The Foxhole View
Where Military History Comes to Life
Clash of the Ironclad Titans: Duel Between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia Opened a New Age in Naval Warfare
By Don Hirst
When the American Civil War began, it ushered in the bitterest and costliest war in our nation’s history. New technology rapidly appeared in battles on land and at sea. That incredible explosion of technology spawned massive engagements and incredible casualties. It was, without a doubt, our first modern war.
When yesterday’s technology clashed with the modern weapons of the Civil War, the results were predictable. Technology trumped tradition time after time.
This was especially the case when the first steam-powered armored warships crossed swords early in the war, in 1862. The resulting battle ended in a draw, but it spelled the end of wooden warships and the emergence of a new type of combat ship: the ironclad.
Technically speaking, the Union’s USS Monitor and the Confederacy’s CSS Virginia were not the first vessels to go into battle protected by iron armor. That distinction belongs to Korean Adm. Yi Sun-Shin, a 16th-century Korean naval hero whose turtle ships featured at least some armor plate. Whether Yi’s sail-powered turtle ships were entirely protected by iron armor is a matter of dispute between historians.
But there is no dispute that the 1862 duel between Union and Confederate ironclads ushered in the development of modern sea power. After the battle, wooden combat ships were on the road to extinction.
The story begins in February 1856 when the Navy frigate USS Merrimack was commissioned. Following a series of cruises, the ship was decommissioned at Norfolk, Va., in February 1860. At the start of the Civil War, Union forces burned the ship to the waterline and sank the vessel to prevent capture by the Confederacy.
“The Confederates, in desperate need of ships, raised Merrimack and rebuilt her as an ironclad ram, according to a design prepared by naval constructor Lt. J. M. Brooke, CSN. Commissioned on February 17,1862, as CSS Virginia, the ironclad was the hope of the Confederacy to wreak havoc among the wooden ships in Hampton Roads and end the blockade’s strangulation,” according to the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC).
Virginia was about 275 feet long and 38 1/2 feet wide and had a crew of about 320 sailors. Her armament was a mix of guns — two 6-inch, two 7-inch and six 9-inch cannon, plus a pair of 12-pounder howitzers, NHHC said.
When Virginia sailed to Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862, the ship wasn’t finished. Workers were still aboard, trying to complete the job.
Her first attack was against the USS Cumberland, a sloop that had dropped anchor near Newport News, Va. The initial objective, NHHC said, was to test Virginia’s armor against the Cumberland’s heavy guns
While doing so, Virginia passed the USS Congress and exchanged broadsides, suffering no injury while causing considerable damage, according to NHHC. Virginia “crossed Cumberland’s bows, raking her with a lethal fire, finishing off the wooden warship with a thrust of her iron ram to conserve scarce gunpowder. Cumberland sank with colors flying, taking 121 men, one third of her crew, and part of Virginia’s ram down with her.”
Next on the target list was the Congress, which had run aground while trying to escape. With the assistance of other ships in her squadron, Virginia opened fire and caused Congress to strike her colors.
As other ships in Virginia’s squadron closed on Congress to accept the crew’s surrender, Federal troops ashore misunderstood the situation, opened fire and wounded the Virginia’s captain. He returned the favor, ordering hot shot and incendiary shells to be fired at Congress. Congress, “ablaze and unable to bring a single gun to bear, hauled down her flag for the last time,” NHHC said. “She continued to burn far into the night and exploded about midnight.”
But Virginia also was wounded during the fighting.
“Her stack was riddled causing loss of power — and she was initially underpowered,” according to NHHC. “Two large guns were out of order, her armor loosened and her ram lost. Nevertheless, she went on to attack USS Minnesota, but because of shallow water could not close the range to do that steam frigate serious damage.”
So Virginia anchored that night for repairs and her wounded captain was taken to a hospital ashore. The next day Virginia prepared to launch more attacks. But help arrived during the hours of darkness: the USS Monitor, a Union ironclad. She arrived just in time to save the Federal fleet in Hampton Roads from further major losses.
A new addition to the U.S. Navy’s rolls, the Monitor was commissioned in late February 1862. While fielding only two guns compared to the Virginia’s arsenal, the Monitor nevertheless had several advantages. The guns were 11-inch smoothbore Dahlgrens, which NHHC said were the heaviest weapons available. Furthermore, they were mounted in a round, rotating turret that could quickly engage targets and switch aim without having to move the ship.
“Both ships hammered away at each other with heavy cannon, and tried to run down and hopefully disable the other,” according to NHHC, “but their iron-armored sides prevented vital damage.”
Virginia’s smokestack was shot away during the fight, adding to the ship’s mobility problems. The Monitor also had some teething problems with its guns and ammo supplies. Furthermore, the Monitor’s commander was blinded after a shell struck the ship’s armored pilothouse. So the Monitor had to temporarily withdraw from the battle. That was the end of the shooting because by the time Monitor attempted to rejoin the battle, Virginia had changed course to Norfolk.
The battle — the first ever fought between powered ironclads — was inconclusive. But, said NHHC, it “revolutionized warfare at sea.”
Virginia and Monitor continued to stalemate each other for the next several weeks, with no further sea battles taking place. But Virginia posed “a major threat to Union military operations acting as an important deterrent to the Union Army’s advance,” NHHC said. “When forced to evacuate Norfolk, the Confederates tried to take Virginia up the James River but her draft prevented it.”
So having no other choice, the Virginia’s crew opted to destroy the ship. They ran her aground on May 11, 1862 and set her on fire.
The Monitor went on to provide support for the Union’s ill-fated and unsuccessful Peninsular Campaign in 1862 and then was ordered to sail south. But the ship that played a starring role in the emergence of steel warships never got to its destination. A fierce storm on Dec. 31, 1862 did what the Virginia was unable to do: sink the Monitor.
Her wreckage was discovered in 1973. The site was designated a National Marine Sanctuary on January 30, 1975 and placed under the protection of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NHHC said. Some artifacts, including the propeller shaft and plates from the hull, subsequently were recovered for historic preservation.
In 2001, U.S. Navy divers and The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News recovered the steam engine and other parts. Then, according to NHHC, in 2002, the gun turret was raised and transferred to the museum “for historic preservation.”