Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Calm Before the Storm, March 7, 1862

This calm and pleasant scene of the Union shore batteries at Newport News is brought to you by the fine folks at Harper's Weekly. An artist sketched this on March 7, 1862, the day before CSS Virginia and friends rained havoc upon the Union squadron. At left is the sail frigate USS Congress and at right is the sail sloop-of-war USS Cumberland. In between is the gunboat USS Louisiana. The Navy had placed the ships there as the first line of defense against anything that would come out of the Elizabeth River. Upon seeing the ships at anchor, Virginia's executive officer Catesby ap Roger Jones later remarked, "Cumberland and Congress were tempting targets."

The engraving illustrates just how calm the weather was (on this day at least). Union soldiers and sailors had had to suffer through a major rain and sleet storm the week before. Captain John Martson, the senior U.S. Naval officer in charge, even had the sailors deck all the ships out in ceremonial bunting during the storm in honor of George Washington's birthday.

To be sure, everyone knew the Confederates were building a new weapon. Union officers debated how capable this new weapon would be. Virginia's commanding officer Commodore Franklin Buchanan wanted to find out sooner rather than later. Due to the bad weather, his pilots and junior officers advised against it. He agreed to wait until March 8.

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