The Battle of Hampton Roads, also known as the Battle of the ironclads, occurred on March 9, 1862 between the U.S.S. Monitor and the Merrimack (C.S.S. Virginia) during the American Civil War (1861-65) and was history’s first naval battle between ironclad warships.It was part of a Confederate effort to break the Union blockade of Southern ports, including Norfolk and Richmond, Virginia, that had been imposed at the start of the war. Though the battle itself was inconclusive, it began a new era in naval warfare.
U.S.S. Merrimack Rechristened the C.S.S. Virginia
The C.S.S. Virginia was originally the U.S.S. Merrimack, a 40-gun frigate launched in 1855. The Merrimack served in the Caribbean and was the flagship of the Pacific fleet in the late 1850s. In early 1860, the ship was decommissioned for extensive repairs at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia. The vessel was still there when the Civil War began in April 1861, and Union sailors sank the ship as the yard was evacuated. Six weeks later, a salvage company raised the ship and the Confederates began rebuilding it.
The Confederates covered the ship in heavy armor plating above the waterline and outfitted it with powerful guns. Rechristened the Virginia upon its launch in February 1862, it was a formidable vessel. It’s commander, Franklin Buchanan, was the only full admiral in the Confederate Navy during the Civil War.
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On March 8, 1862, it cruised down the Elizabeth River and sunk the U.S.S. Cumberland before running aground the U.S.S. Congress and setting her on fire off Hampton Roads in southeastern Virginia.
Battle of Hampton Roads: March 9, 1862
The next day, the U.S.S. Monitor steamed into the Chesapeake Bay to protect the rest of the Union’s wooden fleet, including the U.S.S. Minnesota. The Monitor had set sail only three days earlier from Brooklyn under the command of Lieutenant John L. Worden. Designed by Swedish engineer John Ericsson, the vessel had an unusually low profile, rising from the water only 18 inches. The flat iron deck had a 20-foot cylindrical turret rising from the middle of the ship; the turret housed two 11-inch Dahlgren guns. The Monitor had a draft of less than 11 feet so it could operate in the shallow harbors and rivers of the South. It was commissioned on February 25, 1862, and arrived at Chesapeake Bay just in time to engage the Virginia. At dawn on March 9, Worden told the Minnesota’s captain, “I will stand by you to the last if I can help you.”
The battle between the Virginia and the Monitor began on the morning of March 9 and continued for four hours. The ships circled one another, jockeying for position as they fired their guns. However, the cannon balls simply deflected off the iron ships. In the early afternoon, the Virginia pulled back to Norfolk. Neither ship was seriously damaged, but the Monitor effectively ended the short reign of terror that the Confederate ironclad had brought to the Union fleet.
The Monitor and the Merrimack: Final Days
Both ships met ignominious ends. When the Yankees invaded the James Peninsula two months after the Battle of Hampton Roads, the retreating Confederates scuttled the Virginia. The Monitor went down in bad weather off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, at the end of the year. In 1973, the wreck of the Monitor was discovered at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Many artifacts from the vessel have since been recovered and are on display at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.
Though they had short lives, the naval battle between the two ironclads ushered in a new era in naval warfare. By the end of the Civil War, the Confederacy and Union launched over 70 ironclads, signaling the end of wooden warships.