During the first session of the 36th United States Congress (1859-61) that frequently and acrimoniously debated slavery, secession and war, the Ohioan John Sherman, serving as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, moved to slash a million dollars from the repairs and re-equipment portion of the Navy appropriation bill. The fiery abolitionist Owen Lovejoy backed him up, stating:
I am tired of appropriating money for the army and the navy when, absolutely, they are of no use whatsover…I want to strike a blow at this whole naval expenditure and let the navy go out of existence. (cited in Bruce Catton, The Coming Fury, Fall River Press. New York 2009., p. 24)
Owen Lovejoy should have known better. He was the leader of the Illinois abolitionists after his brother Elijah Lovejoy, likewise an abolitionist leader, had been murdered by a pro-slavery mob in 1837 while defending the printing press of an Illinois Anti-Slavery Society. Like so many politicians of his day, Owen Lovejoy knew, or at least suspected, that the increasingly radical and inflexible stands of the pro- and anti-slavery sections had had war all but inevitable.
Of course, it is easy to criticize with the benefit of 150 years of hindsight. Bruce Catton makes the excellent point that, in those tortured times, people might have thundered and even rioted in favor of war and secession while still hoping that it was all mere theater and that the crisis would never materialize. Such self-deception, or perhaps such earnest desire to avoid a crisis, is after all a familiar phenomenon down to this day.
In any case, Sherman’s and Lovejoy’s reduction in navy appropriations had a number of consequences. The first, which was foreseeable, was the Navy’s lack of preparedness to fight. The second, quite unforeseen, is of some interest to us in the Hampton Roads area. The steam ship USS Merrimack, laid up in Norfolk Navy Shipyard for repairs, remained there unrepaired, to emerge in 1862 as the terrifying ironclad CSS VIRGINIA. Only the timely arrival of USS MONITOR kept VIRGINIA from destroying all Union shipping in the Chesapeake and playing havoc with Union cities all along the Bay.