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Union Soldier Watches the CSS Virginia Bait the Navy at Norfolk, and Describes Growing Confidence the Union Can Sink Her
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we had but one object in view that was to prevent the Merrimac from running the blockade, which we reasoned she desired to do in order to visit Yorktown and play the old harry with our gunboats there. Directly opposite our hospital within a half mile lay the Nangatuck and on her left our iron gunboat which I heard called 5 different names [the Monitor]…We now have confidence in our ability to sink her if we could have her where we want… our commodore is determined not to attack her off Sewall’s point or about there, as there is not water enough to maneuver his large vessels as well as the risks of their getting aground…, she is certain to be sunk if she ever passes fortress Monroe.

One month after the Battle of Hampton Roads, in which the USS Monitor confronted the CSS Virginia in an hours-long battle of the ironclads, a Union soldier stationed near Fort Monroe details the CSS Virginia’s attempt to draw the Union navy into battle. The Virginia was finally trapped, and Confederates destroyed it to keep it out of Union hands, on May 11th.

[CSS VIRGINIA]. Autograph Letter Signed. Union soldier’s eyewitness account of seeing the CSS Virginia (Merrimack), Camp Hamilton, Virginia, April 13, 1862. 4 pp., 8 x 10 in.

With: BATTLE OF HAMPTON ROADS. Print. Engraving of the battle, removed from Harper’s Weekly, March 22, 1862, pp. 184-85, 21 x 8 in. Modern color.

Inventory #24006.01-.02       Price: $3,750

Complete Transcript

                                                                        Camp Hamilton Va

                                                                        April 13th / 62.

Dear Nellie,

            I received your letter of April 9th yesterday; you did not in it acknowledge having received the letter which contained two rebel bank bills, and the account of my visit to Yorktown. We have now had three successive pleasant day and consequently the road are improving. Friday morning the Merrimac, accompanied by seven other boats, paid us a visit at a respectable distance. The roads at her first appearance was crowded with sails, which were removed rapidly, by the aid of tugs, outside. The Merrimac laid near Sewall’s point abreast of our camp, occasionally approaching quite near to us, giving the best view of herself that I had had, her decks were crowded with men and she looked as formidable as she is. During the excitement in removing the vessels, two rebel steamboats approached near enough to our shore to seize three transports, which were in the <2> mouth of Hampton Creek. The rebel steamers might have been easily persuaded to have remained at a proper distance by a field battery if it had been supposed that they were to have paid us a visit in that manner. After the boats had been captured two batteries of six pieces each were stationed on the shore. It seemed to be the desire of the rebels to have the fight come off in the range of Sewall’s point battery and they maneuvered accordingly. Nearly all of Friday was spent by them in coaxing us to come out, but we had but one object in view that was to prevent the Merrimac from running the blockade, which we reasoned she desired to do in order to visit Yorktown and play the old harry with our gunboats there. Directly opposite our hospital within a half mile lay the Nangatuck and on her left our iron gunboat which I heard called 5 different names; about three o’clock the Merrimac fired a shot at them which fell considerably short. The Nangatuck replied with her long ranged gun sending her shots over the Merrimac, and in this position several shots were exchanged, <3> by both gunboats with the Merrimac; this was exciting sport for us as our gunboat laid abreast of us and so near that we could see them load and fire and as if the Merrimac had been some closer or had the range of our cannons in all probability some of her shells would have visited us. As it was I saw the water ploughed up by the Merrimac shots as they came towards us. One shot was fired by Merrimac, her last shot, which seem to explode the instance it left her gun, and by her subsequent movements we thought she had burst her gun as she immediately steamed for Norfolk leaving her escort behind who followed in an hour or so. Saturday at 8 o’clock their fleet again made its appearance but at more respectable distance, and it was said that the Merrimac was not with them, but I feel confident that she was, nothing was done on our part but watch and on theirs to remain stationary in the position they first took in the morning. Sunday not a sign of one of them, their plans must have miscarried and new one <4> plotting. Every days delay makes us stronger and in ten days I hope we shall feel confident to attack her. We now have confidence in our ability to sink her if we could have her where we want, that is in some place where we could work; our commodore is determined not to attack her off Sewall’s point or about there, as there is not water enough to maneuver his large vessels as well as the risks of their getting aground. If we have the means on hand which I am told we have, she is certain to be sunk if she ever passes fortress Monroe. Hear firing every day in the direction of Yorktown but don’t expect any decisive results as yet. I have had my whiskers cut off my chin and resemble General Burnside very much!!  Capt Putnam was on here I mean at Camp Hamilton I obtained his photograph Monday morning, received your letter of April 11th, no signs of the Merrimac. Give my regards to all yours

                                                                        Affection

                                                                        Frank [?]

Historical Background

When Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, the U.S. Navy commander at the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, ordered the USS Merrimack to be burned and sunk to prevent its capture. Workers burned the ship to the waterline, but Confederates discovered that the ship’s lower hull and machinery were undamaged. On that hull, the Confederacy constructed the CSS Virginia as an ironclad with fourteen gun ports distributed around its armored casemate constructed of 24 inches of oak and pine in several layers and two inches of iron plating.

On March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginia, under the command of Captain Franklin Buchanan, engaged the Union fleet blockading the James River and the Chesapeake Bay. Hampton Roads was the area where the James and other rivers and creeks converge and flow into the Chesapeake Bay. The narrowest part of that channel is between Sewell’s Point on the south, where the Confederates had batteries, and the Union-occupied Fort Monroe on the north. Camp Hamilton was on the mainland approximately one mile north and west of Fortress Monroe. The CSS Virginia destroyed both the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress.

That night the USS Monitor arrived at Fort Monroe, rushed from the Brooklyn Navy Yard while not yet complete. The next day, the first battle between ironclads took place. The smaller and faster Monitor, with a rotating gun port, commanded by Lieutenant John L. Worden, was able to outmaneuver the Virginia, but neither ship could do extensive damage to the other. Worden was temporarily blinded by a gunpowder explosion to his face, while looking through the Monitor’s narrow viewing slits. Because Captain Buchanan of the Virginia had been wounded by Union rifle fire the previous day, the command of the Virginia went to Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones. When the Monitor retreated to shallow water to assess damages, Jones took the Virginia back over the bar to Portsmouth before the falling tide trapped it within striking distance of the Monitor. The Virginia remained in drydock for repairs until April 4, 1862.

As this letter makes clear, the CSS Virginia tried several times to lure the Union Navy into an attack; however, the USS Monitor was under strict orders not to re-engage. On April 11, the Confederate Navy sent seven ships in full view of the Union squadron, urging them to fight. As this letter also describes, the Confederates even seized three merchant ships, the brigs Marcus and Sabout and the schooner Catherine T. Dix, from their moorings at the mouth of Hampton Creek.  By late April, two more Union ironclads had joined the blockade at Fort Monroe. On May 8, the CSS Virginia again ventured out when Union ships began shelling the Confederate fortifications near Norfolk. The Union ships retreated to the protection of shore batteries on the north side of the James River and did not engage the Virginia.

Union troops occupied Norfolk on May 10, 1862, and the Confederates faced a dilemma. Because of its weight, the CSS Virginia was not seaworthy enough to enter the Atlantic Ocean, even if it could run the Union blockade, and it could not retreat further up the James River. The new captain reluctantly ordered the destruction of the Virginia, and Lieutenant Jones set the powder trails to the ship’s magazine, destroying it in a huge explosion and ending Confederate hopes for raising the blockade of the James River and Chesapeake Bay.


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