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Ironclads play role in Peninsula Campaign
It's the 143rd anniversary this year of the history-making 1862 slugfest between the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor.By Scott Boyd

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Date published: 8/20/2005

"T HREE YEARS BEFORE the 1865 evacuation of Richmond, there was an evacuation before a peril that seemed just as great," said well-known author William C. Davis of the danger the Union Navy posed to the Confederate capital in May 1862.

Davis gave the keynote lecture at the Battle of Hampton Roads Weekend at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News earlier this year. The conference marked the 143rd anniversary of the history-making slugfest in 1862 between the ironclads CSS Virginia and USS Monitor. The museum is the official repository of artifacts from the wreck of the Monitor.

The event drew participants from 18 states, as far away as Seattle, Wash. For this third annual conference, the theme was the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, which served as a backdrop for the battle between the ironclads.

After Union forces seized Norfolk in early May, the CSS Virginia lost its base and the Confederates were unable to move the deep-draft ironclad up the James River to its intended new base at Richmond. A few days later, they abandoned and blew up the famous ironclad.

"On May 8 when they heard that Union gunboats were coming up the James River, [Confederate President Jefferson] Davis told his wife to take their children and leave Richmond," Davis said of the city's first evacuation.

Sounding like something straight out of modern headlines, the Confederate States Congress in Richmond voted themselves a pay raise just before they left town in the face of the Union approach, Davis pointed out.

"On May 15, the Monitor reached Drewry's Bluff and for the first time Richmond could hear the sound of distant guns," according to Davis. The guns on the bluff, a 90-foot precipice overlooking the James River just seven miles south of Richmond, protected obstructions placed in the water that blocked farther passage up the river. The Union ships, including the Monitor, had great difficulty elevating their guns sufficiently to hit the Confederate position atop the bluff. They had to withdraw in failure.

"The defeat of the Union fleet gave renewed determination to the Confederates to resist the Union advance," Davis added.


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