Monitor vs. Merrimac

A major turning point in naval warfare took place during the American Civil War when the United States Ship (USS) Monitor and the Confederate States Ship (CSS) Virginia (formally the USS Merrimack) met in the Battle of Hampton Roads.  This historic battle was the first time that ironclad warships had engaged each other in battle, and also the only major naval engagement of the American Civil War. The CSS Virginia was the Confederacy’s answer to Union blockade that was tightening its noose around the fledgling country by not allowing any imported goods to enter the southern states. The Union’s answer to the CSS Virginia was the very innovative USS Monitor.

Before the mid-19th century, all war ships were made primarily of wood, but that changed with the introduction of steam propulsion and iron armor. An ironclad is a steam powered warship that was covered with iron and steel armor plating. These ships were developed to eliminate the extreme vulnerability that wooden ships had to both explosive and incendiary shells. The first ironclad ever built, La Gloire, was commissioned to the French Navy in 1859. This vessel boasted four and a half inch thick iron plate armor, and a top speed of thirteen knots. While this vessel was cutting edge at the time, its superiority on the seas was short lived when the British commissioned their own faster and more powerful ironclad, the H.M.S Warrior, in December of 1861.  By the end of 1862, most European countries had adopted ironclads and it had become evident that armored warships were the way of the future (Greene, 1998).

The birth of the CSS Virginia was a fiery beginning.  On Saturday, April 20, 1861 the Union Navy began its evacuation of the naval yard at Gosport, Virginia (located near the southern port of Norfolk, Virginia). In the process of evacuation, the navy set many of the buildings ablaze and scuttled all the ships that were not seaworthy, including the USS Merrimack, which had been under repair. Once the naval yard was abandoned, local confederates took control of the remnants and raised the hull of the USS Merrimack from the depths of the harbor. Immediately, plans were made by Confederate Naval Commander, John M. Brooke, to use the mostly intact hull and the steam engines of the former Merrimack as the base for their soon to be ironclad war ship, the CSS Virginia. The hull and especially steam engines had to be reused because the very limited manufacturing capability of the confederate states did not allow the production of large steam engines in a reasonable time period (US Navy).

The 275 foot long hull was brought into dry dock where construction began in June of 1861. On a 160 foot section of the middle of the vessel, an elevated, shielded structure was built. This structure was constructed of two foot thick oak and pine timbers, inclined at an angle of 36 degrees, and covered by 4 inch thick iron plated armor. The armor was inclined to deflect cannon fire off of the side of the ship. The CSS Virginia was outfitted with a total of 10 guns (four on each broadside and 1 between the bow and stern). The front of the ship was also outfitted with a with a large cast iron ram to be used as a last resort in battle. The ship was commissioned in February of 1862, but due to limited supplies, was not finished until March 7, 1862. Immediately following its completion the ship was sent to break the Union blockade on March 8th (US Navy).

In order to counter the Confederate ironclad Virginia, the Union Navy needed to design and build its own ironclad, and quickly. During the summer of 1861, the United States Navy Department appointed the Ironclad Board, to research these new warships, and to evaluate different possible designs.  One of the most innovative designs was submitted by Scandinavian engineer and inventor, John Ericsson.  His design featured an almost completely submerged raft hull, with a 20 foot diameter revolving turret that contained two very large guns. The revolving turret was a major innovation in naval warfare because it allowed the ship to shoot in any direction and allowed two cannons to do the work of many more. The ship also had very low freeboard, at only about 18 inches, which was mean that most of the hull was protected from cannon fire by being below the water line, but also meant that the vessel was not very seaworthy on the open ocean.

Ericsson was awarded the contract to build the USS Monitor by the Navy for a cost of $275,000. Wasting no time, he subcontracted the construction and fabrication of the ship to eight different foundries, and had all of the parts shipped to the Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, New York, where they were assembled. The USS Monitor entered the water on January 30, 1861, 118 days after construction began, and the interior of the vessel was completed on February 25 (Roberts, 2002).

Following its completion, the Monitor departed from New York on March 6,1862, under tow, with orders to proceed to Hampton Roads. During the two day trip the seas became extremely rough and the very low freeboard of the vessel became a huge problem. Substantial amounts of water leaked in around the turret and down through the smokestack, almost extinguishing the fires in the boilers that powered the steam pumps to evacuate that water out of the ship, and filling most of the ship with noxious gasses from the smoldering boilers. Thankfully the seas calmed before the situation got too dire, and the Monitor arrived in Hampton Roads on March 8th at 9 PM, fully intact and ready for battle (Roberts, 2002).

Accordingly, at the beginning of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln met with his Generals to create a plan where the rebellious states of the Confederacy could be brought back into the Union with minimal bloodshed. Union General Winfield Scott proposed a plan of battle that became known as the Anaconda Plan. The plan was named after the South American snake which kills its prey by strangulation. General Scott’s plan was to strangle the Confederacy into submission by cutting its supply lines to the rest of the trade world. In order to restore the Union with minimal bloodshed, President Lincoln favored this fairly non-aggressive plan. The primary strategy of the Anaconda Plan was to create a complete naval blockade of the Southern states. In order for the plan to succeed, it would be necessary to blockade more than 3,500 miles of coast from Virginia to Mexico and up the Mississippi River. Because this plan was very extensive, and impractical, it was necessary to strategically blockade and control major ports around the southern coast (Mariners’ Museum).

One of the most strategically significant coastal regions was Hampton Roads in Virginia for both the Union and the Confederacy. Hampton Roads was where the wide mouth of the James River emptied into the Chesapeake Bay. For the Union, Hampton Roads was the doorway to the Confederate capitol at Richmond. For the Confederacy, Hampton Roads was the passage to the sea and potential European allies across the Atlantic Ocean. At this point of the war, the Union still had control over Fort Monroe in Virginia, which defended the opening of Hampton Roads. Fort Monroe became the birthplace for many Union expeditions into the South on the Peninsula Campaigns, as well as an anchor for the blockade of the Atlantic coast (Mariners’ Museum).

Upon the United States Navy’s mobilization into Hampton Roads, the Confederate Navy immediately set out to break Union blockade attempts. Under the command of Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan on March 8, 1862, the ironclad CSS Virginia (ex-Merrimack) left its berth at Norfolk, VA and steamed out to attack the nearby Union ships in Hampton Roads.  The first Union vessel encountered by the CSS Virginia was the USS Cumberland.  Around 2:00 PM on March 8, 1862 the CSS Virginia crashed into the USS Cumberland with its 1500 pound cast iron ram. The CSS Virginia smashed a massive hole in the Cumberland’s wooden hull. Despite the mortal blow, the CSS Virginia had become entangled with the dismantled hull of the Cumberland and was at risk of being sunk right along with it.  Fortunately, the Virginia was able to dislodge itself from the Cumberland, but lost its battering ram in the process (Civil War Trust).

Now with one opponent defeated, the Virginia turned its sights on the nearby USS Congress.  In attempt to avoid a similar defeat as the Cumberland, the USS Congress deliberately ran aground on a nearby shoal.  Due to this maneuver, the CSS Virginia was not able to ram the USS Congress so it positioned 200 yards away and bombarded the wooden vessel with its powerful broadside cannons.  Because it was grounded ashore and therefore immobile, the Congress was quickly wrecked by Confederate fire.  Around 4:00 PM the USS Congress lowered its flag and surrendered to the Confederate Navy. Eager to accept the USS Congress’ formal surrender, Captain Franklin Buchanan came out onto his ship’s deck under a white flag and was then wounded by a musket ball fired from shore.  With the sun setting and captain needing medical attention, the Virginia ceased attack and returned to shore (Civil War Trust).

After the defeats of the USS Cumberland and USS Congress, panic arose in Union capitol Washington, D.C. and within the Union Naval fleet. Despite all the concerns, a new and innovative ship had been disembarked from New York and silently slipped into Hampton Roads during the night of March 8, 1862.  The Union ironclad USS Monitor, commanded by Lieutenant John Worden, prepared to defend the rest of the Union Naval fleet from the seemingly invincible Virginia (Civil War Trust).

The next morning on March 9, 1862 the Virginia prepared for another assault on Union vessels. Due to the injury of Captain Buchanan, Catesby Jones was now in command of the Virginia. The Confederate ironclad steamed towards the USS Minnesota and began to fire upon it, oblivious to the presence of the USS Monitor. As the Virginia approached the Minnesota, it noticed a strange raft-like vessel by its side.  By the time the Virginia took notice of the Union’s ironclad, the USS Monitor had been bearing down on it. Therefore, the Confederate ironclad now had shifted its fire to this newcomer with its large rotating turret.  The two ironclads slowed down and positioned for battle within close range, where both ships fired into each other but with little effect. After the exchange of fire, The Virginia attempted to ram and capsize the smaller Monitor, but the Monitor was much more agile and was able to avoid the Virginia (Civil War Trust).

After several hours of close range combat, the USS Monitor disengaged and headed for the safety of shallower waters. Lieutenant Worden, who had been in the forward pilot house on the Monitor, became temporarily blinded when a shell from the Virginia exploded near the viewing slit of the pilothouse. During the retreat of the Monitor, the Virginia had temporary advantage, but could not attack due to being short on ammunition. Concerned over the lowering tide, the Virginia broke off the engagement also and headed for the safety of the Norfolk port. Although the Union suffered more casualties and damaged vessels, the battle of the ironclads ended as a draw (Civil War Trust).  The two ironclads only battled for about three hours, with neither being able to inflict significant damage on the other. The Virginia returned to her home at the Gosport Navy Yard for repairs while the Monitor returned to her station defending the Minnesota. The ships did not fight again, but the Union blockade remained in place (Timelines).

The world’s first battle between steam-powered, ironclad warships ended indecisively, but its impact on the future of naval warfare was definitive. Although the battle did not change the control over the war that each government had prior to its occurrence, the battle had a profound influence on naval warfare to come (Civil War Trust). The battle received worldwide attention, and had instantaneous effects on all navies. The preeminent naval powers, Great Britain and France, halted further construction of wooden-hulled ships. They produced a new type of warship similar to the Monitor. Just as in the Monitor, the use of a small number of very heavy guns, mounted so that they could fire in all directions soon became standard in all types of warships. Shipbuilders also incorporated rams into the designs of warship hulls for the rest of the century. This short lived battle failed to win the Civil War but nevertheless put advancement of technology and innovation in action, and has significantly impacted warfare since (Timelines).

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