On This Day

monitor and merrimack, monitor and merrimac, monitor and virginia, battle of hampton roads
U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command
Fighting between the CSS Virginia, left, and USS Monitor depicted in a painting by J.O. Davidson.

On This Day: The Monitor and Merrimack Clash at Hampton Roads

March 09, 2012 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On March 9, 1862, the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia, better known as the Merrimack, fought in the Battle of Hampton Roads, the first battle between two ironclad warships.

The Monitor and Merrimack

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The Monitor and Virginia were the first two ships built by the U.S. and Confederacy, respectively, that had iron armor protecting their hulls. The Virginia, constructed from the wreckage of the USS Merrimack (or Merrimac), left the Norfolk shipyard on March 8, 1862, immediately after its completion and sailed to Hampton Roads, where Union forces were conducting a blockade.

The March 9 New York Times described the Virginia as “looking like a submerged house, with the roof only above water.” The Congress and Cumberland, two wooden-hulled Union ships, attacked and “rained full broadsides on the iron-clad monster, that took, no effect, the balls glancing upwards, and flying off.”

The Virginia sank the Cumberland using its iron ram (an underwater extension of the bow) and defeated the Congress in a cannon battle. Then, when the Virginia was fired on from ashore, its captain, Franklin Buchanan, ordered the Congress be burned.

The USS Minnesota ran aground while fleeing the battle, but it was getting dark and Buchanan decided to return to Norfolk for the night. The Virginia suffered considerable damage during the battle; its ram was broken off, its iron plates were loosened and two cannons were destroyed. Still, it was in good enough shape to return to the battle the following day and destroy the Minnesota and other Union ships.

In order to combat the Virginia, Union leadership rushed its own ironclad, the Monitor, to Hampton Roads from Brooklyn, N.Y. The March 10 New York Times provided a detailed account of the Monitor’s design and construction.

The Monitor arrived on the morning of March 9 moved to defend the Minnesota. The Monitor and Virginia engaged each other in battle at close range, “the distance between the vessels frequently being not more than a few yards,” according to the account of Lt. S. Dana Greene, the Monitor's executive officer. The warships inflicted considerable damage to each other over several hours of fighting.

Shortly after noon, a shell struck the Monitor’s pilothouse. The commanding officer, Lt. John L. Worden, “received in his face the force of the blow, which partly stunned him, and, filling his eyes with powder, utterly blinded him,” said Greene. Worden ordered the Monitor to retreat to shallower waters (where the Virginia could not sail) to attend to access the damage to himself and the ship. By the time a new commanding officer had been put in place, the Virginia, believing that the Monitor had withdrawn, was already sailing back to Norfolk.

The battle therefore ended in a draw, though both sides claimed victory. The Times’ correspondent pronounced the Monitor victorious, writing that it had “routed the famous rebel iron-clad floating battery.” The Confederates, he wrote, “had frequently averred that [the Virginia] was about to run out, sink the blockading vessels, and run along the Atlantic coast, and by destroying our men-of-war effectually raise the blockade. And indeed the first reports yesterday seemed as if the threat was actually about to be carried out. … But she was no match for the Monitor, who has now effectually Admonished her to keep out of the Road hereafter.”

The battle was the last action the Virginia would ever see. In May 1862, with Union troops advancing on Norfolk, the Confederacy destroyed the damaged ship rather than let it fall into Union hands. The Monitor, meanwhile, sank during a storm off the coast of North Carolina on Dec. 31, 1862.

Though the Monitor and Virginia had little effect on the outcome of the war, the power and hardiness they displayed at Hampton Roads ushered in a new era of shipbuilding. “[T]he outcome of combat between armored equals, compared with the previous day's terrible mis-match, symbolized the triumph of industrial age warfare,” writes the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command. “The value of existing ships of the line and frigates was heavily discounted in popular and professional opinion. Ironclad construction programs, already underway in America and Europe, accelerated. The resulting armored warship competition would continue into the 1940s, some eight decades in the future.”

Historical Context: The Civil War

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to the Civil War links to the most comprehensive and reliable sources on the war.
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