Monday, May 14, 2012

Iron Men Afloat: USS Monitor Sign Dedication

This is another post to a multi-part series with the Civil War Monitor Magazine blog entitled "Iron Men Afloat."  Cross postings will highlight key battles and topics of Civil War naval history.  The Monitor will discuss the men involved, while this blog will focus on the machines and technology used during the war. 

The Civil War Monitor Blog will be posting two Drewry's Bluff posts, focusing on a summary of Battle and some commentary on the memory and commemoration of CPL John Mackie, the first USMC Medal of Honor Recipient.  Check back tomorrow to the blog HERE to read these posts. 

Below is a transcript of the speech I gave at the USS Monitor NPS Sign dedication on Saturday, 12 MAY 2012.   There was also a sign dedication to the Confederate Marines at Drewry's Bluff during the ceremony.  A very special thanks to Dave Ruth, Ed Sanders, and Beth Stern at NPS Richmond for allowing the CWN 150 and the U.S. Navy to be represented this weekend at Drewry's Bluff. 

In the spring of 1862, Union forces looked for a direct route to Richmond, both on land and by water.  While the Union Army floundered its first attempts during the Peninsula Campaign, the Union Navy saw relative success.  In May, the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron guarding the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay dispatched a small flotilla of vessels in an attempt to take Richmond by naval force up the James.  If Richmond was the heart of the Confederacy, the James River was the arterial vein that crept from the Chesapeake Bay to its heartland.  Such success might result in an early end to a war which had already cost the lives of thousands of men on both sides of the conflict. 

All seemed desperate for the Confederate capital.  By mid May, the Confederacy had suffered a series of defeats in the West to combined Federal Army-Navy cooperation culminating in a daring gamble by future Admiral David Glasgow Farragut to take New Orleans, the South’s largest city.  In the east, the Confederacy’s mightiest warship, CSS Virginia, lay in pieces near Craney Island at the mouth of the James, unable to traverse its deep draft upriver. Now a large Army waited patiently for the Union flotilla to attempt to break into Richmond.  Only a few obstacles stood in the way for the Union reaching their goal, the most formidable being Fort Darling, situated along Drewry’s bluff just seven miles below Richmond.  It was here on May 15th that a force of naval ships was repelled by its Confederate defenders.  The victory marked the last attempt for a direct assault into Richmond by water.   
Two of the three original Ironclad designs were part of that James River Flotilla:  the USS Galena and USS Monitor.  Of all the ships that served during the American Civil War, few truly stand out in the annals of American naval history.  Of these, one in particular sits high above all others, the USS Monitor.  The ship is best known for its historic engagement with the CSS Virginia on March 9, 1862. 
For all the acknowledgement and support in the collective memory of the Battle of Hampton Roads, it nonetheless tells an incomplete story to the epic saga of the Monitor and Virginia.  These machines that spurred the ironclad revolution would be dead in the water without its sailors.  It was here at Drewry’s Bluff where the crews of the Civil War’s most famous ships last battled.  The Virginia’s gun crew, now homeless with the loss of their ship, fired on their adversary downriver as she sought to protect the weaker yet equally heroic ironclad Galena.  In the end, few shots seriously affected the Monitor, adding to its aura of impenetrability.

The Monitor was what one Richmond Daily Dispatch reporter called after the battle an “infernal gunboat” capable of “forces of evil.”  Even the Confederacy viewed the Monitor as something much more than a ship.  It became a symbol of power and prestige, a near mythological force of Union naval might capable of inflicting heavy damage on its enemies.  Had the bluffs been lower and the angle of her guns able to reach them, the outcome of the Confederate victory here might be drastically different.  

Many contemporary officers and officials looked at the Monitor with comical amusement, calling it a “cheesebox on a raft” and “tin can on a shingle.”  Yet that insignificant looking object floating along the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay and the James River became the most powerful warship in the world, worthy of envy and praise.   

Samuel Dana Greene, Executive Officer of the USS Monitor, said it best about the legacy of the ship which rings true to this day: “No ship in the world's history has a more imperishable place in naval annals than the Monitor.”  Without the Monitor, the modern Navy would not be the same.  The ship became a rubric and design for subsequent ships of the 19th and 20th century, thus ushering in the creation of a modern surface Navy that survives to this day.  

Fifty years from now, how will the Civil War be remembered? What about the Monitor?  It is you, the people who are actively involved and present with this current sesquicentennial commemoration, who will keep the memory of it alive and thriving.  Today, we are all here to dedicate the honor, courage, and commitment of the USS Monitor in its last engagement.  Today, we make history.

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