Monday, March 5, 2012

USS Minnesota and the Fate of Andromeda

When Virginia made her ascent of the Elizabeth River and appeared in Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862, the New York Times and many others described her as a “mysterious marine monster.” The print makers Currier & Ives titled their print of Virginia’s scuttling on Craney Island a few weeks later as “The Destruction of the Rebel Monster.” Thus it is quite clear how the Northern public viewed the Confederate ironclad. Under this view, Minnesota played the part of the beautiful maiden Andromeda. In the Greek myth, King Cepheus chained his daughter Andromeda to a rock so that she would be eaten by a monster sent by the god Poseidon and satisfy the ocean god’s wrath.

In the Battle of Hampton Roads, the “monster” had already slain two of the Navy’s old heroes, USS Cumberland and Congress, and now was moving in for his prize. But just as in the Greek myth (and played out in two different versions of the movie Clash of the Titans), the hero Peruses rides into the battle on the back of the winged horse Pegasus, whose part was played by USS Monitor, to save the maiden from being ripped to pieces.

Poet and playwright George Henry Boker’s 1864 epic poem “The Cruise of the Monitor” provided readers with a synthesis of the myth and modern history:

Out of its den [Virginia] burst anew
When the gray mist the sun broke through
Steaming to where in clinging sands
The frigate Minnesota stands
A sturdy foe to overthrow
But in a woeful plight to receive a blow.

But see!
Beneath her bow appears!
A champion no danger fears
A pigmy craft that seems to be
To this new lord who rules the sea
Like David of old to Goliath bold
Youth and giant by Scripture told

Playing the part of Andromeda was an unfortunate and unexpected position Minnesota found herself on that famous day. For years, the ship had been center of national and international attention. The steam frigate was one of the most well designed warships in the world and was a sight to behold. When the Navy commissioned her and her sister frigates of the Merrimack-class in the 1850s, European navies felt threatened by American warships for the first time since USS Constitution scored her legendary victories during the War of 1812. The Navy recognized Minnesota’s prowess and looks by designating her to be the diplomatic vessel for America's early ambassador to China. The Navy then made her the flag ship of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron early on in the Civil War. But, in the Greek myths, the gods were a fickle bunch, who regularly changed their minds and enjoyed abusing their subjects. Likewise, in a period of 48 hours, Minnesota went from Poseidon’s personal champion to Poseidon’s lunch.

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