“It looks like nothing on earth or in the waters under the earth.” – Commander C.H. Davis, Union Naval Commissioner on the “Monitor”.
“All I can say is what the girl said when she put her foot in the stocking: ‘It strikes me that there must be something in it.’ ” – President Abraham Lincoln on the same ship.
“The dullness of Old Point was startled today by the announcement that a suspicious looking vessel; supposed to be ‘the Merrimac’, looking like a submerged house, with the roof only above water, was moving down from Norfolk by the channel in front of the Sewells Point batteries.” – the New York Times, March 10, 1862.
On today’s date, March 9 in 1862, these two very strange and highly ungraceful looking ships – the United States Navy’s “Monitor” and the Confederate Navy’s “Virginia”, formerly the U.S.S. “Merrimack” slugged it out at Hampton Roads, off the coast of Virginia, and made naval history. These two ships were “Ironclads” – their sides were covered with iron. The rest of the world’s naval vessels were all made of wood. This was the first time that Ironclad ships, which could blow wooden ships to smithereens while remaining untouchable themselves had ever engaged in combat. The future had been thrust forward in this war, and from this moment on, all other naval ships were obsolete.
The Norfolk Navy Yard Burns!
At the outset of the American Civil War in 1861, the seceding Confederate States of America had no real navy to speak of, and very few naval installations at their disposal. But they initially had a real chance to bag one of the finest naval facilities in the world: the U.S. Naval base at Norfolk, Virginia. Fortunately for the North, while they did not have the men to defend the base at the commencement of hostilities, they were able on April 20 of 1861 to send enough men into the base to burn any ships which could not be sailed out, and to blow up anything else that the rebels might be able to use.
The Rebels Bag the “Merrimack”
Unfortunately the dry dock (wherein ships could be repaired) survived. The superb steam frigate, the U.S.S. Merrimack was indeed burned, but the rebels were able to salvage her hull, and upon this they set to work constructing a warship which was essentially a gun deck housed in an iron plated casing. Re-christened the “Virginia”, she was now 263 feet long, had two inches of iron on her sloped, barn-like casemate, had four nine inch cannons on each side, and one seven incher both fore and aft. And she had a draft (the distance from her waterline to her bottom) of 23 feet. Very few military secrets were successfully kept during the Civil War, least of all this one. Word quickly got north of what the rebels were cooking up, so the North set to work on an ironclad of it’s own. The design by the irascible, hotheaded but brilliant Swedish designer John Ericsson (1803-1889; below)
was derided not only in the way noted above, but also as “a cheesebox on a raft”, and “a raft with an army ambulance amidship.” She was 172 feet long, and while like the Virginia, most of her was below the waterline, her draft was a mere 7.5 feet. And above the waterline she had only two guns, both eleven inches, operating out of a rotating turret. She was christened “the Monitor”.
The “Merrimack/Virginia” Attacks the Union Blockade
The Virginia, captained by Franklin Buchanan (below, who was destined to meet up with Adm. Farragut at Mobile Bay later in the war),
had set about her work of wrecking the Federal Naval blockade of the coast with grim skill on the 8’th. “That THING is coming down!!” shouted a lookout on Cumberland. “That THING” quickly dealt mortal blows to the Cumberland. A wooden sloop armed with 22 nine-inch cannons, the Cumberland poured one broadside after another into the Virginia, most of the shots hitting her directly, but bouncing off ineffectually. Virginia then rammed the mighty, but helpless Cumberland, and sent her to the bottom with all of her guns blazing away. She then turned upon the more substantial target — the Union frigate U.S.S. Congress, which had run aground on the shallow waters of the bay. Unable either to move or even to run, the Congress was now little more than target practice for the Virginia, which set her ablaze with two murderous broadsides. She struck her colors, and Virginia retired for the day. Her next target, the Federal Steam Frigate U.S.S. Minnesota had also run hard aground off Fortress Monroe while attempting to come to the aid of the Cumberland, and would presumably be there the next morning for the Virginia to finish off.
The “Monitor” Arrives!
When the Virginia came out the next morning to finish her primary mission of wrecking the Union blockade by attacking the Minnesota, she found the Union frigate under the protection of the diminutive looking Monitor. This “floating water tank” as the rebels viewed her spat flame, delivering a punishing blow that knocked the Confederate gunners all across the Virginia’s gun deck. The Monitor’s Captain, Lt. John L. Worden later reported:
“I laid the Monitor alongside the Merrimack and gave her a shot. She returned our compliment by a shell weighing 150 pounds…. which struck the turret squarely. (But) it did not start a rivet or a nut.”
Worden had the Monitor veer off, but her turret revolved and she was able to hit the Virginia with another two cannon shots. This was a primary advantage that she had over her larger antagonist. With her revolving turret, Monitor could bring her two guns to bear upon her enemy from nearly any angle, whereas the Virginia had to be steered so her broadside was showing in order to get off a clear shot. And even then, the “floating water tank” presented a target which was often too small for them to hit. For over two hours these strange looking titans fired away at each other. The Virginia’s shots broke up uselessly against the Monitor’s armor, while the Monitor’s solid shots were able to crack the Virginia’s iron. Often going muzzle to muzzle, the Monitor hit the Virginia 20 times, and the Virginia scored 22 hits.
“The Rebel Vessel Driven Off — The Merrimack in a Sinking Condition” breathlessly trumpeted the headlines in the New York Times on March 10. The Times continued: “The Ericsson Battery or, as she is now called, “the Monitor”…. Has already had her first engagement with the enemy, and has come out victor. It appears that she arrived in Hampton Roads last night, just after the rebel battery “Merrimack” had been playing havoc with our blockaders. She came to the rescue precisely at the right moment. Yesterday morning she was set upon by “the Merrimack”…. After a five hours fight she drove (her) off, “the Merrimack” putting into Norfolk in a sinking condition.”
A Strategic Victory for the “Monitor”
While it was an overstatement to say that the Merrimack/Virginia was in a “sinking condition”, she did indeed put in for repairs. Both sides claimed victory. The battle had ended in a tactical draw, but strategically it was a clear victory for the Union. The primary mission of the Virginia had been to break the Union blockade. And while she had wrecked two of the Union Navy’s proudest warships, and had fought the Monitor to a draw, she had clearly failed to break the blockade. While the Monitor had failed to sink the Virginia, she had clearly shown herself to be a superior design, she had accomplished her primary mission which had been to protect the Minnesota, and to prevent the Virginia from breaking the blockade and causing any further damage to the Union Naval vessels. It was an epic battle in naval history, but it was the only battle that the two antagonists would ever fight. The Merrimack/Virginia would later be blown up by the rebels themselves to prevent her capture by the Union when their armies re-took the Naval Yard at Norfolk. The Monitor would shortly be overwhelmed and sunk in high seas when she was moving to support Union operations elsewhere.
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Picture History of the U.S. Navy: From Old Navy to New, 1776-1897 by Theodore Roscoe & Fred Freeman. Bonanza Books, New York, 1956.
THE NEW YORK TIMES.…. Book of the Civil War…. Edited by Arleen Keylin & Douglas John Bowen, Arno Press, New York, 1980.
Monitor -vs- the Merrimack, Currier & Ives =
Monitor -vs- the Merrimack, close up =