S. Navy blockades Hampton Roads, keeping the Confederates bottled up in the James River.
That afternoon, at about 2:20, a ship appeared, steaming into Hampton Roads from the Elizabeth River, unlike anything America had ever seen. She looked, as one Union sailor described, “like the roof of a very big barn belching forth smoke as from a chimney on fire.” This was the CSS Virginia, one of the first American ironclad warships, and she was about to devastate the Union squadron in Hampton Roads.
To the crews of the blockading ships, the Virginia was like “the horrid creature of a nightmare.” The great wooden frigates unleashed massive broadsides…to no effect. Shot and shell simply bounced off the Virginia. One by one, she dealt with the larger vessels in Hampton Roads, sinking the Cumberland, Congress and severely damaging several others. She would have sunk each one had not sunset and the outgoing tide intervened.
The next morning, March 9, the Virginia returned to finish the job. Had she successfully smashed her way out of Hampton Roads, she might have gone on to wreak havoc in Washington or New York, perhaps even changing the course of the war. But overnight (and you can’t make up fiction as good as this sort of stuff) the USS Monitor had arrived.
The U.S. Navy had known that the Confederates were building the Virginia and they intended to be prepared, commissioning three very different prototype ironclads: the Monitor, the Galena, and the New Ironsides. The best of these designs was also the first one completed–the USS Monitor. After completing her sea trials on March 4, the Monitor began its voyage from New York to the Chesapeake but was delayed by various malfunctions and terrible weather. Had she arrived a day earlier, she might have saved the squadron and prevented terrible loss of life. But at least she arrived in time to keep the Virginia pent up in Hampton Roads.
The ensuing battle between the Virginia and the Monitor is legendary and something we probably all remember from childhood history classes. Whenever I think of the engagement, I always remember the line from Ken Burns’s documentary, The Civil War, delivered by the narrator David McCullough. After describing the epic battle during which the two ironclads hammered away at each other like invincible titans, McCullough reads, in his manner that is somehow simultaneously matter-of-fact and dramatic:
From the moment the two ships opened fire that Sunday morning, every other navy on earth was obsolete.
And it is true. But it is not just the navies that became obsolete.
In Boston, Massachusetts, shipbuilding had been a big business for centuries. Families had made fortunes and established themselves as the elites based on shipbuilding and maritime trade. That March day, numerous Boston shipyards (and big family businesses) became obsolete. Many of the city’s builders, set in their ways, were still clinging to the pre-Civil War golden age of sail. Some had not yet even bothered to make the transition to steam power, let alone the more bold step to iron vessels. And now they would scramble to catch up.
But at least one man in Boston was ready for this transformative moment. Back in 1857, a shipbuilder named Harrison Loring established the City Point Works in South Boston. Born in the old shipbuilding town of Duxbury, Massachusetts, Loring had an entirely new and gutsy vision. His would be the first Boston business entirely devoted to the construction of steam engines and iron ships. The old guard resented the notion of a nervy interloper leading the way. Nonetheless, by that March day in 1862, Loring ran one of only two businesses in Boston that were prepared to start making monitor type warships.
The U.S. Navy was enormously eager to get more monitors built. By the summer of 1862, John Ericsson, the naval architect who had designed the Monitor, had improved on the plan and come up with the Passaic-class monitor. Ten of these were built. Harrison Loring landed one of the contracts.
The USS Nahant, the first iron warship built in New England, was launched from Loring’s City Point Works in South Boston on October 7, 1862. She was the third of the Passaic-class monitors built. At 200 feet long, she was a bit larger than the original Monitor. She had a crew of 75. By February 1863, the Nahant, under Commander John Downes, had joined the growing Union squadron of ironclads off the coast of South Carolina.
The Nahant’s first action took place on March 3, 1863 when Admiral Samuel Du Pont decided to test three of the new ironclads against a land fortification by sending them to attack Fort McAllister near Savannah, Georgia. The three new ships, including the Nahant, failed to destroy the fort. But they were virtually undamaged in the attempt…so, nothing lost.
On April 7, 1863, Admiral Du Pont, spurred on by officials in the Navy Department who very much wanted to show what the new ironclads could do, attacked Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston had little strategic significance. But its symbolic significance, being the location of Fort Sumter and the start of the war, was enormous. Du Pont’s fleet consisted of nine ironclads–the strongest squadron afloat at the time.
Forming an imposing line of battle and steaming into Charleston harbor, Du Pont’s squadron blazed away at the fortifications there for hours. Unfortunately, their fire was not effective. Although no ships were destroyed or crippled, the massive firepower from the Charleston forts took its toll and Du Pont eventually called off the attack. The Nahant was hit 36 times and her turret was damaged. The only Union casualty in the entire battle was Quartermaster Edward Cobb of the Nahant.
So, while the ironclads may have made every navy in the world obsolete, the Battle of Charleston Harbor taught the Navy Department that a city could not be taken with ironclads alone. Gone were the naive notions of sailing an ironclad into a harbor and battering a city into submission.
After active service in several other engagements in the vicinity of Charleston, the Nahant was eventually de-commissioned and mothballed in Philadelphia for roughly 30 years. She was re-commissioned in April 1898 during the Spanish American war during which she served in coastal defense of New York Harbor. In April 1904 she was sold by the Navy for scrap metal.
[Sources: John V. Quarstein, A History of Ironclads, 2006; William H. Roberts, Civil War Ironclads, 2002]