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Battle of Hampton Roads: Monitor vs. Merrimack


On March 9, 1862, the USS Monitor faced off against the CSS Virginia in history’s first clash between ironclad warships. During the engagement known as the Battle of Hampton Roads, the two vessels competed for supremacy, but cannon balls simply deflected off the iron ships. Both sides claimed victory, but in reality, the two ships fought each other to a standstill. While the duel between the Monitor and the Virginia was inconclusive, it ushered in a new era of naval warfare.

The CSS Virginia was originally the USS Merrimack. The 40-gun frigate was launched in 1855 and served as the flagship of America’s Pacific fleet in the late 1850s. In early 1860, the Merrimack was decommissioned for repairs at the Gosport Naval Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia. When the American Civil War began in April 1861, Union soldiers sank the ship as the yard was evacuated. The Confederates were able to raise the ship and replaced the craft’s wooden superstructure with an iron-covered citadel mounting 10 guns. By early March 1862, the new USS Virginia was prepared to strike the Union fleet stationed in Hampton Roads near Fortress Monroe.

The CSS Virginia. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On March 8, 1862, the Virginia steamed down the Elizabeth River and demonstrated its power. The Confederate ironclad sank the USS Cumberland and ran the USS Congress aground. As the Virginia retired, the crew of the behemoth had plans to inflict further damage to enemy ships the following day. That evening, the new Union ironclad USS Monitor arrived to defend the wooden fleet.

With a design that featured more than 40 different newly patented inventions, the Monitor was a true mark of naval innovation. Commissioned on February 25, 1862, the ironclad had an unusually low profile, rising from the water only 18 inches. Its deck featured a 20-foot cylindrical turret rising from the middle of the ship. This revolutionary revolving turret housed two 11-inch Dahlgren guns.

The USS Monitor. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On the morning of March 9, 1862, the Monitor and the Virginia clashed. The ships circled one another, firing their guns and trying to maneuver into the best position. Since cannon balls deflected off the iron ships, neither craft was seriously damaged. In the early afternoon, the Virginia pulled back. The Battle of Hampton Roads was certainly memorable, but the result was inconclusive. The continued presence of the Monitor effectively neutralized the threat of the Confederate ironclad to the Union fleet. Throughout the war, both sides continued to develop and perfect new ironclad designs.

The clash of the ironclads. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Two months after the Battle of Hampton Roads, the Union invaded the James Peninsula and the retreating Confederates scuttled the Virginia. In December 1862, the Monitor went down in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.


Civil War Trust: Hampton Roads. USS Monitor Sinks.

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