Ironclad has Suffolk connection

Published 10:16 pm Thursday, March 8, 2012

The famous Battle of the Ironclads may have been within sight of what is now Suffolk, but that’s not the only connection between the city and the battle.

A boatswain on the CSS Virginia (often called the Merrimack) was Charles Hasker, who was the great-grandfather of Suffolk’s Harriet Wills Hunter and the great-great-grandfather of her son Brian Wills.

Not coincidentally, Brian Wills is intensely interested in the Civil War and is a professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. He has written several books about the Civil War, including one focusing on the war’s effects on southeastern Virginia.


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Hasker served on the Virginia during the Battle of Hampton Roads, when the Confederacy’s ironclad ship engaged with Union ships during the course of two days in the James River.

The battle occurred near the river’s confluence with the Nansemond River and would have been easily visible from what was then called Pig Point, now the old Tidewater Community College campus in North Suffolk.

Unfortunately, not many records exist about Hasker’s service, Wills said. But he does know that his great-great-grandfather was the one who, under orders, blew up the ship.

About two months after the famous battle, the Virginia was trapped in the James River, unable to go farther up the James toward Richmond because of shallow water and unable to go out to sea, because it was not very seaworthy.

Rather than let the enemy take control of the ship, the crew abandoned the Virginia and left a trail of gunpowder. Hasker lit the fuse, and that was the end of one of the first ironclad ships that changed the course of naval warfare.

But that wouldn’t be Hasker’s last encounter with a groundbreaking ship. He would go on to serve ever so briefly on the submarine CSS Hunley.

Hasker, a lieutenant by that time, volunteered to take somebody else’s place during a test run. As sailors were getting aboard, another boat left a large wake that swamped the cabin of the submarine, and it began to founder.

One man jumped out, and Hasker was right behind him. But the hatch door came down on his leg, trapping him and forcing him to go down with the ship.

When it reached the bottom, Hasker opened the door, swam to the surface and never got aboard the Hunley again, even after it was recovered and refurbished. It would go on to become the first submarine to sink an enemy ship in battle, Wills said.

“I’m sure it was a matter of pride,” he said.

After Hasker’s Confederate service, he went on to give lectures during the Spanish-American War comparing naval ships and capabilities during the two wars. Unfortunately, none of those lectures — not even transcripts, if there ever were any — have survived. But Wills points to the lectures as evidence that his ancestor, even during his lifetime, knew how significant those naval achievements had been.

“Even he knew how historic it was,” Wills said.