An unusual engagement in the Civil War took place off Hampton Roads, Virginia, on March 9, 1862, between two ironclad vessels, the Confederate Virginia (formerly USS Merrimac) and the Union's USS Monitor, known also as the "Ericsson Battery," named after its inventer John Ericsson. On March 8 the Virginia had sunk the wooden Union ship Cumberland and badly damaged the Congress.When the Virginia returned on the following day to engage the federal ship Minnesota, she was intercepted by the USS Monitor. What resulted was a 5-hour battle, the first such engagement between two ironclad vessels. The ships fought to a draw and the Virginia was compelled to return to Norfolk.
The incident immediately captured everyone's attention. Newspapers published the news in detail, including military reports and eye-witness accounts. In New York, the Times(March 10, 1862, 1), published a description of the battle:
The Monitor arrived at 10 P.M., last night, and went immediately to the protection of the Minnesota, lying aground just below Newport's News, at 7 A.M. today. The Merrimac, accompanied by two wooden steamers, the Yorktown and Jamestown,and several tugs, stood out toward the Minnesota, and opened fire. The Monitor met them at once, and opened fire, when the enemy's vessels retired, excepting the Merrimac. The two iron-clad vessels fought, part of the time touching each other, from 8 A.M. till noon, when the Merrimac retreated. Whether she is injured, or not, it is impossible to say.
And on the following day the newspaper published this first-hand account:
The Chief-Engineer of the Monitor say that three balls from that vessel passed through the Merrimac. The Monitor suffered very little, although she was struck 23 times. (New York Times, March 11, 1862, 8.)
To beef up its coverage of the event, the Times also published a map on March10 (p. 8) showing "the locality of the great maritime action in Hampton Roads" and on the following day printed an editorial, under the heading "Iron-Clad Vessels" that argued for the importance of this type of vessel in the Union arsenal. Yet other stories focused on Capt. Ericsson and specifics regarding the dimensions of the ship and her armaments. With such intensive coverage and headlines reading "The Monitor Uninjured" and "The Terrific Engagement Between the Merrimac and Monitor," New Yorkers were struck with wonder and curiosity as information of the ironclads' battle continued to unfold.
The Times whetted the public's appetite for more by printing the following editorial, with vivid wording:
For a Sea-piece, that fulfills all the conditions of dramatic art as completely as it is possible for a real event to do, commend us to the recital of the battle of Hampton roads, which we publish to-day. Aristotle himself could not ask a nicer observance of the unities than it displays; and it needs no aid from the playwright's craft to throw the series of naval actions that took place off Newport's News, on Saturday, between noon and night, into the form of a dramatic composition, perfect in design and execution, with its beginning, middle and end, and its moral lesson all included.
The scene opens with the sudden appearance in Hampton roads of that mysterious marine monster, the Merrimac, and two attendant rebel war-dogs. Down they come, belching fire and destruction, and heading straight towards the National fleet that lay at anchor in the roads. Imagine the thrill of terror that ran through their wooden walls as the terrible mailed monster made his appearance. Such as had stream to aid their flight, hastily rushed, like herring chased by a shark, for the protecting guns of fortress Monroe; but alas for those that had not! Two fine old sailing frigates lay at anchor off Newport's News-- the Congress and the Cumberland. Into the latter the Iron-clad steamer plunged her steel plow, crashing through the frigate's bow, sinking her instantly, and it is said, carrying down half her crew of five hundred souls. Later accounts diminish this tragic catastrophe to one hundred men. Let us trust that further reports will show this to be still an exaggerated number. The other frigate, the Congress,was next attacked in turn, and after pouring in a shower of shot, which rained like pebbles on the mailed sides of the Merrimac, she surrendered. The events which immediately succeed are but obscurely reported in the telegraphic dispatches; but we catch glimpses of a scene that is painfully durk and disastrous. The National steamers that had taken to flight on the approach of the Merrimac appear all to have grounded on the way between Newport's News and Fortress Monroe; and it seems inevitable that the iron-sheathed annihilator shall go on destroying each in turn, and make her way out to sea, to descend in a new destroying avatar on the blockading fleet along the coast.
In the midst of this gloomy scene the exclamations which spontaneously leaps to the lips is, "Where is the Ericsson Battery?" It alone is able to cope with this destructive monster. Sudden as the realizations of a fairy tale the Battery makes her appearance. A aeus ex machina! one may well exclaim. Here, indeed, is a knight in mail fit to cope with Sir Merrimac. At this most critical and interesting "situation" the telegraph becomes tantalizingly brief; but we learn that the Battery made its appearance late in the evening and put her iron sides between our vessels and the enemy. Yesterday morning the fight began, and the Battery, after engaging the Merrimac and the two rebel gunboats, in a five hours' action, put them all to flight, the Merrimac slinking off "in a sinking condition." The timing of the action is really so nice that it sounds like a romance, and one might well be incredulous, were not our tidings official, and were it not known that the Ericcson Battery sailed from New-York last week for Fortress Monroe, with the express purpose of going up to Norfolk and bearding the monster in his den. Her arrival was certainly in the very nick of time, and the result one which does honor not only to the officers and men, but to the ingenious inventor who shaped the victorious creation of naval art. . . .(New York Times, March 10, 1862, 4.)
Not long thereafter, Joseph G. Edge and Isaac Edge, fireworks manufacturers located on 37 Maiden Lane in Jersey City, New York Times (July 2, 1862, 6) began making plans for submitting a bid for the forthcoming Fourth of July celebration in New York to the Common Council there. With other pyrotechnists also submitting bids to the Common Council, the competition for winning the contract was keen. Accordingly, the Edges came up with the idea of having a pyrotechnic battle reenactment of the Monitor and Merrimac. It was a timely idea and would certainly bring attention to their bid.
For the 1862 New York celebration, the Common Council provided $6000 to fund 18 separate fireworks displays located throughout the city. The City Hall display was considered the most important and had the most money provided at $950 (New York Evening Post, July 3, 1862, 2). The best pyrotechnist bid submitted would win the contract for the City Hall display. The Edges were awarded the fireworks contract and worked together with the Common Council to put together an exciting program. A "Programme of Arrangements" advertised by the Edges promised that the fireworks would be "equal, if it does not surpass anything of the kind ever attempted in this City." (New York Times,4 July 1862, 6.) To add to the evening festivities, Connell's Band was engaged to play favorite melodies as an accompanyment to the fireworks.
On the evening of the event, thousands of people scurried about in order to claim the best vantage point for viewing the fireworks. The evening was clear, the weather fine.
The evening was as charming as the day, and the moonlight, while sufficiently strong to facilitate travel, was not bright enough to interfere with the transitory splendors of the pyrotechnist's art. (New York Evening Post,5 July 1862, 2.)
The principal point of display was the City Hall, and by eight o'clock the Park was crowded, and Broadway, Park row and Printing House square so choked up with people that the cars and omnibuses were unable to pass. A band was stationed on a platform and performed the national melodies during the exhibition, which included about a score of pieces. (Ibid., 5 July 1862, 2)
Some of the exhibit pieces included the "Monument of Pharoah," the "Magician's circle," and others. As the reviewer stated, "Most of the pieces appealed to fancy than to reason."
Regarding the battle of the ironclads display,
These two renowned vessels were perched high up on poles, opposite the wings of the City Hall, the former presenting her stern to Broadway, and the latter with her back indignantly turned towards Tammany Hall. The Merrimac opened the conflict by firing a few (Roman candle) balls at the Monitor, which now responded most vigourously, with the same dangerous projectile. It was a remarkable fact that though the Monitor's balls turned off towards the City Hall steps, they did as much damage as if they fairly hit the Merrimac, for soon the latter ceased firing, and gradually died out amid the cheers of the multitude, the Monitor declining to subside until several minutes later. (New York Evening Post,5 July 1862, 2.)
A description in the New York Times (6 July 1862, 2), under the heading "The Pyrotechnic Display," was equally descriptive:
The display of fireworks in the evening exceeded in taste and magnificence any exhibition within the memory of the "oldest inhabitant" of Manhattan Island. . . .At the City Hall the display was really worth the attendance of the tens of thousands assembled to witness it. A fine band of music was on duty, as at every other place where fireworks were exhibited, and kept down the impatience of the thousands who had come to see only the fireworks. The entire exhibition proved the correctness of the Committee's judgment in awarding to Messrs. Edge the duty and honor of preparing them. Having already published a list of the pieces intended to be presented, it is only necessary now to say that the entire programme was carried out to the letter, and to note those which received the most popular applause. All of the pieces were really magnificent, but those which elicited the greatest applause were the engagement between the Monitor and Merrimac, and the closing piece, a temple of Liberty, with Gen. McClellan as the centre piece, which was really a chef d'ouvre of pyrotechnic art. . . .
This page last updated May 20, 2008.
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