The Confederacy almost turned the naval balance of power around when it was the first to commission an operational ironclad. On the morning of March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginia (Merrimack) sailed toward the entrance of the James River, attacking the wooden ships of the Union fleet. Panic spread throughout Washington as news of the destruction of the wooden ships flowed into the city. Washingtonians waited to be shelled by the ironclad monster. An officer asked President Lincoln, “Who is to prevent her from dropping her anchor in the Potomac…and throwing her hundred pound shells into this room, or battering down the walls of the Capitol?” Lincoln replied, “The Almighty,” but together with members of his cabinet continued looking anxiously down the Potomac for a sign of the CSS Virginia.
Actually the heavy, ponderous Virginia,with its deep draft, was probably incapable of sailing up the Potomac. The more seaworthy CSS Stonewall, purchased in Europe and commissioned late in the war, was the type of ocean going ironclad cruiser that could have destroyed the Union blockade and bombarded Washington, Philadelphia and New York.
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