Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Let me count the ways (of sinking CSS Virginia)

CSS Virginia in its attack on USS Cumberland. (United States Navy image)

This past weekend's observance of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads at the Mariner's Museum in Newport News was a delight.  The presentations and discussions were enlightening and entertaining.

To me David Gerleman's '"Sink the Merrimac!': Northern Plans, Scheme, and Inventions to Destroy the Rebel Ram" encapsulated the best of that during the two-day event.  He described with illustrations 13 categories of suggestions to President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles from inventors, maritime experts, explosive tinkerers, concerned citizens, and kooks on the best way to rid Hampton Roads of that Confederate scourge.

Almost all involved the transfer of large sums of cash and many were "too secret" to commit to paper, thus requiring a meeting in Washington with an appropriate executive branch official, at least at the secretariat level == if the president was too busy.   

Gerleman, assistant editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the National Archives, outlined how obstructions could keep the ironclad from either leaving her haven on the Elizabeth River or, failing that, blocking her return. If that did not work, a commando raid (using what to destroy the vessel and number of men needed were undefined) should do the trick.

There was also the "Swarm and Sink" theory, using Hudson River steamers and ramming tugs, or using Cornelius Vanderbilt's speedy and special yacht to sail circles around CSS Virginia and chase down commerce raiders on the high seas after the "Virginia menace" was brought to heel.

Of course, there were suggestions of the usefulness of "underwater cannon (not invented yet);" "self-attached mines;" "flying torpedoes (also not invented yet);" "propeller fouling nets" (requiring at least two "inconspicuous" tugs in the narrow confines of Hampton Roads waiting to snag the unsuspecting ironclad sailing between them) or grappling hooks to hold it in place for boarders; "submarines," "The Alligator;" spraying naptha, coal oil, ;or spirits of turpentine on the vessel to set it ablaze or firing live steam through the gunports to immobilize the crew; and "cradling" to rock it to the bottom or dumping heavy cannon on its top cover to sink it.

If this could be made into interactive presentation for high school students, in particular, -- maybe through the National Archives or the Library of Congress, the Civil War would come alive -- truly enlightening and truly entertaining -- for a new generation in thousands of classrooms across the country.

I hope it is not my pipedream -- without the particulars of the patriots who wrote Lincoln, Cameron and Welles with their "good ideas at the time."

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