This week’s blog post features the large naval print of the Battle of Hampton Roads, often referred to as the Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack. This print, entitled The First Naval Conflict Between Iron Clad Vessels. In Hampton Roads, March 9th, 1862., is a three stone lithograph of one of the most important naval battles of the Civil War.
The Battle of Hampton Roads was fought over two days, from March 8 to March 9, in 1862, in Hampton Roads. Hampton Roads is a roadstead in Virginia where the Elizabeth River and the Nansemond Rivers meet the James River, just as it enters the Chesapeake Bay. It was at this location that the Union forces had established a blockade. As a result, two of Virginia’s most populous cities- Norfolk and Richmond, both under control of the Confederacy, were cut off from all international trade. In effort to end this blockade, a naval push from the Confederacy set out to destroy the fleet of Union ships. While the battle ended in a somewhat anticlimactic fashion, the significance awarded this battle is immense, as it was the first meeting of two ironclad warships.
The Confederate fleet consisted of an ironclad ram, the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack), as well as a supporting fleet of wooden ships. The first day of battle situated the CSS Virginia against a fleet of the Union Navy’s conventional, wooden-hulled ships. Throughout the day, the CSS Virginia was successful in destroying two of the Union ships. The third Union ship, the USS Minnesota, had already been run aground, and had collected many injuries. Poised to finish the attack on the Minnesota, the Virginia was deterred by nightfall, falling tide, and an injured captain, Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan. On March 9, the Virginia returned to the fray with the mission to destroy the Minnesota. Unbeknownst to the Confederacy, the Union had sent the ironclad USS Monitor overnight to the blockaded area, in efforts to protect the Minnesota. When the Virginia approached in the morning, the Monitor intercepted her. For three hours, the two ironclads fought with little results. Unable to inflict significant damage to one another, the duel ended indecisively, with each ship sent back to its prospective ports and the blockade held firmly in place.
As a result of this battle, the two preeminent naval powers, Great Britain and France, halted further construction of their wooden-hulled ships, switching all production to iron-clad vessels. A new warship took precedence, based off the design of the USS Monitor. Shipbuilders started to incorporate rams into the design of the warship hulls and added a small number of very heavy guns onto the ship, mounted so they could fire in all directions.
This beautiful stone lithograph pays tribute to the battle, emphasizing the importance of a new naval technology. Along the border are eight vignettes, featuring scenes of the Monitor’s interior. Along the top border, an eagle with wings spread to reveal flowing American flags and beak grasping the symbolic ring of laurels, perches on a mound emblazed with the name “Ericson”. Responsible for the invention of the caloric engine used in the iron ships, Ericson is honored with a celebratory portrait to the left of the eagle and a depiction of his great invention to the right.
The main image features the Monitor and Merrimac on the water, with smoke and steam billowing from their tops. In the background are old wooden ships, a visual distinction that alludes to the old and new way of ship building. In the foreground, the open waters of Hampton Roads are choppy, the water’s flow disrupted by piercing stray bullets. A handsome, light-handed wash of muted yellows, grays, and blues applied to the water and sky acts as a stunning contrast to the dark iron of the two vessels, furthermore signifying their importance and supremacy.
Published in 1862 by Endicott & Co., a New-York based firm, the print was done by Charles Parsons to illustrate this very news-worth event. An American artist accomplished in both watercolor and lithography, Parsons apprenticed at the age of 15 in the lithographic studio of George Endicott, where he showed great skill and poise under the pressure of the studio’s fast-paced production. Parsons is now widely recognized for his naval scenes, as well as his long career working for both Currier and Ives and for Harper’s Weekly. Serving as creative director for Harper’s, Parson’s talent and focus influenced artists like Winslow Homer, Edwin Abbey, and Fredrick Remington, to name a few.