"I wish you would take a glass and have a look over there, sir. I believe that thing is a-coming at last."
- Edward Shippen, quartermaster of the USS Congress, just hours before the rebel ironclad Virginia destroyed his ship
CSS Virginia eased from its Elizabeth River berth on March 8, 1862. For most of the officers and all of the crew, this clear, mild, late- winter morning heralded nothing more than the trials of an untested ship making its maiden voyage.
Even the chief engineer, H. Ashton Ramsay, paid more attention to correcting the ponderous ironclad's balky steering and struggling engines than to the momentous plans taking shape in the mind of his captain.
"At that time nothing was known of our destination," Ramsay later wrote. "All we knew is that we were off at last."
Across the water, on the other side of Hampton Roads, the powerful Federal blockading fleet lay hidden in clouds of uniforms left to dry by its sailors. Saturday was wash day in the Union Navy, and - following tradition - the starboard rigging of each vessel hung thick with seamen's whites while the port side blossomed with blues.
That strange and colorful sight had just come into view when Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, the crusty first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, stepped onto the gundeck of the Virginia. His ship was edging past Craney Island when he told his crew to prepare for battle.
His unexpected words - "Go to your guns!" - marked the beginning of what, for many years, would be the bloodiest and most shocking defeat in American naval warfare. Five hours later, two major Union vessels would lie burning or sunken at the bottom of the James River off Newport News. Nearly 300 Yankee sailors would be missing, wounded or dead.
In the first clash between traditional wooden fighting ships and a steam-powered ironclad, these lopsided results left little doubt about which was the stronger.
"Everybody knew a battle like this was going to happen one day, but no one imagined the impact it would have when it finally did," says historian John V. Quarstein, director of the Virginia War Museum.
"In terms of shock, in terms of loss, in terms of historical significance - this was like Pearl Harbor. People couldn't believe it."
More than 135 years later, scholars still puzzle over the Union's lack of preparedness for the historic battle.
Rumors regarding the Virginia's completion had been circulating on the north side of Hampton Roads for weeks. Just the day before, Washington had sent word that the ironclad had taken on a crew and raised its flags.
Still, the first eyes to spot the ship belonged to the officers of the French sloop-of-war Gassendi, one of the many foreign vessels that had waited months for the promised clash between the Virginia and the USS Monitor, the experimental Union ironclad. More than 15 minutes passed before the confused Federal fleet recognized the threat and fired a warning signal.
One Northern sailor later recalled his astonishment at the sight, comparing the black iron case mate of the Virginia to "the roof of a very big barn belching forth smoke as from a chimney on fire."
Pilot A.B. Smith, stationed aboard the USS Cumberland, had an even more sinister description.
"As she came ploughing through the water right onward toward our bow, she looked like a huge half-submerged crocodile," he said.
"It was impossible for our vessel to get out of the way."
Indeed, the ironclad's strange appearance wasn't the only factor that caught the Union commanders sleeping. No one seems to have expected the kind of attack made by the wily and determined Buchanan.
Part 2 of 5