'Look away Dixie Land!' The day that determined the outcome of the U.S. Civil War. The Battle of Hampton Roads, March 9, 1862. And you are there....
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author's program note. The American Civil War began April 12, 1861 with the firing of the rebel forces on Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. It officially ended on April 9, 1865 when General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House. In between, 212,938 people from both sides were killed in action, with total casualties exceeding 625,000 in what was the most bloody war ever fought on this planet... and the most embittered, as is always the case when brothers fight each other to the death, enraged, grieving, broken hearted but determined to have victory, whatever the cost...
This war was filled with incident, great deeds of valor, deeds, too, of squalor, treachery, unmitigated cruelty... and chivalry... but of all the deeds in this great struggle, the deeds of just a handful of men determined the outcome. These were the men who fought each other at the Battle of Hampton Roads, Virginia March 8-9, 1862. And I am taking you there today... for you will want to know who won, who lost, and why it happened the way it did.
For the incidental music to this article, I have selected Daniel Decatur Emmett's famous tune, "Dixie," also known as "I Wish I Was in Dixie," a song originating in the black face minstrelsy of the 1850s. It is a tune that makes even the least likely ready to jump up and whirl. I have selected it today because, as Abraham Lincoln himself said on April 10, 1865, it's "one of the best tunes I ever heard" ... but also because of its famous line, "Look away, Dixie Land." After the Battle of Hampton Roads, Virginia and all the other Confederate states had nothing to look forward to... and everything to look away from.
But it didn't look that way on March 8, 1862... quite the contrary.
News of the most alarming portent arrives in Washington, D.C., Sunday, March 9, 1862.
Gideon Wells, a New England journalist, found himself urgently summoned to the White House. Come! Come at once! And this Connecticut Yankee, in his unlikely role as Secretary of the Navy, scurried to a meeting where he found Mr. Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, in the greatest possible dismay... and so alarmed himself that he was alarming, too, the President of the Dis-united States of America.
It was a scene to brighten every heart in Dixie... and cause shrewd financiers to sell U.S. Treasury bonds short before Wall Street opened Monday, to chaos and defeatism.
Mr. Stanton could not keep still, could not hide his profound anxiety and fear. He sat down, only to jump up again and rush to the windows... What was he looking for? A savior for the Union cause... What did he expect to see? The CSS Virginia in all her glory steaming up the Potomac, sinking the Federal cause with effortless grace. It was a scene of destiny, and every man on both sides of the struggle knew that history of the gravest magnitude was happening now! To them! At Hampton Roads! And so depending on their point of view and allegiance they either gave way to unbridled joy... or profound despair and lamentation. No one was neutral on this urgent matter.
USS Merrimac into CSS Virginia.
The largest naval installation of the Great Republic was at Norfolk in Virginia... and so after the Old Dominion seceded (April 24, 1861) it became a matter of the greatest urgency to both sides to arrange matters there to their greatest advantage. This to the Federal forces meant moving as much as could be moved, destroying the rest. And, to the rebels, to do just the reverse.
Thus was the USS Merrimac, unable to be removed in time and against the rebel sentiments of her crew, burnt and sunk... but not effectively. Her new owners quickly discovered both hull and engines were serviceable... and so began her transformation into the CSS Virginia, the vessel which made Secretary Stanton quail with acute fear and humiliating anxiety.
Because CSS Virginia, for all that she had just weeks ago been scuttled, was transformed into the mightiest ship of all the navies of all the seas... a ship sheathed in iron, designed to deal death to the picturesque, now ineffectual sailing ships of every navy, but without suffering a single nick at all. Thus did the dead Merrimac come to be the super weapon the Confederacy needed to pulverize the Union and secure their freedom from the meddling, inept Yankees they despised.
Confederate triumph March 8, 1862.
The world changed this day... as the Virginia, with the merest motion, rammed the hapless USS Cumberland, 121 seamen going down with her... then the USS Congress was put out of action, surrendering... and everyone, from the merest cabin boy, saw the future... and knew that every gallant wooden vessel, yesterday puissant, was now dross. And so, as cat to mouse, Virginia moved to her next sure triumph, USS Minnesota... while every telegrapher sent on the news, the news that so discomfited Secretary Stanton... and every other brave Union heart. Armageddon was here... and it flew a Confederate flag.
In August, 1861 Gideon Wells authorized work on a top-secret Union ironclad... and in due course the USS Monitor was born, the most radical naval design ever; the invention of Swedish engineer and inventor John Ericsson. And it was this curious, much mocked vessel that steamed into Hampton Roads March 9, just in time, to reverse what but yesterday had seemed certain, Southern command of the seas and therefore victory.
And as Monitor and Virginia battled each other to a draw, each unable to finish its deft opponent, the entire strategic scene changed. All wooden ships, every single one, was now obsolete; thus a new arms race started for command of the seas. USS Monitor had, simply by maneuvering to a draw, stopped the South's "certain" advance and commenced a war of bloody attrition, a war the North could win, and the South had most reason to fear. For without access to the world, the South could only rely on itself... and that would never be enough to ensure independence as every Southern family would, in tragic due course, come to understand only too well.
As for both the historic ships of this engagement, neither sailed for long. Virginia was burnt again and sunk when Union forces took back the Norfolk port facilities in May. As for the plucky Monitor, she sank December 31, 1862 off North Carolina. The remains of one of her stricken crew, 24-year-old James Fenwick, were just recently brought to the surface for honorable burial. He had been married just a few weeks before Monitor embarked on her final voyage; her history short but
"Old times they are not forgotten; Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land."