Thursday, December 18, 2014

Rails & Sails customs feature Civil War ironclads

The Civil War Centennial was right in my wheelhouse when I was a kid. I was 10 years old when the centennial began in 1961. Like most 10-year-old boys in that era, I was enthralled with the idea of war, at least in the abstract.

On the block where I lived there was a large -- about 6' x 4' x 1.5' -- red granite monument marking the area as Camp Hamilton, where Union troops gathered before being marched southwest to Madison to join the war. 

Nearby, the alley behind Mrs. Thompson's house, there was another piece of granite, roughly hewn and unmarked, that looked very much like a double headstone. It was rumored among us kids that it was, indeed, a gravestone, marking the final resting place for two Yankee soldiers who never made it out of Camp Hamilton.

I was very much into the Civil War. Of course I collected the 1962 Topps Civil War News bubblegum cards. I had the 1961 Milton Bradley Civil War board game Battle-Cry.

For Christmas one year I received the large Blue and Gray playset from Marx. I had a color-by-number set of Civil War pictures (I tried unsuccessfully recently to find one on eBay). For a couple of summers our games of Cowboys and Indians and Cops and Robbers were changed to Yanks vs. Rebs. 

One year for my birthday my Aunt Corrine bought me the huge American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. I wore that book out. And while my oldest brother wound up with it when my parents sold their home, I was able to pick up another copy a few years ago at Goodwill.

Like any juvenile Civil War buff of the day, I was fascinated by the alliteratively appealing but inaccurately named battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack.

When I recently began working on creating custom cards for some of my favorite childhood non-sports card sets, I discovered that the original 1955 Topps Rails and Sails set had no entry in its checklist for these Civil War ironclads.

So I recently made it my business to make those historic warships a latter-day addition to the R&S set.

In doing my research for the ships' histories on my card backs I was surprised at how little I really knew about that historic naval battle. You can go into as great a depth of that story as you like with a little google-searching, so I'll just present my version of cliff notes on the subject.

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When the U.S. Navy abandoned the Norfolk Navy Yard to Virginia troops at the opening of the war, they scuttled the steam frigate U.S.S. Merrimack, burning it to the waterline.

The newly formed Confederate navy raised the hulk and, discovering that the hull and mechanics were still intact, refitted her as an ironclad ram. Up to 4" of iron armor was added, along with 10 cannons and a ram. 

By mid-February, 1862, renamed as the C.S.S. Virginia, she was commissioned to break the Yankee blockade of the Norfolk area.

Union spies had relayed details of the construction of the ironclad to Washington. The U.S. Navy rightly feared for the horrible vulnerability of its unarmored wooden vessels when facing a hostile ironclad. The Union press demanded immediate action, fearing that the rebels' ironclad warship would smash through the James River blockade, sweep the U.S. Navy from Chesapeake Bay and steam unchallenged up the Potomac into the heart of Washington, D.C. 

The navy plunged into construction of its own ironclad. In little more than 100 days, the U.S.S. Monitor left the Brooklyn Naval Yard on its way to Hampton Roads, Virginia. 

Due to perilous sea conditions, the Monitor was a day too late.

On April 8 the Virginia engaged the blockading U.S. fleet. She rammed and sank the sloop Cumberland, shelled the frigate Congress into submission and fired the Minnesota, which had run aground trying to evade the ironclad behemoth. Darkness prevented further decimation of the U.S. fleet. 

When the fog lifted the next morning, the Virginia set out to complete its mission. She was surprised when, from behind the still-burning Minnesota, the oddly configured Monitor steamed into view.

For four hours the ironclads threw shot and shell at each other, sometimes only a few yards between them. When the engagement broke off as the ships exhausted their supplies of ammunition, there was no structural damage to either ship and no fatalities among their crews. The Monitor had preserved the blockade and was hailed by the press as the "ship that saved the Union."

For several weeks the ships eyed each other warily, occasionally tossing desultory shots, but they engaged in no further significant action. The Monitor had taken refuge under the guns of the Union's Ft. Monroe. The Confederate ironclad had proven its invulnerability to the guns aboard U.S. Navy ships, but was unwilling to come under the fire of the larger shore batteries. The Virginia made repeated unsuccessful attempts to draw the Monitor into open water to effect a plan to capture the Yankee ironclad with a minimal boarding party.

When Confederate forces withdrew from the Norfolk area in early May, they scuttled the Virginia. The ironclad was too large to navigate the rivers and basically unfit to put out to sea. 

The Monitor did not survive the year, as well. She had remained in the Hampton Roads area to support Gen. George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, then was ordered south in December to participate in the blockade of Charleston. In a storm at sea, the Monitor sank near Cape Hatteras, N.C.

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Since this background has already run so long, I'll wait until next time to show you my Rails and Sails Monitor and Virginia custom creations.

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