HAMPTON ROADS, Va. — No one watching the Union fleet in Hampton Roads in late April 1864 could have failed to notice when it began to swell to historic proportions.
Stretching out nearly 10 miles, the giant collection of warships, transports, auxiliary vessels and barges boasted at least 120 hulls and ranked among the biggest armadas ever seen in the world's greatest harbor.
Just as striking as its leviathan size were all the new ships that had arrived just in time to demonstrate the industrial and military prowess of what was fast becoming one of the planet's most powerful navies.
Longer, faster and far more lethal than the pioneering ironclad USS Monitor, the double-turreted USS Onondaga dropped anchor off 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.
Five days later, the single-turret ironclad USS Tecumseh arrived from New Jersey with its two 15-inch guns — and it was followed by two sister ships from the much-improved 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 iron monsters were four recently commissioned warships of the new Sassacus class — soon to be joined by a fifth — and all of which gave the Navy a squadron of fast, well-armed "double-enders" specifically designed for riverine and coastal warfare.
Then there was the USS Atlanta, a Confederate ironclad ram that had been captured in mid-1863 and pressed into service.
Combined with the existing warships of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron — which included 20 or more steam frigates, converted ferries and armed tugs — the fleet assembled off Fort Monroe and Newport News represented a stout answer to the fearsome trio of Confederate ironclads the Army of the James and the Navy expected to face as they steamed up river toward Richmond.
And when you added 60 to 80 army transport ships as well as a dozen gunboats from Brig. Gen. Charles K. Graham's Hampton Roads Naval Brigade, the sprawling, almost chaotic image of the fleet that appeared in Harper's Weekly was no exaggeration.
"This was a 10-mile-long fleet of ships and when it started up the James, the engines were roaring, the whistles were screaming and the bands were 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 the spectacle. The only thing missing from the Harper's illustration is the noise."
Building the fleet
Few people envisioned a fleet of such bewildering scale and multiplicity when the first Union ships took up their positions off Fort Monroe in 1861.
Barely a dozen hulls could be assembled for what would become one of the conflict's most critical naval stations — and most of those were unsuited for the task if not simply old and outmoded.
Designed for blue-water warfare, big steam frigates like the USS Minnesota drew too much water to move through the shallows of the Chesapeake Bay, Hampton Roads and the coastal strongholds that became the target of numerous amphibious expeditions launched from Fort Monroe.
So very early on the Union embarked on a buying spree that filled the gap with scores of newly armed and often armor-hardened ferry boats.
Among the biggest buyers was Navy Secretary Gideon Welles' brother-in-law — George T. Morgan — who purchased nearly 90 vessels on the New York City docks alone. But both Boston and Philadelphia contributed substantially to the improvised fleet of shoal-draft, often double-ended craft that could move in and out of tight channels and shallow landings in pursuit of blockade runners.
"Whoever decided to buy these ferry boats was nothing short of a genius," Gordon Calhoun of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum says.
"They went up and down the docks with cash in hand, buying every ship they can — and in a very short time they had a fleet of steam-powered gunboats that could go almost anywhere. The Army loved them, too, because they could carry troops."
Outfitted with heavy naval guns, the ferries played a critical role in the April 1863 Siege of Suffolk, where they helped stymie the Confederate attack by surprising and overpowering the garrison of a strategic fort on the Nansemond River.
They also made the difference in a large expedition launched from Yorktown that October, when they sealed off Mathews County while land forces searched house-to-house for a clandestine band of Confederate merchant ship raiders.
"Early on they'd outfit them with an old 32-pound naval gun — or an even older 24-pound smoothbore. But then they started to get 9- and 11-inch Dahlgrens — which were good weapons — and even 100 and 200-pound rifled Parrot guns," Calhoun said.
"So they could usually outgun anything the Confederates had except for their very biggest forts."
Still, the comparatively slow speed and light construction of the make-do warships led the Union navy to design and construct scores of purpose-built shoal-draft gunboats, including the Sassacus-class double-enders that began reporting for duty in late 1863.
With rudders at both ends, these 205-feet-long, nearly 1,200-ton warships boasted unusual maneuverability as well as 14.5-knot speed, giving them the ability to chase down virtually any blockade runner in almost every kind of water.
Armed with 10 large guns, the sidewheelers also proved formidable when it came to battling Confederate shore batteries.
"They had much higher freeboard and much more firepower than the ferryboats," historian John V. Quarstein said, checking off the qualities that convinced Rear Adm. Samuel Phillips Lee to adopt the Sassacus-class USS Agawam as the blockading squadron's flagship.
"And they gave the Union a weapon it needed for such risky ventures as moving up the James."
Lurking in the river near Richmond was yet another reason for this build-up of Union naval muscle.
With the disastrous defeat inflicted by the ironclad CSS Virginia during the opening day of the March 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads still fresh in their minds, both Lee and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant knew they had to counter the trio of Confederate rams that guarded the approach to the South's capital.
And they began to ask for their own ironclads not long after meeting with Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler at Fort Monroe on April 1 to plan their James River campaign.
"All the cooperation the Navy can give, we want," Grant wrote his chief of staff a week later.
"Two of the ironclads are wanted as soon as they can be got."
By the time Welles was finished, the Union had added not only the double-turreted Onondaga but also three Canonicus-class monitors. They were joined by the captured Atlanta and its powerful rifled guns.
Yet even this extra metal failed to reassure some observers cowed by rumors about the enemy's strength and numbers.
"The Union was incredibly worried about the Confederate ironclads in the James," Calhoun said.
"They were preparing to fight a 'doomsday fleet' — and they didn't want anything to go wrong."
Greatly improved over the original Monitor, the new Union ironclads were significantly longer, more stable and better armed, Holloway says.
And combined with the Sassacus-class double-enders, they may have given the North an advantage in any clash with the Confederate warships alone.
But one day after the great mass of transport ships pulled away from the Union camps at Yorktown and Gloucester Point on May 5 — then joined their escorts at Fort Monroe and Newport News Point for the trip toward City Point — another deadly threat erupted from beneath the waters of the James.
Detonated from shore by a hidden electrical wire, a submerged torpedo packed with 400 pounds of gunpowder exploded under the hull of the USS Commodore Jones, underscoring the lethal and nerve-wracking nature of yet another pioneering weapon.
"Witnesses said the paddle wheels were still turning as the boat was blown high up into the air on this huge column of water," Holloway said, describing a blast that killed 75 Union sailors.
"Then it started to come apart in pieces — with all these broken body parts raining back down into the water. It was a truly horrifying attack."