A Brief History
On March 8, 1862, during the American Civil War, perhaps the most important naval battle of the war began, a battle that would see the first clash of ironclad or armored warships. The ironclad Confederate States Ship, CSS Virginia set about to break the Union blockade of the Chesapeake Bay anchorage of Norfolk, Virginia by successfully attacking the wooden US Navy ships on blockade duty, with the Union ironclad USS Monitor responding to face the Virginia the next day.
Union strategy for winning the Civil War centered on a blockade of the South, the Anaconda Plan put forth by General Winfield Scott. A large and powerful Navy would be needed to enforce such a blockade, and the Confederate States would require a powerful Navy of their own in order to break the blockade. The enormous numbers of ships, guns and men required to enforce or to break the blockade would severely tax the resources of either side, so a more effective solution was sought. Emerging technology of steam engines, screw propellers, breech loading cannons, and iron armor was coming together in naval design to make coastal duty ships much more effective than the wooden, sail and steam (largely paddle wheel) ships armed with muzzle loading cannon of conventional design of the day.
An arms race to produce effective armored ships, called ironclads for obvious reasons, was on, and in this case the South struck first. Using the re- floated hull of the USS Merrimac, the Confederate Navy rebuilt the ship as the CSS Virginia, 275 feet long and 51 feet wide, displacing 4000 tons and boasting a main armor belt 4 inches thick. The 2 steam engines produced 1200 horsepower and could propel the ship and its 325 man crew to a speed of about 6 knots. Armed with 4 rifled cannons and 6 smoothbore cannon, along with 2 howitzers (anti-boarding guns) and a ram on the bow, the Virginia was formidable, but her slow speed and laborious turning radius due to her single propeller caused her to take a mile to make a full turn that took 45 minutes, and made her somewhat unwieldy. The main guns of the Virginia were arranged on each side of the ship, meaning only 4 of her guns could be brought to bear at any one time. The largest guns on Virginia were 2 X Brooke 7 inch rifled cannons, much smaller than the guns on her future foe, the USS Monitor.
On March 8, 1862, Virginia made her combat debut when she attacked the Union blockade fleet of wooden warships. First engaging and heavily damaging the USS Cumberland, the Virginia then used her ram to finish off the hapless Union sailing ship, although the ram partially broke off and the Virginia’s port anchor was lost. Turning her attention to the USS Congress, the ships exchanged gunfire while the Congress intentionally ran aground to avoid being sunk. Heavily damaged, the Congress surrendered. Next on the target list was the USS Minnesota, which had run aground while trying to escape certain doom. The deep draft of the Virginia prevented closing the distance, and the Minnesota escaped destruction after long range fire ended with the coming darkness. Virginia would return on March 9, 1862 to finish off the remaining Union vessels. Virginia had not emerged unscathed by the fighting, losing both her cutters (small boats), an anchor, half her ram, and suffering damage to 2 of her side firing cannons and destruction of both her howitzers, along with other more superficial damage.
Meanwhile, the Union was designing and building a coastal ironclad of their own, the John Ericsson designed USS Monitor, a low and sleek looking ship with a single large revolving turret, a new kind of weapon employment on a warship. Displacing only 1000 tons, Monitor was much smaller than Virginia, stretching 179 feet long and 41.5 feet wide. Armed with only 2 cannons, the Monitor was not at a disadvantage in the gunnery department, as the revolving turret allowed the twin 11 inch smoothbore breech loading guns to fire in any direction regardless of the position of the ship. Capable of 6 knots top speed with its 320 horsepower steam engine driving a single screw propeller, Monitor was better armored than Virginia, with turret armor 8 inches thick and hull armor between 3 and 5 inches thick. Monitor needed a crew of only 45 men. Monitor was rushed to Hampton Roads to engage the Virginia and preserve the blockade, and on March 9, 1862, the first battle of ironclad warships in naval history would begin.
The Battle of Hampton Roads proved futile for both the Monitor and the Virginia, as each ship repeatedly pounded the other vessel with heavy cannon fire without causing serious damage. The Monitor proved much more maneuverable, and unlike the Virginia, had a shallower draft and could find refuge in shallow water. After hours of unproductive battle, the Monitor retired from the battle, her captain, Lt. John Worden, blinded while peering through a vision slit.
The Union blockade had held, and Virginia was unable to later break the blockade. Within the next month more Union ironclads were added to the blockade, giving the US Navy a decided advantage. In May of 1862, Union troops were nearing the anchorage of the Virginia, and the converted US Navy ship was no longer capable of seagoing voyages had her captain chosen to try to run the blockade to open water. Her 22 foot draft prevented her escape up the James River, so the Confederates reluctantly burned and blew up the historic ship. The USS Monitor saw further action, but like the Virginia was not designed or intended for open sea voyages. On December 31, 1862 while being towed around Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, Monitor was lost in a storm, her extremely low freeboard unable to cope with the waves. Sixteen of her crew perished in the sinking. Monitor was found on the sea bottom in 1973, but salvage operations did not begin in earnest until 1995, with major pieces recovered over the next several years, as an intact recovery was deemed impossible.
The historic Battle of Hampton Roads is considered the first battle of ironclad armored warships in naval history, a battle that cost 261 Union dead and 78 Confederate dead, with 2 Union wooden ships lost and another heavily damaged, as well as both ironclads damaged but not disabled. From this point in history onward, naval warships would have to be armored and powered by engines, rather than wind and sail, to have any chance at success in a naval battle. Since the Battle of Hampton Roads warships incorporated the idea of placing guns in a revolving turret (or turrets), and a naval arms race with ever increasing armor, heavier and heavier guns, faster ships, and improved fire control methods continued into World War II culminating in the magnificent battleships of the 1940’s, such as the US Iowa class, the German Bismarck class, the British King George V and Vanguard classes, and the Japanese Yamato class. Not until the emergence of the aircraft carrier as the true capital ships of the navies of the world during World War II and later the advent of nuclear weapons did the race to build the most heavily armed and armored ships finally end, an 8 decade period of naval innovation in brute power that started with the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads.
Note: The CSS Virginia is often referred to as the “Merrimac” or even “Merrimack” using its name as a US Navy vessel prior to capture and rebuilding as a Confederate Navy ironclad. This irritating misnomer is presumably perpetuated in order to allow for the alliteration of the “M’s” in Monitor and Merrimac.
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For more information, please see…
Clancy, Paul. Ironclad: The Epic Battle, Calamitous Loss, and Historic Recovery of the USS Monitor. International Marine/Ragged Mountain, 2005.
Holzer and Mulligan. The Battle of Hampton Roads: New Perspectives on the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. Fordham University, 2006.
Quarstein, John. CSS Virginia, The: Sink Before Surrender. The History Press, 2012.
The featured image in this article, “The Monitor and Merrimac: The First Fight Between Ironclads”, a chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, produced by Louis Prang & Co., Boston, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1925, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID pga.04044.
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