Hampton Roads: Monitor vs. Merrimack March 9, 1862
Civilwar.org ^ | Civil War Trust
Posted on 03/10/2017 1:28:55 AM PST by iowamark
Seeking to interdict Federal naval operations in Hampton Roads, the ironclad CSS Virginia (ex-Merrimack) left its berth at Norfolk and steamed out to attack the nearby Union ships. Under the command of Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, the CSS Virginia headed straight for the USS Cumberland off Newport News.
Around 2pm on March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginia struck the Cumberland with its 1,500lb iron ram, smashing a huge hole in its wooden hull. Despite the mortal blow delivered to the Cumberland, the CSS Virginia, which had become entangled within the shredded hull of its opponent, was also at risk of also being carried down. Fortunately for the Virginia, the ironclad was able to dislodge itself from the frigate’s side, but in doing so the lethal iron ram broke off and sank.
With one opponent vanquished, the Virginia turned its sights on the nearby USS Congress. Seeking to avoid the same fate that befell the Cumberland, the USS Congress purposely ran aground on a nearby shoal. Unable to deliver a ram attack, the CSS Virginia maneuvered to a point 200 yards away and pounded the frigate with its powerful broadsides. Unable to maneuver, the Congress was quickly wrecked by the Confederate fire. At 4pm the USS Congress lowered its flag and surrendered. Hoping to accept the USS Congress’ formal surrender, Franklin Buchanan, who had come out onto his ship’s deck under a white flag, was wounded by a musket ball fired from shore. With daylight waning and its captain needing medical attention, the Virginia broke off its attack and returned to shore.
Lt. John WordenDespite the growing panic in Washington DC and within the Federal fleet, a new and innovative ship had silently slipped into the Roads during the night of March 8, 1862. The USS Monitor, the radical invention of John Ericsson and commanded by Lt. John L. Worden, prepared to defend the rest of the Federal fleet from the seemingly invincible Virginia.
The next morning, Catesby Jones, now in command of the Virginia, prepared the rebel ironclad for another assault. Steaming towards the USS Minnesota, the Virginia began to take this new victim under fire. As the Virginia approached the Minnesota it noticed a strange raft-like vessel by its side. With the USS Monitor now bearing down on the Virginia, the Confederate ironclad shifted its fire to this newcomer with the large rotating turret. The two ironclads then settled down to a close range slug fest where both ships fired into each other with little effect. The Virginia at one point in the struggle sought to ram and capsize the smaller Monitor, but the nimbler Monitor was able to largely avoid the ram-less Virginia.
USS MonitorAfter several hours of close combat the USS Monitor disengaged and headed for the safety of shallower waters. Lt. Worden, who had been in the forward pilot house on the Monitor, had been temporarily blinded when a shell from the Virginia exploded near the viewing slit of the pilothouse. Despite its temporary advantage, the CSS Virginia, short on ammunition and concerned over the lowering tide, broke off the engagement and headed for the safety of Norfolk. The world’s first battle between steam-powered, ironclad warships ended in a draw, but its impact on the future of naval warfare would be profound.
Fact #1: The CSS Virginia and USS Monitor were not the first ironclad warships, but they were the first ironclads to battle against one another
The CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor were not the first ironclad warships. In November 1859, the French navy had launched La Glorie, the first ironclad battleship. The Royal Navy, in response to the new French warship, had launched HMS Warrior, an iron-hulled frigate, in October of 1861.
Even in the American Civil War, the Virginia and Monitor were not the first ironclads. To support Union naval operations on the rivers in the western theater, ironclad river gunboats (City Class gunboats) had been built, launched, and deployed by January 1862. These gunboats played an important role in the battles for Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in February of 1862.
Fact#2: The Confederacy had great difficulty in sourcing the iron plating needed for the CSS Virginia
In October of 1861 it was determined that the CSS Virginia (the converted ex-USS Merrimack) would require two layers of two inch iron armor plate covering its entire casement. Requiring upwards of 800 tons of iron, there simply was not that much iron available. To make up for this painful shortage, the Confederacy was reduced to scavenging old scrap iron, melting down old smoothbore cannon and iron tools, and even ripping up hundreds of miles of railroad track. The delays in obtaining and shaping these iron plates gave the Union more time to construct their counters to the growing menace of the CSS Virginia…
When I was younger, like seven years old, I got my hands ahold of a magazine that detailed the ironclads and their first battle.
I must have read it fifty times. And it’s still as fascinating to me today.
Thanks for posting.
I found a detailed, high resolution cross-section image of the Monitor.
Hampton Roads.. my adopted home region. I cross the battle location each day to work along the Monitor-Merrimack Bridge Tunnel. For those FReepers who are interested in the battle of the ironclads, the Mariners Museum in Newport News has the turret of the Monitor on display. It’s a fascinating piece.
The American Civil War also saw the introduction of aerial surveillance, factory-produced munitions on a large scale, mass transportation of personnel and materiel, long-distance communications via electronics, more pervasive use of photography, canned rations, the origins of modern military medicine, total warfare against enemy infrastructure and support mechanisms…
The Napoleonic Wars were the zenith of thousands of years of combat procedure and its evolution. The American Civil War was the bloody birth of something altogether new. Everything since then, including arguably the use of nuclear weapons, has been refinement of what came about during those five years.
To: Original Lurker
Thanks for posting. I am a proud
USS Monitor after the battle. Note the dents in the turret.
The iron work was done at Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond.
Not one ton of iron ore was mined anywhere in the South until 1864 near Birmingham, AL.
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