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When Iron Became King of the Seas: The Battle of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia


On Saturday, March 8, 1862, the ironclad warship CSS Virginia steamed towards five wooden Union ships guarding the mouth of the James River at Hampton Roads in southeastern Virginia. Before launching his iron behemoth into combat for the first time, Confederate Admiral Franklin Buchanan told his sailors, “in a few minutes you will have the long-expected opportunity to show your devotion to your country and our cause.” At around 2 p.m., the 10-gun Virginia unleashed her attack against the Union blockading fleet that possessed around 219 combined guns. Despite this lopsided difference in firepower, the Virginia was about to prove that while wooden warships once ruled the waves, iron was now king of the seas.

The CSS Virginia was originally the USS Merrimack, a 40-gun steam frigate launched in 1855. The Merrimack had once been the flagship of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet and was later decommissioned for repairs at the Gosport Naval Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia. After the outbreak of the American Civil War in April 1861, Federal sailors sank the Merrimack and evacuated the base. Around six weeks later, the Confederates successfully raised the ship and converted it into what one historian has described as “the maritime equivalent of a wrecking ball.” By the time the Merrimack had been rebuilt and rechristened as the CSS Virginia, she was covered in iron plating above the waterline and boasted 10 powerful guns and a 1,500 pound iron battering ram.

The CSS Virginia. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As the Virginia went into action against the Union fleet at Hampton Roads on March 8, her immense power was demonstrated immediately. With the enemy warship steaming ahead, the USS Congress fired a broadside, but her cannon balls simply bounced off the Virginia’s armor. The ensuing battle did not get any easier for the wooden Federal fleet. Over a few hours of fighting, the Virginia had been struck by nearly 98 shots, but none of them succeeded in penetrating her armor or inflicted any disabling damage. Two Confederate sailors were killed and several others were wounded during the action, but the losses on the Union side were far greater.

USS Cumberland and USS Congress had been sunk and over 240 Federal sailors were killed in the fight against the Virginia, making March 8 the bloodiest day in U.S. naval history until World War II. The USS Minnesota ran aground, but was spared destruction for the time being. After Confederate admiral Buchanan was injured, command of the Virginia shifted to Catesby Jones, who elected to pull back as night came on. He planned to return the following morning to finish off the Minnesota and the remainder of the Union fleet.

The CSS Virginia taking down the USS Cumberland on March 8, 1862. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As telegrams of the disaster at Hampton Roads reached Washington D.C., President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet called an emergency session for the morning of Sunday, March 9. The danger posed by the Virginia weighed very heavily on the nerves of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles tried to reassure Stanton that the Union had an ironclad warship of its own, and she was on her way to confront the CSS Virginia.

Designed by Swedish engineer John Ericsson, the Union ironclad warship USS Monitor was a technological wonder. Featuring more than 40 newly patented inventions, the Monitor was a nimble powerhouse with a low profile that made it rise only 18 inches from the water. She featured a flat iron deck with a 20-foot cylindrical turret that rose from the middle of the ship. This revolving turret was powered by a steam engine and housed two 11-inch Dahlgreen guns, giving the Monitor a 360-degree range of fire.

Union sailors on the deck of the USS Monitor. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On March 6, 1862, the USS Monitor had set out from Brooklyn and sailed south under the Command of Lieutenant John L. Worden. With his sailors battling through a storm and pushing past their exhaustion, the Monitor managed to reach the battered Union fleet at Hampton Roads by dawn on March 9. As Worden pulled his ironclad alongside the stranded Minnesota, he told the ship’s captain, “I will stand by you to the last if I can help you.”

As the Virginia closed in on the Minnesota on the morning of March 9, the Confederate sailors noticed a peculiar looking object floating alongside their injured prey. Some thought it was a raft or possibly a ship’s boiler. As this “tin can on a shingle” began to circle the Virginia and unleashed a burst of fire, it was clear that the Rebel sailors had been wrong. This was no raft or boiler. This was the mighty USS Monitor.

For roughly two or three hours, the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor battled for supremacy in what was the first clash in naval history between ironclad warships. “The fight continued with exchange of broadsides as fast as the guns could be served and at very short range, the distance between the vessels frequently being not more than a few yards,” recalled the Monitor’s executive officer Samuel Dana Greene. Although the Monitor and the Virginia ferociously blasted away at one another, cannon balls proved no match for the iron ships and deflected off their armor. Both crews also attempted to ram the opposing sides ironclad, but neither was able to deliver a fatal blow.

Close-quarters combat between the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor on March 9, 1862. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

At around 12 p.m., a shell from the Virginia struck the Monitor’s pilot house, wounding Lieutenant Worden. With their commander down, the crew of the Monitor briefly pulled away from the battle. The Virginia had ran aground in shallow water once already during the fight, and at this moment, she was in danger of this happening again. Weighing this risk and believing the enemy to be in retreat, Catesby Jones ordered the Virginia to withdraw. As Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian James M. McPherson puts it, “The exhausted men on both sides ceased fighting-almost, it seemed, by mutual consent.”

Although neither side had been able to destroy the other’s ship, both the Union and the Confederates claimed victory at the Battle of Hampton Roads, also known as the Battle of the Ironclads. Most historians today evaluate the fight as a tactical draw, but the timely arrival of the Monitor had unquestionably saved the Federal fleet at Hampton Roads from destruction, giving the Union a strategic victory. For the next two months, the Monitor and the Virginia stared one another down across the waterways of southeastern Virginia, but they were never to duel again.

Around two months after the clash of the ironclads at Hampton roads, Union Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac invaded the James Peninsula. As the Confederates evacuated Norfolk, Virginia and prepared to fall back to Richmond, the difficult decision was made to blow up the CSS Virginia on May 11, 1862, preventing her from falling into Federal hands. The Monitor also met an ignominious end, sinking in rough seas off the coast of North Carolina on the final day of 1862.

The destruction of the CSS Virginia on May 11, 1862. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“This successful and terrible work will create a revolution in naval warfare,” wrote one Southern reporter, “and henceforth iron will be the king of the seas.” Those words were absolutely true. The whole world took notice of the unforgettable clash between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. With the age of wooden warships clearly coming to an end, navies around the globe began to build steam-powered ironclads. The Union and the Confederacy were at the forefront of this new era of naval warfare. Over the course of the Civil War, nearly 80 ironclads were built or put into production by the two sides: 21 by the Confederates and 58 by the Federals.

Sources

American Battlefield Trust: Battle of Hampton Roads.

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson.

History.com: Battle of Hampton Roads.

History.com: When Ironclads Clashed: How Hampton Roads Changed Naval Warfare Forever.

National Park Service: Battle of the Ironclads.

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