Greek Versus Greek
Two metallic behemoths clashed in the water of Hampton Roads, Virginia, one hundred and fifty years ago this week. One Wilkinson County man was there. What followed was the first naval engagement between two ironclad warships, the U.S.S. Monitor and C.S.S. Virginia, a converted frigate formerly dubbed the Merrimac by its Northern builders.
Ellsberry Valentine White was born in Wilkinson County, Georgia in 1839. By adulthood, he had moved to Macon and later to Columbus, Georgia. At the outbreak of the Civil War, White was working as a store clerk in Columbus and living in his mother's boarding house.
On April 20, 1861, some ten days after the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter, South Carolina, White joined the City Light Guards, designated as Co. A, 2nd Battalion, Georgia Volunteer Infantry. The members of the company elected him as 2nd Sergeant. Sgt. White would transfer to the Confederate Navy near the end of November.
White's regiment was stationed near Portsmouth, Virginia. He expressed an interest in working on the refitting of the U.S.S. Merrimac and was accepted into the naval service on January 18, 1862 and commissioned as the Jr 3rd Engineer in charge of the speaking tube and the gong on the deck of the ship. It was White's job to convey orders from the officers in charge back to the engine room.
The Virginia's builders covered the Merrimac's hull with 20-inch thick heart pine boards, overlaid with four- inch-thick oak planks. Two-inch-thick by seven-inch-wide metal strips were alternately laid horizontally and vertically were place on the exterior of the wooden hull. Her builders and crew believed she would be invincible and that with her dominance of the water ways leading inland from the Virginia coast up the James River, Richmond would be impervious to bombardment by Union naval ships.
Engineer White recalled, "Finally the great ship was reported ready for duty, and well do I remember the words that fell from the lips of our commander, Commodore Buchanan. He told us not to mistrust him; that he intended to do his duty, and expected the same from one and all on board." On midday of a calm, clear, bright Saturday on March 7, 1862, with a gentle breeze coming out the north-north-west and a slight ebb tide on the Elizabeth River, the CSS Virginia cast off from her moorings at the Navy yard on her maiden voyage.
C.S.S. Virginia (Merrimac)
The ship headed for Newport News, where she found the U.S. S. Cumberland and U. S. Congress lay at anchor, blockading the James River. The Union ships opened fire first and then every Federal gun within range of the Virginia joined in the enfilading of the ironclad, which reserved her heavy guns until the last moment to take maximum effect on the wooden warships.
"The Virginia's bow rifle was used with terrible effect; and, as he been frequently stated, opened a hole in the Cumberland large enough for a horse and cart to drive through. We made directly for the later vessel. When at probably fifty yards distance, with slackened speed, but with determined purpose, we moved on toward the gallant ship, and struck her the deadly blow," White wrote in his 1906 account of the battle.
"With probably one hundred guns firing upon us from various points, we came within two hundred yards of the now grounded Congress, upon which we opened fire. After we had delivered several well-directed shots that sent disaster to that ship, and many souls to their eternal home, she (the Congress) hoisted the white flag, and all firing ceased. Arrangements were then commenced for receiving the surrender and removing the dead and wounded from both the enemy's ship and our own," White continued.
"Before we had grounded, the Monitor was discovered coming out from where the Minnesota lay aground, appearing to us, as she has been called, "a cheese-box," or a "tin can on a shingle," White recalled. Lookouts soon recognized the Ericsson Monitor and the Virginia's guns opened fire. "Straight on she came toward us, and when in good position let loose her heavy guns, giving us a good shaking up. Thus she continued circling around us, and every now and then throwing the heavy missiles against out sides. We, in response, as she passed around, brought every gun aboard our ship to bear upon her. It was now "Greek meeting Greek, iron against iron," Engineer White proclaimed.
"Never before had ships met carrying such heavy guns. From both vessels the firing was executed with great rapidity and with equal skill, with but little effect on either side. However, our weak points seemed to be known to the commander of the Monitor, and so well did we attack these, that soon on the starboard midship, she so bent in our plating that the massive oak timbers were cracked," White wrote in his harrowing account of the battle.
Battle of the Iron Clads
"Then, with a settled determination to run the Monitor down, as a last resort, seeing that our shots were ineffective, I was directed to convey to the engine room orders for every man to be at his post. We caught and did run into the Monitor, and came near running her under the water with our starboard bow, drove against her with a determination of sending her to the bottom, and so near did we come to accomplishing our object that from the ramming, White recollected." The victorious crew waited for the return of her beleaguered adversary. The crew of the victorious Virginia acknowledged the thundering saluting shouts of those who witnessed the tremendous triumph from the shores.
By late afternoon, the Virginia was back at the Navy Yard. "The grand old ship was a picture to behold. You could hardly put your hand on a spot on the sides, or smokestack, that had not been battered by the shot of our enemy," White remembered. After making badly needed major repairs, the Virginia was once again ready for action. With the fall of Yorktown and other Confederate fortifications along the lower James River, Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall, of Georgia, saw that the Virginia would not be able to travel upriver to safer positions toward Richmond. The ship was run aground above Craney Island.
"We had but two boats to land our large crew safely on shore; consequently we had to leave all our personal effects on board the steamer. I was one of ten selected to destroy the ship, and held the candle for Mr. Oliver, the gunner, to uncap the powder in the magazine to insure a quick explosion, and, necessarily, was among the last to leave her decks," the Confederate engineer sadly looked back.
"A more beautiful sight I never beheld than that great ship on fire, flames issuing from the port holes, through the gratings and smokestack-the conflagration was a sight ever to be remembered. Thus closed the life, on Saturday night, May 12, 1862, of our gallant ship," White lamented.
White resigned his commission later that summer and was transferred to duty aboard the C.S.S. Baltic in Mobile Bay. Nearer the end of the war, White rejoined the Infantry and participated in the battles in the defense of Atlanta.
Captain Ellsberry V. White returned to Portsmouth after the war where he worked in the hardware business for the rest of his life, which ended on February 28, 1919.