Big Bertha

Big Bertha
Circa 1940, on the streets of Rochester New York, Bertha does her work.
"I don't make hell for nobody. I'm only the instrument of a laughing providence. Sometimes I don't like it myself, but I couldn't help it if I was born smart."

1st Sgt. Milton Anthony Warden.
"From here to Eternity"

Paul Valery

"You are in love with intelligence, until it frightens you. For your ideas are terrifying and your hearts are faint. Your acts of pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time."

The Wisdom of the Ages

"When a young man, I read somewhere the following: God the Almighty said, 'All that is too complex is unnecessary, and it is simple that is needed',"

Mikhail Kalashnikov
"Here lies the bravest soldier I've seen since my mirror got grease on it."

Zapp Brannigan

Thursday, March 08, 2007

It Was a Great Day For The Navy

The Confederate Navy that is. On this date, March 8, 1862 The newly renamed CSS Virginia (the ironclad formerly known as the frigate, USS Merrimack) delivered to the Unitied States Navy the most humiliating defeat it would suffer prior to Pearl Harbor. The painting depicts the Virginia ramming the USS Cumberland. Not the best reproduction, the resolution is a bit rough. It was painted by Edward Moran, brother to Thomas Moran the famous Hudson River School landscape painter.
This engagement, involving the Virginia and a handful of smaller Rebel ships against the portion of the US fleet assigned to guard Hampton Roads, is generally eclipsed by what happened the following day, when in a stunning example of disastrously bad timing (or phenomonally good timing depending on one's outlook. A glass-half-empty-half-full sort of thing) the innovative ship, built in under 100 days to counter the threat posed by the Virginia, came upon the scene in time to save at least the rest of the flotilla.
Much has been written about the plucky little Monitor, first revolving gun turret mounting twin 11 inch Dahlgren cannon, first underwater flush toilet, forty patentable features etc. Her designer, John Ericcson was a bona fide genius and even though spurned and unfairly ripped off by the Navy Department, he pulled off something truly remarkable with his little ship.
However, who is ever surprised when technological might and abundant raw materials carry the day? What I find more impressive is the performance of the Virginia, or as I call it, The Seagoing Monster Truck.
When the Federals abandoned their huge shipyard at Norfolk Virginia they tried to destroy everything which would have been of value to the Confederates. This turned out to be a bit of a project. For one thing, over 1000 large caliber guns were still on site and these could only be permanently disabled by breaking off one of the trunions, the pivot thingies on either side of the barrel. Imagine knocking a coffee-can sized chunk of cast iron loose by hand. A crew of sailors, working their collective ass off with sledge hammers, only managed to take care of a few, and none of the Dahlgrens, the most powerful guns in the Navy's arsenal, were harmed at all. In addition, Norfolk's huge drydock, set with explosives which failed to detonate, was also left in useable condition. One apparent success story in the destruction of so much materiel was the burning to the waterline and sinking of the frigate Merrimack.
Making lemonade out of this lemon, the Rebels raised the hulk of the Merrimack, cobbled her engines back into operation (she'd been in drydock for an overhaul) and replaced all the burned-away superstructure with the distinctive casemate, bristling with huge cannon. This primitive monstrosity that could barely turn without help and was in constant danger of capsizing then ventured out into Hampton Roads - at a blistering six knots - and proceeded to sink two Union frigates and damage several other ships before lumbering back upriver when daylight and the tide ran out.
Had the "Cheese Box on a Shingle" not arrived during the night, the Virginia would undoubtedly caused the Union Navy far more grief the next day. As it was this crude, homemade warship fought the most technologically advanced ship of the day to a draw. While the Virginia was unable to do any significant damage to the Monitor, the smaller ship's 180# solid shot from her 11 inch Dahlgrens bounced off the Virginia just as all the shot did the day before. At the close of business the Virginia sported 97 dents in her armored hide, 20 of which could be attributed to the Monitor's guns. However, the Monitor herself wouldn't have won any beauty contests either (final photograph, her turret after the battle).
In closing this two day period sounded the death knell for the days of "wooden ships and iron men". A fact effectively summed up in this quote from an editorial in The London Times:
"Whereas we had available for immediate purposes one hundred and forty-nine first-class war-ships, we now have two, those two being the Warrior and her sister Ironsides [Britian's only ironclads]. There is not now a ship in the English Navy apart from these two that it would not be madness to trust to an egagement with that little Monitor"

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