The Virginia: A Shakespeare-Style, Civil War History Play

When I was in college, I foolishly enrolled in three classes with heavy reading loads. “Civil War Experiences,” ” The Tragedies of William Shakespeare,” and the “Histories of William Shakespeare,” all at the same time. And I had even enrolled in other classes  that semester, and while I have since forgotten the names of those prerequisites, I hope you can understand that I had bitten off way more than I could chew. These classes involved hundreds of pages of reading and dozens of pages of papers to go along with it, and after a while, the classes started to blend together. As I read my history assignments on the Civil War, I confused the Confederate and Union generals with figures from Shakespeare’s seminal plays, and somehow I managed to convince my history professor to allow me to write the first scenes of a play on the Battle of Hampton instead of a research paper. The result was The Virginia, a 5-act, Shakespeare style history on the Battle of Hampton Roads, available on Kindle. 

The play covers the Duel of the Ironclads, a Civil War naval battle that saw the first engagement between steel-covered warships. I love the Civil War, and in this particular battle I saw heroes on the scale of a King Lear, such as Union Commander John Worden who went blind when a shell struck the Monitor’s pilothouse, or a Coriolanus in the figure of Franklin Buchanan, a Confederate admiral who goes mad with revenge when the Union Navy expels him for his Confederate sympathies.

So, the question I asked myself while writing was, why did these figures fall from incredible heights? Was it because of the pride they had in their steel-covered warships? How do people today exhibit the same kind of pride? In Greek mythology, the invention of metallurgy and iron-smelting was seen as a horrible turning point in human history, so I used the battle as a symbol to explore the nature of human suffering and the presence of evil in the world. Does suffering come from God in the form of plagues or wars as a way for God to punish mankind, or does suffering come up from within the heart of man, when man tries to be like God and covers warships with steel?

Here are some highlights from the work. I hope you enjoy it. Please leave comments below!

Prologue:

The Chorus enters the stage to apologize for the lack of resources the producers of the play have at their disposal, as well as provide a few introductory remarks about the Battle of Hampton Roads.

Most Memorable Lines:

Now work your thoughts into a moonlight bay

As we open the curtains of our play,

25And steel your hearts for what we have in store,

For the arms and grandeur of our Civil War.

Act I: March 8, 1862

3 sailors onboard the USS Congress, one of the ships that will be sunk in the first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads, are discussing the difficulties of being a Union sailor in the midst of the war. The USS Congress is sitting in the Bay of Hampton Roads, guarding Fortress Monroe, and anticipating a major battle that day. 

The sailors discuss how much they hate the Rebels and how scared they are of death, ultimately blaming God for the horrible destruction God has brought upon the world. The scene introduces the most significant theme of The Virginia: Where does suffering come from? Does suffering come from God, in the form of plagues or wars, or does suffering come up from the sinful heart of man, as man tries to be like God?

Most Memorable Lines:

Those yonder stars form part of Draco’s tail,

Which strikes at men with all the wrath of Heav’n:

35The suffering which God pours ‘pon everyman,

In besetting his country’s peace with war,

Or cursing his children to starve

And plaguing still his body with disease.

He holds forth from out our reach, Tantalus-like,

40Sweet labor’s fruits, our just repose from toil

And fills our years, even our best, with woe,

Until we taste that final sting of Death.

Act II: March 8, 1862

These scenes take place on the deck of the CSS Virginia and focus on Captain Franklin Buchanan. Buchanan was originally from Maryland, and while he was a high-ranking naval officer in the United States Navy, he resigned his commission at the onset of the Civil War because he believed Maryland would soon secede. When Maryland does not, Franklin Buchanan seems to have gone mad from being cast out from the Union Navy. He grows increasingly more aggressive and unruly, perhaps in an attempt to prove to other Confederate officers he is truly “one of them.”

Over the course of the battle, the CSS Virginia rams and sinks 2 Union naval frigates. Buchanan, overseeing the surrender of the USS Cumberland, sees that Union soldiers on the shore are firing at the Virginia and its crew. Buchanan himself grabs a rifle and shoots wildly at the shoreline, all the while sulfur and smoke from the Virginia’s cannons encircle his body in a scene reminiscent of Lear’s tirade against the storm from King Lear. Finally, he is injured and taken below deck, where he howls in searing pain until the USS Congress, at that point having burned for hours, finally explodes.

Most Memorable Lines (Buchanan’s last words):

You venture forth to set our people free,

70But the harsher fate is to end up like me;

Upon the North I’ve struck a fright’ning toll—

But am I mad, or did I lose my soul?

Act III: March 8, 1862

The Chorus remerges to take the audience from Hampton Roads to Washington, D.C. and the cabinet of Abraham Lincoln. Here, in the Oval Office, Lincoln and his cabinet, including William Seward and Gideon Welles, are debating the response of the federal government to the onslaught of the Virginia that day. While some members of the cabinet favor sending in General McClellan to capture Richmond, Gideon Welles and Salmon P. Chase favor sending the USS Monitor, a Union ironclad, to Hampton Roads. Here is an excerpt from the argument, as I rendered it, within Lincoln’s cabinet. 

Edwin Stanton:

1The Merrimack has near destroyed the fleet

Stationed at Hampton Roads, the Cumberland,

Congress, and the Minnesota’s run aground

To escape the clutches of that vile beast!

5And now, this very night, the Merrimack may pass

Fortress Monroe and strike our Capitol,

New York, or even as far as Boston!

Gideon Welles

I assure you, the Merrimack may not

Strike cities of such length apart at once.

Stanton:

10Have you not read the telegram from Fort

Monroe, of Merrimack’s armored casemate

That withstood all the fire of th’Union fleet?

Welles:

Yes, but being from New England, I may

Attest such great lengths stretch between our ports,

15No ship could strike at all of them at once.

Stanton:

I’ll not be mocked, not when the Navy’s failed

To protect the Capitol—why, we may

Expect a cannon ball from Merrimack

Within the room, at any moment now!

Abraham Lincoln:

20I see that Mars and Neptune are at odds,

But, gentlemen, let us conduct ourselves

With greater calm, so that the rebels don’t

Hear us from Hampton Roads and think

They have us whipped before the break of day.

Act IV: March 9, 1862

The Chorus provides supplementary information on the USS Monitor concerning its creator, John Ericsson, its construction, and its initial voyage from Brooklyn to Hampton Roads.

The scene shifts to the deck of the USS Monitor, where Captain John Worden speaks with his subordinates on the necessity of defeating the Rebels and retaking the port of Norfolk. Like Lincoln, Wordon sees himself as an instrument of divine justice charged with judging the rebellious Southern states.

When Worden sights the Virginia coming out for a second day of battle, the scene shifts into the engine room of the Monitor. There, several coal heavers are speaking of the battle they know is raging overhead and, knowing that they will be the first to drown in the event the Monitor sinks, ask questions about the afterlife, God’s judgment, and the necessity of repentance and faith should they die in the battle. The scene shifts back to the deck of the Monitor, where John Worden shouts orders at his subordinates to fire mercilessly at the Virginia.

Eventually, a cannonball strikes the pilothouse and blinds Worden, much like Oedipus or Gloucester from King Lear. In instances like this, these characters have become blind because they failed to see a truth of overwhelming importance. So, what did John Worden not see, perhaps because he was so blinded by the immense power of the Monitor he had at his command?

Most Memorable Lines (from Worden’s parting speech):

Why would God strike me down, if what ye say is true,

When I did all and more God dared me do?

No, all of you depart and let me be,

So I may find the eyes God cast into the sea.

Act V: June 20-24, 1862 (Before the Seven Days Battles)

Robert E. Lee summons a council of war to discuss the strategy of the upcoming Seven Days Battles, wherein Lee and his Confederate generals will aggressively attack Union General George McClellan. The scene includes General James Longstreet and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Lee hopes that a bold assault on the Union lines will cause McClellan to lose his nerve and withdraw from Virginia.

After the council of war concludes, Lee provides the audience with a soliloquy that unfolds his thoughts and intentions of the war, comparing himself to his distant ancestor, Robert the Bruce, a Scottish king. Lee openly denounces slavery and repents before God for the sins of his people, but Lee cannot find himself drawing his sword against his neighbors and family members. He submits his fate and that of his people to God’s judgment and mercy, only asking that God may give him the strength to do his best.

Most Memorable Lines (from Lee’s soliloquy)

Does not the spider’s web before my gaze

Teach me the Lord doth work in every act

150And makes them all for good of those He loves?

My fabled ancestor, Robert the Bruce,

Saw such a spider’s web that gave him strength

To fight against the English who vainly tried

To conquer all of Bruce’s native Scotland.

155Could I be like the Bruce, and lift my sword

Against my people, as he did at first

For titles and estates, or do I lay

My fears before God’s throne and beg from God

160His strength–even if I know my people’s sin?

Epilogue:

The Chorus asks the audience why they thought that the captains of these respective ironclads fell in battle and suggests they did so because of hubris and pride. Because the suffering of war arises from the sinful heart of man, as man tries to be like God, the Chorus cites the incarnation of Jesus Christ as the solution to man’s woes: If suffering arises because man tries to be like God, then look how God became a man and suffers alongside us.

Most Memorable Lines:

Now what of Lincoln, Lee and all their host,

25The nameless men who gave far more than most?   

To find out, come again another day

And see the next installment of our play!

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