Today in 1862 the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia fought a one-on-one battle off Hampton Roads, Virginia. While neither ship was seriously damaged in the encounter, this engagement was historic because it marked the first time that two ironclad warships met in battle.
The ironclad was a logical improvement in warship design. Until the 1850’s, the world’s navies built ships made from wood and shipbuilders were as much artisans as engineers. Wood made sailing ships light and fast and trees were a renewable resource. While ship designs improved over the centuries, the materials used to build them scarcely changed from the dawn of recorded history.
Naval armaments were a different story. At one time, ships rammed each other while soldiers fought from one ship to another in order to win a battle. Early cannons placed on warships meant that fighting could be done at a distance, but they were crude, heavy and inaccurate. They improved with time and by the mid-19th century, naval gunnery had become much more deadly not only to sailors, but to their wooden-hulled ships as well.
Koreans were probably the first people to use iron to protect their warships; their “turtle ships” saw action as early as the 16th century. The western powers first grasped the importance of iron as armor during the Crimean War. The British and French navies developed pre-ironclad vessels, essentially artillery batteries that floated and had to be towed into position. These were used against Russian shore defenses that had previously defeated wooden-hulled ships. With this early success in mind, France launched its first ocean-going ironclad warship in 1859.
While the British and French ironclads were actually traditional sailing vessels with armor plating, the use of steam power led to a completely different design. The USS Monitor was the first ship of this new type (all ships like her would henceforth be referred to as monitors). Her top deck was only 18 inches above the waterline and the only structures rising from the hull were a small pilothouse and a rotating turret that housed two cannons. Although not called this at the time, the Monitor was really a semi-submersible ship.
The CSS Virginia began life as the USS Merrimack, a 40-gun frigate commissioned in 1856. When the Union Navy evacuated the Norfolk Navy Yard in April, 1861, they burned the Merrimack down to the waterline to keep her from falling into Confederate hands. However, the rebels raised the hulk and rebuilt her as what they called an ironclad ram, essentially a wooden ship covered with iron plates and carrying non-rotating cannons. Many people still refer to the Virginia as the Merrimack, since the Union never recognized the Confederacy as a legitimate government.
The Virginia’s first mission was to attack the Union blockading squadron near Hampton Roads, Virginia. The Virginia began her attack on March, 8, 1862 and consequently sank the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress. The USS Minnesota was run aground to avoid sinking. But when she returned on the 9th to finish the job, the Monitor was waiting for her.
The battle that followed lasted four hours. Neither ship was seriously damaged and tactically speaking, the fight was a draw. However, the Monitor had successfully defended the blockading squadron while the Virginia had to return home without sinking anything. Strategically, the Union won the day.
Neither ship would survive to see the end of 1862. The Virginia continued to sail down the James River in hopes of confronting the Monitor again, but the Monitor’s captain was under orders not to engage her opponent. In May, 1862, the Union re-occupied Norfolk. The Virginia could not retreat up the James River due to her deep draft, nor was she very seaworthy. Instead, her crew set her ablaze and watched as her magazine exploded, sending the ship to the bottom.
The Monitor lasted a while longer, but her very design sealed her fate. While under tow near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, she was swamped by the high waves crashing over her low deck. She sank, losing 16 of her 62 crewman.