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 transports, auxiliary vessels, barges and warships 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 was the number of new ships that had arrived just in time to demonstrate the industrial and military prowess of what was fast becoming one of the most powerful navies on the planet.
Longer, faster and far more stable and lethal than the pioneering ironclad USS Monitor, the double-turreted USS Onondaga steamed into the anchorage 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 new single-turret ironclad USS Tecumseh arrived from New Jersey with two more 15-inch guns — and it was followed in short order by two 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 iron monsters were four recently commissioned warships of the new Sassacus class — soon to joined by a fifth — and all of which combined to give the Navy a squadron of fast, well-armed “double-enders” specifically designed for the shoals of riverine and harbor warfare.
Then there was the USS Atlanta, a powerful casemated Confederate ironclad ram that had been captured in mid-1863 and pressed into service for the Union.
Combined with the existing warships of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron — which included 20 or more steam frigates, converted ferries and other kinds of improvised gunboats — the fleet assembled off Fort Monroe and Newport News represented a stout answer to the fearsome trio of Confederate ironclads that lurked in the upper reaches of the James River.
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 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 the spectacle. The only thing missing from the Harper's illustration is the noise.”
You can find more on the Army of the James, the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and the launch of the Bermuda Hundred Campaign in an early May edition of the Daily Press.
-- Mark St. John Erickson