Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Author John Quarstein Presents on Civil War Battle of the Ironclads - USS Monitor vs. CSS Virginia

Historian John V. Quarstein
Author and Historian John V. Quarstein, by Reed A. George
Panasonic DMC-G3, Pana-Leica 25mm f1.4 Summilux
iso400, f2.5, 1/40 sec
by the way, the eyepatch is temporary...

As you may know, I have an interest in the US Civil War, and have undertaken a project to photograph my interpretations of the 150th anniversary. In that pursuit, I decided to attend my first "Loudoun County Civil War Roundtable" meeting on March 13, 2012, at the Thomas Balch Library in Leesburg, Virginia.

Our speaker was John V. Quarstein, who talked about the battle of the ironclad ships, the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (formerly known as the Merrimack), in Hampton Roads, Virginia, in early March of 1862.

This guy knows his stuff. Presenting completely from memory, remembering every important character and their personal history, every gun type involved, and plenty of fun side notes, John speaks with extreme energy and emphasis. He effectively engages a room, even when talking about history on a Tuesday night.

There is way too much information to me to even give a modest account of it here. However, there were some interesting themes and notes. Most importantly, this period in maritime warfare saw the transition from sails to steam power, first with the paddlewheel, which was too easy to disable with cannon fire, then the screw propeller, which allowed all of the powertrain to be kept underwater. It also saw the change from smooth bore cannon to "shell guns," firing explosive shells that wreaked havoc on wooden boats like nothing before.

The CSS Virginia, on which John has written a book, started out as the Merrimack. After being burned and sunk at Norfolk (then called "Gosport Navy Yard"), it was resurrected, outfitted with 790 tons of iron shieldeing and all new guns, and a ram. The ram was used to sink the Union ship "Cumberland." The Virginia sunk multiple wooden ships in its first day of battle, operating under a flag that read "Sink Before Surrender." And sink it almost did. But, it was magnificently successful against the wooden fleet. After that first day, the Flag of Congress from one of its targets was hand-delivered to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The Monitor, the Union's own 171 foot ironclad, engaged the Virginia in heated battle for several hours the following day. Both ships were seriously damaged, and both claimed victory at the end of the day. While both sides suffered damage, the Virginia continued in its service, protecting both Norfolk and Richmond from attack by water by patrolling and controlling the mouth of the James River, and seriously slowing Union Major General McClellan's "Peninsula Campaign."

Well, I'm sold. I bought the book, got it signed, and joined the roundtable. I am certain this group will provide useful information and engaging talks to keep me going on my Civil War Sesquicentenial project.

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