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Naval Battle of the Ironclads
Hampton Roads, Virginia
March 8-9, 1862
USS MONITOR: Armament: two 11" Dahlgren smoothbore cannons. Armor: turret was made of eight 1" iron plates.
CSS VIRGINIA: Armament: two 7" Brooke rifles, two 6.4" Brooke rifles, six 9" Dahlgren smoothbore cannons and two 12 pounder howitzers. Armor: deck 1" iron, casemate had 4" iron backed with 24" wood.
11" Dahlgren ball with Navy watercap percussion fuse. Image of the inside of Monitor's turret.
The CSS Virginia was formerly a Navy wooden vessel named the USS Merrimack, a 40 gun frigate steamer. The Merrimack was commissioned in 1856 and served as the flagship for the Pacific Squadron. The Union Navy burned the Merrimack to the waterline at the Gosport shipyard (see history below) on April 20, 1861, to avoid capture when Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17. Her hull was raised and she was made into an ironclad by the Confederates. The CSS Virginia made her way to Hampton Roads on March 8,1862, and she started on a course of methodical destruction of the Union's Navy wooden warships, including the USS Congress, a 52 gun frigate, the USS Cumberland, a 24 gun sloop-of-war and the USS Minnesota, a 44 gun frigate steamer. The Congress and Cumberland, both sailing vessels were performing blockade operations off Hampton Roads when the attack occurred, and were unable to escape from the steam powered ironclad. As the Minnesota tried to engage the Virginia on March 8, she ran aground near Newport News and was a sitting duck for the Confederate ironclad who threw shot and shells at her.
The epic battle that forever changed Naval warfare and ship construction (no longer wood and sail) occurred on March 9, off Sewell's Point when the USS Monitor, also an ironclad, poised to protect the grounded and damaged USS Minnesota, engaged the CSS Virginia. The events of the day started around 8:00 am when the Virginia entered Hampton Roads. She fired on the USS Minnesota with a shell that was thrown a thousand yards. The Monitor moved in and started to make wide turns around the Virginia. The Monitor was more manuverable than her counterpart, but it took her 8 minutes to fire a shot because of the time to reload. As the Virginia moved along side of the Monitor, she opened up with her broadside guns. Many of the shells were deflected off the iron, although the pilot house was struck and damaged. The battle was over by noon. At around 12:30 pm, the Virginia headed to the Gosport shipyard for repairs. The battle ended in a draw without either vessel sustaining substantial damage, however, it is undisputed that the Monitor saved the Union Navy from further destruction by the Virginia. In the days that followed, the Virginia tried to engage the Monitor, but she refused on strict orders by President Lincoln. He was concerned that if the Monitor was destroyed, the Virginia would have control of the Chesapeake Bay. The real loss was in personnel. Franklin Buchanan, Flag-Officer of the James River Squadron and commander of the CSS Virginia lost his leg when a minie ball struck near a femoral artery on March 8. Buchanan was relieved by Lt. Catesby Roger Jones. Lt. John L. Worden, commander of the USS Monitor lost sight in one eye and his face was permanently blackened from the powder when an exploded shell from the Virginia struck the pilot house. Commanding officer of the USS Congress, W. Smith and Lt. Joseph B. Smith were both killed. Estimated casualties: US: 409 (USS Congress: 136 killed, USS Cumberland: 121 killed, USS Minnesota: 8 killed. Remainder were wounded and/or captured), CS: 24.
The USS Minnesota was repaired following the battle and later participated in the Second Battle of Fort Fisher.
Attack on the USS Cumberland, March 8, 1862.
Sinking of the USS Cumberland by the CSS Virginia on the first day of the battle.
Battle of the Ironclads, March 9.
Damage to Monitor's turret as the result of cannon balls fired from Virginia's 9" Dahlgren guns. The crew on deck months following the battle.
Photograph taken in July, 1862. Many pictured here would perish in 5 months when the Monitor sank.
Two months after the CSS Virginia engaged the Monitor, she was blown up by the Confederates. The fleeing Confederates destroyed the Gosport shipyard on May 10, 1862, and the Virginia on May 11, off Craney Island, Portsmouth, Virginia. The suffering and loss of life caused by the war would continue another three years.
CSS Virginia destroyed at the hands of the Confederates.
On December 29, 1862, the USS Monitor was ordered to North Carolina for operations against Wilmington. The Monitor was towed by the Rhode Island, a wooden sidewheel steamer, as she was not built for the high seas. Almost ten months after the epic battle with the CSS Virginia on March 9, the Monitor met its fate shortly after midnight on December 31,1862, when it sank during a storm in the Atlantic ocean off the Outer Banks, North Carolina. Sixteen men were lost that night. Eyewitness accounts reported seeing the signal light from the red distress lantern (see artifact below) located in the turret before the Monitor went under for the last time. The Union would build other ironclads that were used for blockades and destroying Confederate coastal forts and batteries.
Watery grave of the USS Monitor, discovered in 1973. Monitor was found upside down laying on its turret.
Artifacts recovered from the USS Monitor can be viewed at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia.
A full scale replica of the USS Monitor can be viewed at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia.
Hampton Roads, Virginia
The fort was named after James Monroe, the 5th President of the United States. The construction of the fort was started in 1819 and it was completed in 1834. It was the largest stone fort ever built in America and the only one that had a moat. A young Lt. Robert E. Lee in the United States Army lived at the fort between 1831-34, and oversaw engineering projects including the building of the moat and wall. He would later become the Confederate General of the Army of Northern Virginia that led his men to fight in some of the greatest battles of the Civil War, including the Peninsula Campaign, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Cold Harbor. Another famous resident who lived at the fort was Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), writer and poet. Poe was a Sergeant Major in Artillery and resided there in 1828-29. It is reported that Poe's ghost haunts the fort and it is considered one of the most haunted forts in America.
The fort is situated near south Chesapeake Bay which allows easy access to the James, Elizabeth and the Nansemond Rivers. Fort Monroe was a coastal defense post that protected Hampton Roads and the surrounding ports that had easy access to the waterways like Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, Newport News, Yorktown and Suffolk.
The casemate museum at Fort Monroe is open to the public and contains many historical personal items, artifacts and displays. More information about the museum can be found by visiting their website at www.monroe.army.mil/
Image taken from a Russian spyplane.
Lighthouse at the fort.
House where Lincoln stayed in May, 1862.
The Civil War Years, 1861-65
Fort Monroe played a vital role for the Union during the Civil War and never fell into the hands of the Confederacy. In peacetime, the garrison housed 600 soldiers. During the war, the garrison housed 1,400 men with another 4,600 soldiers camped nearby.
Earlier amphibious missions were launched from Fort Monroe, including the attack and capture of two Confederate forts (Forts Clark and Hatteras) at Hatteras Inlet, NC in 1861. The USS Minnesota played a major role at the Battle of Hatteras Inlet Batteries in the bombardment of the two forts. Fort Monroe also played an important role in the Battle of the Ironclads. It fired on the CSS Virginia, March 8, 1862, to help protect the Union fleet from being destroyed by the ironclad, as well as the already damaged and grounded USS Minnesota before the arrival of the USS Monitor on March 9.
The fort was a staging ground for many battles that occurred during the war, including General George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign in the Spring, 1862. McClellan amassed one of the largest troop movements and operations during the war, transporting by sea a hundred thousand soldiers, horses, artillery, wagons, food, and supplies to Fort Monroe. McClellan moved his army west along the Virginia peninsula taking Yorktown and Williamsburg. The Army of the Potomac would come within 10 miles of the Confederate Capitol in Richmond only to be routed and forced to the James River at Harrison's Landing by General Lee.
President Lincoln visited the fort on May 6-11, 1862, for the purpose of planning an attack on Norfolk, Virginia and retaking the Gosport Shipyard. The shipyard would return to Union control on May 10- 11 without a fight. The fort was used to treat the wounded during the war and it was a safe haven for escaped slaves looking for freedom. Major General Benjamin F. Butler refused to return the slaves and considered them contraband of war.
Following the war, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy was captured and imprisoned at the fort for two years until he posted bond and was released. He was accused of plotting to assassinate President Lincoln. The charges were eventually dropped due to insufficient evidence.
Only entrance to the fort.
Escaped slaves finding freedom at the fort which became known as Freedom's Fortress.
Jefferson Davis in a cell at the fort in 1865.
The Wall and Moat
A very early image of the wall and moat.
Fort was designed and built with a stone wall 10 feet thick and a moat 5 to 8 feet deep around the structure. The continuous wall measures 1.3 miles around the six sided stone fort.
Fort was armed with forty-two 42-pounder guns, one hundred eighty-nine 32-pounder guns, ten 24-pounder guns, fourteen 18-pounder guns, twenty-five 12-pounder guns, twelve field pieces, sixteen flank howitzers, twenty 8" heavy seacoast howitzers, five light 8" howitzers, three 13" mortars, seven 10" heavy mortars, three light 10" mortars, five light 8" mortars, five 16" stone mortars and fifteen coehorn mortars for a total of 371 guns.
Cannons stored in the gun yard at the fort.
Cannon balls stored at Fort Monroe.
"Lincoln" gun, a 15" Rodman Columbiad, 1864.
Present location of the Lincoln gun at the fort.
Some of the twenty 8" heavy seacoast howitzers were located in the casemate of the fort.
The Gosport Shipyard
known today as the Norfolk Naval Shipyard
Hampton Roads, Virginia
The Gosport Shipyard, under the British flag, was established by a merchant and shipowner Andrew Sprowle on November 1, 1767. It is presumed that the name was derived from Gosport located near Portsmouth, England which was an important British dockyard. The shipyard in the Colony was built on the western shore of the Elizabeth River which was the Portsmouth side of the river. It remained under control of the Royal Navy until the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775. After the war broke out, the Colony of Virginia confisicated all property under British control including the shipyard. Sprowle who remained loyal to the Crown fled the Colony. While under Virginia's control, the British who still occupied parts of Portsmouth burned the Gosport shipyard to the ground in 1779. The yard was rebuilt by the Colony, but would be burned and destroyed two (2) more times in 1861-62 during the Civil War. The first wooden vessel that was built at Gosport in 1799, for the US Navy was the USS Chesapeake, a 38 gun frigate and a sister ship of the USS Constitution. The federal government purchased Gosport from the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1801, for a cost of $12,000. The shipyard included 16 acres. Other frigates were built at the yard for the US Navy that played important roles in the War of 1812 and the Civil War. The USS Delaware, a 74 gun ship was built at Gosport between 1817 and 1820. She entered dry dock number one for repairs in 1833. This was the first time ever that a ship entered drydock. The CSS Virginia, a 12 gun ironclad was refitted with iron in drydock, 1861-62.
USS Delaware entered drydock on June 17, 1833.
The Civil War Years, 1861-65
At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Gosport shipyard was under the control of the federal forces. After Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861, the federal forces burned the shipyard to the ground, as well as a few of the US fighting vessels vulnerable to capture like the USS Merrimack. The federal forces then made their way to Fort Monroe which was the only land under Union control. This was the second time in the shipyard's history that it had been destroyed. During the takeover, the Confederates salvaged stores and took possession of 1085 federal cannons. The cannons were placed at various locations in Hampton Roads and in the South and used against the Union. The shipyard remained in control of the Confederacy for a year. It was retaken by the Union in May, 1862, but not before she was burned to the ground for a third time by the fleeing Confederates. While in control of the Confederates, the Merrimack was rebuilt with iron from the waterline up, including the casemate and she was renamed the CSS Virginia. In addition, other gunboats and a second ironclad, the CSS Richmond were built. On the eve of the army's evacuation, the Confederates towed the partially finished CSS Richmond up the James River toward the Capital of the Confederacy. The ironclad was completed in Richmond, Virginia and she joined the James River Squadron. The CSS Richmond played a major role in the years that followed, including engagements at Dutch Gap, Fort Harrison and Chaffin's Bluff.
The importance of Gosport cannot be under estimated. But for the shipyard, the epic battle of the ironclads in March 1862, between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia would not have taken place. The Union would have had the only ironclad at the time, and the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress would have likely survived the war.
In 1862, the shipyard was renamed the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (after Norfolk, the largest County at the time) and remained in Union control for the duration of the war. It is noteworthy that the shipyard never took the name of her home city, Portsmouth, during all of its years of operation, going on now 245 years. Today, the Norfolk Naval Shipyard still remains in Portsmouth, Virginia, not Norfolk like many assume. The reason why the shipyard never changed its name was due to the fact that there is a Portsmouth Naval Shipyard located in Kittery, Maine. This created confusion to have two shipyards with the same name.
USS Pennsylvania on the left at Gosport in March 1861, before the start of the Civil War.
Destruction of Gosport, April 1861.
Burning of the shipyard and the USS Merrimack on April 20,1861, by federal forces before falling into the hands of the Confederates.
Burning at Gosport, April 1861
Transformation of the USS Merrimack into the CSS Virginia.
Photograph showing the destruction at Gosport on May 10,1862, by the fleeing Confederates.