Thursday, March 9, 2017

On This Day in 1862: Battle of Hampton Roads

155 years ago today
The Monitor and the Virginia (Merrimack)
Battle of Hampton Roads, James River Harbor, Virginia

On March 9, 1862--155 years ago today-- was a face-off between two very strange boats that forever changed war at sea...the clash of the ironclad vessels USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. As these two unconventional ships approached each other in the harbor of the James River, it must have been a strange sight to the Union and Confederate supporters watching from the shore. For no one had ever seen such vessels afloat.

The Virginia was actually a salvaged Union frigate called the Merrimack that had been sunk and later raised by Confederates. Her hull was cut away and covered with angled sheets of metal, called "a floating barn roof" by observers. The plating protected everything except her smokestack, with shuttered gun ports hiding six Dahlgren smoothbore guns, two 6-inch Brooke rifles and two more 6.4-inch Brooke rifles.  She had spent the previous day decimating the Union Navy's fleet of wooden ships, totally destroying a 50-gun frigate and a sloop, and running another frigate aground.  Shots simply bounced off her sloping armored sides.

Her adversary the Monitor was not a ship, so much as it was a barge, running so low in the water that waves broke across her flat deck. Not an elegant vessel, it was jokingly called a "Yankee cheese box on a raft." Its only feature was a revolving turret with two large guns that could only be fired once every seven or eight minutes. The iron plating on the hull was covered in rounded rivets like the bumpy skin of a toad.

Though very different in appearance, the ships could not have been more evenly matched. The two bizarre ships circled round and round, Monitor's revolving turret rotating to keep its two guns sighted as Virginia tried to position herself to broadside Monitor with her fixed guns. They fired volley after volley at almost point-blank range, but neither boat was able to cause crippling damage and there was no clear victor. But ship to ship combat would never be the same.

The age of the wooden warship was over in a day. This was, for all intents and purposes, the start of a new age in sea battles.

It is hard to imagine the sweltering heat the gun crews had to tolerate in their wool uniforms, the deafening noise of black powder cannons inside the metal ships, and the shock of those solid iron cannonballs bouncing off the outer hull.  These sailors were very rugged individuals, to sail on an ironclad ship required a will of iron.

A recreation of this battle only appears in one movie that I know of, a film from 1991 called IRONCLADS. I like to watch dramatizations of historical events, so here's the edited scenes of the battle for your entertainment.

On This Day 3 Years Ago

This post came up in my Facebook timeline from today in 2014 and I thought I'd share it...

The "drill till you drop" weekend at Fort Mifflin with Company C of the 28th PA Infantry was significantly better than last year, albeit much more wet and muddy.  I think we drilled about as much as any soldier would on a typical day in camp; pretty much continuously with less than an hour to rest in between each.  It's open to any unit in the Mifflin Guard, but only the 28th PA routinely does it. I was the only Bucktail.

Saturday night while the 28th was having their planning meeting and huddled around inside the bunker for some tight gossip, I decided to go take a walk. I was wandering about the fort like a sentry and saw a large group of Cub Scouts and parents come in to spend the night in the barracks around sunset. A bit later I was cleaning my rifle on the front porch, and the kids started to congregate around me, inspecting my uniform and equipment. So I located the janitor of the Fort and asked if he could unlock the closet where they keep the wooden muskets. Without further ado, I found a wooden crate to stand on and informed the crowd "By the orders of President Abraham Lincoln, on this day March 8, 1864 you are all hereby conscripted into the Federal Army!" Then I put all my gear and wool coat on several of the kids, photos were taken and I gave my musket to each kid in line, to let him hold it briefly and see how heavy it was.

About an hour later I seem to have gotten a field promotion to First Sergeant, as I was instructing 2 5-man "rifle squads" in Casey's manual! Yelling out the right orders was not easy, but the parents told me I did an impressive job. First time ever trying to act as an NCO. We even did an imaginary bayonet charge toward the wall at the end. By midnight, I found myself sharing grilled hot dogs and snacks around an enormous bonfire and talking to the den leaders. Everytime one of the kids walked by they said "by the're awesome." 

Everyone stayed up super late past their bedtime but I think a good time was had by all.

A weekend well spent. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Sounds of War: What It Was Like to be Shelled By Artillery

We've all seen the cannons blank firing at reenactments. You cover your ears, you feel the shock wave of the explosion that punches you in the chest, you see a puff of smoke, maybe a smoke ring and that's it.  Well, keep in mind that these 1-pound powder loads are only half of what was considered full military power. So the noise we hear is only half as loud. We also don't hear the shells whistling downrange and the jarring impacts when they hit, a frightening experience that traumatized countless Civil War soldiers. While it is difficult to imagine getting shelled by over a hundred cannon at once during the battle of Gettysburg, some highly trained reenactors get to reproduce it on a small scale by live firing artillery pieces.

I have collected some videos here with examples of live firing explosive shells from Civil War cannons, using full military powder loads, and with cameras placed near the impact site. Also included is an attempt to simulate digitally what being shelled by 150 cannons on July 3, 1863 may have sounded like.

This is a more visceral experience than you will never get at a reenactment.

Live firing full military powder loads from parrot guns at the annual Historic Artillery Match, Camp Grayling Michigan National Guard Base:

Downrange shell bursts by 5th Massachusetts Battery at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin in 1990:

Special live fire target shooting against 55 gallon drums at Antietam battlefield:

A computer simulation of what Pickett's Charge artillery may have sounded like (best heard on a home theater system):