This Week in Military History: March 9th – Monitor vs Merrimack
March 8th, 1862 was a tough day for the United States Navy off the Virginia coast. Two of her ships destroyed, three more run aground. All due to a single enemy vessel of a design never before seen. One completely covered in armor that no naval gun could pierce. An unstoppable, steam-powered gun platform that seemed poised to break the Union’s blockade of some of the Confederacy’s key ports. But the next morning that ship, the CSS Virginia, quite literally met her match in the USS Monitor. Their fight, the first ever between ironclad ships, would change naval warfare forever.
The Union Blockade
Less than a week after the fall of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, President Lincoln ordered a naval blockade of the entire Confederacy. Cut off from the European markets where they sold much of their cotton as well as the supplies they purchased from those same said markets, the blockade had immediate and devastating effects for the South. Blockade runners were only so effective, particularly as the Union Navy began rapidly growing its fleet in hopes of more completely blocking off or capturing key Confederate ports. Including the city of Norfolk, Virginia, sitting on a waterway called Hampton Roads where several rivers run into the Chesapeake. Its status as a vital port so close to the Confederate capital in Richmond made it doubly vital. So the fledgling Confederate Navy felt understandably determined to break the blockade there.
Without the industrial or shipbuilding capabilities of the north, however, there was no way they could beat the Union Navy with sheer numbers. So Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory hatched a plan to try and win by innovation, utilizing a concept he’d been a proponent of since back when he was a United States Congressman: fully armored warships.
The Merrimack Becomes the Virginia
The USS Merrimack, a steam frigate of the US Navy, first launched in the summer of 1855. She only served a few years on active service before being decommissioned and put in reserve at the Norfolk Naval Base in early 1860. When Virginia seceded on April 17th of 1861, the US sailors evacuating tried to sail the ship out of the Chesapeake. But Confederate forces had blocked the channel with sunken lightships, preventing Merrimack’s escape. They returned her to port and, when Union forces fully evacuated Norfolk on the 20th, set her on fire to prevent the Confederate’s seizing her. She burned to the waterline and sank.
By the end of May, however, the Confederate navy had salvaged and raised the wreck of the Merrimack. With most of her keel and underside intact, as well her steam engine and propellers, the remains of the ship could be repurposed. Several engineers working for Mallory suggested the hulk be used as the basis for his proposed ironclad and he approved. The hull was repaired and armored, the tent-like superstructure was built, and a ram was added to the bow. Her armament consisted of ten guns, including six 9 inch cannons. Her armor plating was two inches thick. Under that was two solid feet of iron-reinforced pine. On February 17th, 1862 the former USS Merrimack was formally recommissioned the CSS Virginia.
The Union Navy was by no means idle in its own strides towards naval innovation during these months. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles learned that the Confederates were working on an ironclad ship shortly after construction began and wanted to meet them in kind. Once he received Congressional approval to begin constructing an ironclad of his own he put together a commission of three senior officers to do just that. The so-called Ironclad Board assembled in August of 1861 and accepted seventeen different design proposals before selecting a final three to fully support. Of those, the one was a particularly strange looking craft designed by Swedish-born engineer John Ericsson.
The whole vessel was based around a large revolving turret designed by another inventor named Theodore Timby. The ship floated so low in the water that the only real targets an enemy ship could even hit were that thickly armored turret and the also-armored pilot box from where she was steered. The bizarreness of the design was roundly mocked in the press, earning the ship a number of derisive nicknames like “Ericsson’s folly” and the “cheesebox on a raft.” But she had a ram to match the Virginia and the two guns in her turret were massive 11 inch canons. And, perhaps most importantly, she was built fast. Ericsson promised he could build her in 100 days if given approval. 101 days after he got the proverbial thumbs up, the US Navy’s first ironclad was completed at the Brooklyn Navy Yards and, soon after, commissioned the USS Monitor.
CSS Virginia Attacks
The Battle of Hampton Roads began on the morning of March 8th, 1862. That first day, as mentioned above, did not go well for the Union Navy. The commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, Rear Admiral Louis Goldsborough, hoped to catch Virginia in a crossfire and batter her to pieces. But three of his five warships ran aground as they moved to attack, two of which remained stuck for the remainder of the battle. The first actual shots were exchanged between a Union tugboat and one of several Confederate gunboats supporting the Virginia. The battle heated up quickly from there.
In short order the Virginia rammed the frigate Cumberland, sinking her along with 121 men of her crew. She then turned on the Congress, another frigate. The captain of the vessel, Lieutenant Joseph Smith, had purposefully run her aground to prevent her being rammed and sunk like the Cumberland. After an hour of pummeling from the Virginia and her support ships Smith surrendered his vessel. As the survivors were escaping the ship, a Union shore battery fired on the Virginia. Her commander, Captain Franklin Buchanan, ordered his men to shoot cannonballs heated red hot at the Cumberland as retaliation. The wooden ship caught fire, burned for a time, and then exploded when her magazine went up.
With the tide going out and darkness falling, the first day of battle drew to a close. In her first day of combat the Virginia had suffered heavy damage to her smokestack slowing her speed considerably. Two of her guns were disabled and her armor was heavily battered. Two sailors were dead and several wounded, including Captain Buchanan. But compared to the Union ships losses and the roughly 400 dead American sailors, the Virginia had definitely won the action of March 8th.
Monitor vs Virginia
The next morning the Virginia, now under the command of Lieutenant Catesby ap (not a typo, it’s a Welsh name component meaning “son of”) Roger Jones, left her anchorage at Sewell Point to begin the fight anew. Jones’ intent was to attack the grounded frigate Minnesota. He found his path blocked by what looked to him like a new boiler being towed to the grounded vessel by a tug. It was, in fact, the Monitor. The ship had departed New York, pulled by a seagoing tug, on March 6th and arrived after dark on the 8th, long after the days fighting had ended. Suspecting correctly what Virginia‘s next move would be, her captain, the spectacularly bearded Lieutenant John Lorimer Worden, decided to lay in wait alongside the stricken Minnesota.
Jones realized what he was facing before Worden could strike, so the Virginia got off the first volley of the day. It missed the Monitor and struck the Minnesota which, despite being grounded, still had use of her guns and returned fire. The Monitor soon opened up on the Virginia as well. The two ironclads blasted away at each other from extremely close range for hours, doing considerable damage to each other but unable to defeat their opponent. The Virginia had only expected to fight wooden ships and, therefore, did not carry any armor piercing shells. And the Monitor guns were using only the standard amount of gunpowder on each shot which could not produce enough force to crack her opponents armor.
The Battle Ends
The battle ended in an odd sort of stalemate that both sides claimed as a victory. When an explosive shell struck the Monitor’s pilot house, small fragments of iron and paint managed to enter the viewing slit and temporarily blind Worden. He ordered his second in command, Lieutenant Samuel Dana Greene, to take charge and, believing his ship was more damaged than she actually was, to steer her into shallow water where Virginia couldn’t follow. When the brief period of confusion passed and Greene realized the Monitor was still fairly up for a fight, he returned to the area of battle. But by that point, seeing the Union ship move away and being low on ammunition themselves, the Virginia had turned back toward Norfolk. Greene decided not to pursue, believing it more important to avoid unnecessarily risking his vessel.
So both Union and Confederate navies claimed they’d chased the other side off and won the day. Both ships were battered but still functional and the only men killed during their gun duel were three sailors aboard the Minnesota. The ironclads crews were lauded as heroes by their respective sides. One Union sailor, Quartermaster Peter Williams, received the Medal of Honor for manning the Monitor‘s helm through the entire battle.
However you interpret the outcome of the first duel between iron ships, the long truth of the matter is that the Virginia did not break the Union blockade at Norfolk. The blockade as a whole continued to grow in size and strength. And, as cities like New Orleans and Mobile Bay fell to Union forces, the economic situation of the Confederacy grew more and more dire. So while the first fight between ironclads was a game changer for nautical combat on the whole, it did little to alter the course of the war.
What Happened to the First Ironclads?
Neither of the historic ships that fought at Hampton Roads survived long after. Norfolk fell to Union forces on May 9th and the Confederate Navy burned the CSS Virginia to prevent her capture. The USS Monitor served for several more months in the Virginia area before she was transferred to join the blockade of Charleston, South Carolina. On December 31st she put to sea, towed by the steamboat USS Rhode Island, in heavy wind and surf. With her low, sideless deck she began taking on water. The pumps and engine flooded before long and the crew abandoned the ship. Most of her crew were rescued, but 16 sailors perished with the famed Monitor. Scientists rediscovered the wreck in 1973 and various expeditions recovered portions of the ship in the following decades. Including some remains of the 16 who went down with her, which were buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery in 2013.
Read more great stories, facts, and editions of This Week in History in our military history section.