Huge Union fleet filled Hampton Roads for May 1864 strike up the James

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — No one watching the Union fleet from the shores of Hampton Roads in late April 1864 could have failed to notice when it began to swell to historic proportions.

Stretching out over 10 miles, the giant collection of more than 200 warships, transports, auxiliary vessels and barges ranked among the largest — and was possibly the very largest armada ever to assemble in the harbor.

And just as impressive as its leviathan size was the number of newly built and commissioned ships that had arrived from Northern yards just in time to demonstrate the industrial, technological and military prowess of what was fast becoming one of of the world's most powerful navies.

Longer, swifter and far more stable and lethal than the pioneering ironclad USS Monitor, the double-turreted USS Onondaga arrived at Fort Monroe on April 23 — barely a month after it was commissioned in New York — and boasted not just two but two pairs of 15-inch Dahlgren guns capable of piercing the thickest Confederate armor.

Just five days later, the equally new single-turret ironclad USS Tecumseh arrived from New Jersey with two more formidable 15-inch smoothbore guns — and it was followed in short order by two other sister ships from the much-improved-upon Canonicus class of monitors, including the USS Saugus from Delaware on May 1 and the USS Canonicus from Boston on the 3rd.

Arriving alongside these metal monsters were four recently commissioned warships of the new Sassacus class  — soon to joined by a fifth — and all of which provided the Union Navy with a fast, shoal-draft and well-armed "double-ender" that was specifically designed for the difficult waters of riverine and harbor warfare.

Then there was the recently recommissioned USS Atlanta, a powerful casemated Confederate ironclad that had been captured intact in the summer of 1863 and converted for the preservation of the Union.

Combined with the existing warships of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron — which included steam frigates, converted ferries and other kinds of improvised gunboats numbering in the scores — the fleet assembled off Fort Monroe and Newport News boasted more than enough firepower to face the fearsome trio of Confederate ironclads that lurked in the upper reaches of the James River near Richmond.

And when you added nearly 60 army transport ships as well as a dozen more gunboats from Brig. Gen. Charles K. Graham's Hampton Roads Naval Brigade, even the sprawling, almost chaotic image of the fleet that appeared in the pages of Harper's Weekly on May 21, 1864 was not an exaggeration.

"This was a 10-mile-long fleet of ships. and when it started up the James, the engines were roaring, the steam whistles were screaming and the bands were all on deck playing," says Anna Gibson Holloway, curator of the USS Monitor Center at The Mariner's Museum.

"People on shore stopped in their tracks to take in this tremendous spectacle. The only thing missing from the Harper's illustration is the noise."

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