28 May 2006 | theowinthrop
The only film made on this historic event
In 1900, if one was studying the Civil War, an American student would have had some very brief discussion of the slavery issue. It would have mentioned the North was opposed to it, and the South favored it. That brief discussion would have been it - nothing further about slavery.
The heroes and heroines of the war would have been more detailed. Grant, Lee, Sherman, Jackson, Lincoln, Davis would have been mentioned. So would have Farragut, Buchanan, David Porter, Semmes, Sheridan, Early, Joseph and Albert Johnston, John Bell Hood, Longstreet,McClellan, Hooker, Meade, Bragg, Rosecrans, Thomas, Schofield, Custer, A.P. and D.H. Hill...an endless list of heroes. It's doubtful if Frederick Douglas or Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman would have been mentioned (except in Black schools). John Brown would have to be mentioned because of the raid on Harper's Ferry, but his reputation would have been different in the school depending on who discussed him. The majority of these names were dropped out of discussions of that war by the time that the "baby boomers" generation showed up (1944 - 1970). Even the success of Ken Burn's CIVIL WAR series has not pushed these names back into the classrooms.
The naval portion of the war was always limited. There were many ship to ship fights, but the only commander on the Northern side who became truly famous was David Glasgow Farragut, who won a series of naval victories, most noteworthy at New Orleans in 1862 and at Mobile Bay in 1864 (capped by his quote: "Damn the Torpedoes and Full Speed Ahead!). He certainly deserves our respect for his work. The best remembered Confederate naval hero was (of course) Captain (later C.S.S. Admiral) Raphael Semmes, who (while commanding the C.S.S. Alabama) became the greatest commerce raider in our history.
But the naval battles we recall today were not under these men. They involved two experimental ironclad warships - C.S.S. Virginia and U.S.S. Monitor - off Hampton Roads, Virginia, and the sinking of the U.S.S. Housatonic off Charleston by the Confererate submarine C.S.S. Hunley.
We do not recall the two commanders at Hampton Roads (Confederate Commodore Franklin Buchanan and Union Lt. John Worden). Neither really demonstrated a flair for tactics, as they slugged it out on March 9, 1862. They really did not quite know what to do with their two machines. The "cheesbox" turret of the Monitor was hit once or twice, but it's swiveling action prevented real damage. The thick armor plating of the Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimac) was dented occasionally, but it was not breached. The battle was a draw - but it showed that battleships would have to be metal from now on. The reason was the comparative one: The Virginia/Merrimac had attacked the Union fleet on March 8, 1862 at Hampton Roads, and sunk the U.S.S. Cumberland and the U.S.S. Congress, and caused the U.S.S. Minnesota to run aground. Up to Pearl Harbor that was the worst naval disaster inflicted by an enemy on the U.S. navy. But those ships were wooden.
The Second Battle of Hampton Roads became a textbook battle in naval history from the point of view of innovation - not tactics. It's full effect is a little exaggerated: Both Britain and France had started building iron hulled warships like H.M.S. Warrior before 1860. But none had been tested in battle. Now everyone knew what to expect. The subsequent Hunley experiment showed another step forward in naval warfare: one underwater one.
Oddly the Monitor/Merrimac fight has rarely been discussed in movies. A "B-feature" was made in the 1930s that showed the battle at the end. And there is this passable film made in 1991 by Ted Turner's production company for T.N.T. It is best showing the difficulties of the North dealing with the builder of U.S.S. Monitor, the gifted Swedish inventor John Ericcson, who was an egomaniac. Ericcson is played by Fritz Weaver, who gives a nice performance. But it is not the central portion of the film. The battle concludes it. I'm giving a "7" for Weaver's performance, and for a brief, sad moment (well handled) when E.G.Marshall realizes that his son is dead. Marshall's son commanded the Cumberland, and he realizes that if the ship sank the son has to be gone (he is).
In all the hoopla of the finding of the "Hunley" and it's restoration in Charleston, few noticed that the Monitor's wreck (off Cape Hatteras) was found in the 1970s, and (in the face of deterioration) the turret and other portions of the wreck were raised and are being restored at Hampton Roads. The Merrimac had to be blown up in May 1862 to prevent it being seized by the North. Some fragments of that ironclad still exist.