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Battle of Hampton Roads

Battle Between the Monitor and Merrimac
by Kurz and Allison
Battle of Hampton Roads
ConflictAmerican Civil War
DateMarch 8, 1862March 9, 1862
PlaceOff Sewell's Point,
near the mouth of Hampton Roads, Virginia
United States of America Confederate States of America
John L. Worden Franklin Buchanan
Catesby R. Jones
1 ironclad, 3 wooden warships 1 ironclad warship
261 killed
108 wounded
7 killed
17 wounded
Peninsula Campaign
Hampton RoadsYorktownWilliamsburgEltham's LandingDrewry's BluffHanover CourthouseSeven PinesOak GroveBeaver Dam CreekGaines' MillGarnett's & Golding's FarmSavage's StationWhite Oak SwampGlendaleMalvern Hill

The Battle of Hampton Roads, often called"the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac", was a naval battle of the American Civil War, famous for being the first fight between two powered iron-covered warships, or "ironclads". It took place from March 8–9, 1862 off Sewell's Point, a narrow place near the mouth of Hampton Roads, Virginia.

Although the battle was inconclusive, it is chiefly significant in naval history. Prior to then, nearly all warships were made primarily of wood. After the battle, design of ships and naval warfare changed dramatically, as nations around the world raced to convert their fleets to iron, as ironclads had shown themselves to be drastically superior to wooden ships in their ability to withstand enemy fire.

As the war started, Union forces evacuating Norfolk burned the ships left behind. One was raised by the Confederates, renamed the CSS Virginia, and plated with iron—making it the first North American ironclad warship to see battle. On March 8, 1862, it sailed into Hampton Roads off Sewell's Point to challenge the blockading Union ships there, destroying several of them. The next day, it was engaged by the USS Monitor, a newly built Union ironclad.

Table of contents

Lincoln attempts blockade at Hampton Roads

From the outset of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln implemented a plan to bring the rebellious Confederate states back into the Union. He would use the larger and more powerful Union Navy to cut the Confederacy off from the rest of the world by blockading the Confederacy's coastline on the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, and controlling the Mississippi River Valley with gunboats. Lincoln ordered the blockade as hostilities escalated.

Burning of the frigate Merrimack and the Norfolk navy-yard.

In the spring of 1861, land-based Confederate forces were able to seize Norfolk, Virginia, and the surrounding area on the south side of Hampton Roads. Forced to retreat, the Union Navy burned and evacuated the Gosport Shipyard, located in Portsmouth, across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk, destroying nine ships in the process, including the Boston-built frigate USS Merrimack. The evacuation left only Fort Monroe at Old Point Comfort on the Virginia Peninsula on the north side of Hampton Roads (across from Sewell's Point at the mouth) under Union control in Tidewater Virginia.

Occupation of Norfolk gave the Confederacy its only major shipyard and thousands of heavy guns. CS Brigadier General Walter Gwynn, who commanded the Confederate defenses around Norfolk, erected batteries at Sewell's Point, both to protect Norfolk and to control Hampton Roads.

The Union dispatched a fleet of wooden warships to Hampton Roads to enforce the blockade. The waters inland on the James and Elizabeth Rivers were controlled by the Confederate Navy, which was also using wooden warships. Despite some skirmishes, neither navy was able to overcome the other. The impasse continued through the remainder of 1861, and into early 1862.

Ironclad warships: a new technology

Ironclads were warships sheathed with thick iron plates for protection. The first uses of iron for naval protection had occurred in the Far East in the 16th century. (Korea's Admiral Yi Sun-sin built one in 1592). The world's first ocean-going iron-hulled armoured battleship, the French La Gloire, was recently constructed. However, the use of iron to provide armor on traditional wooden sailing ships was still a developing technology in North America at the outset of the Civil War.

In early 1862, the Union and Confederate governments were each aware that some type of ironclad fighting vessel was under development by the other. Spies had reported some of the details. Each side was both anxious to take advantage of the new technology, and fearful of what the other might accomplish.

Although very different from each other, the first Union and Confederate ironclads were very odd-looking in comparison with contemporary warships. Neither had been completed to the full satisfaction of their respective designers when they sailed into history at Hampton Roads within 24 hours of each other.

CSS Virginia

CSS Virginia

When the Union Navy burned the USS Merrimack during the evacuation of Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia in 1861, little did they know that Merrimack would be re-floated and transformed into the Confederate Navy's first ironclad.

Merrimack was rebuilt at the Gosport Shipyard at Portsmouth, in the first dry dock in America, with ironclad plating and a reduced superstructure from her old burned out hull, and was commissioned as CSS Virginia on February 17, 1862.

Feeling that iron armor would make cannon fire ineffective against ships, the designer of Virginia had her equipped with a ram, a weapon normally associated with ancient galleys and not used in contemporary warships.

Despite an all-out effort to complete her, Virginia still had workmen on board when she sailed, and was rushed into service without the customary sea trials or under-way training.

USS Monitor

USS Monitor

The USS Monitor was of a totally new design, and a favored project of President Lincoln. The unique design engineered by John Ericsson featured an innovative rotating gun turret that housed two 11 inch (280 mm) Dahlgren smooth bore cannons. It also had a low profile in the water and only a small part of the deck and the gun turret were visible to the enemy. Monitor's hull was constructed at the Continental Iron Works in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, New York, and the ship was launched there on January 30, 1862.

Monitor was one of the most innovative naval vessels of all time. Parts were forged in nine foundries and brought together to build the ship. The entire process took less than 120 days.

Despite the rapid construction, Lincoln was greatly frustrated that Monitor's delivery from the builder was late. It was rushed to Hampton Roads, arriving later on the very day that its Confederate counterpart had made a stunning and frightening debut at the expense of the Union Navy.

First clash between ironclads

Map of events of the Battle of Hampton Roads.

8 March 1862Virginia wreaks havoc on wooden Union warships

The battle began when the large and somewhat unwieldy ironclad warship, renamed CSS Virginia by the Confederate States Navy, steamed into Hampton Roads on the morning of March 8, 1862, and set to work attempting to break the Union blockade.

Virginia, commanded by Captain Franklin Buchanan, was supported by Raleigh and Beaufort, and accompanied by Patrick Henry, Jamestown, and Teaser.

The sinking of Cumberland by the iron-clad Virginia.

That fateful morning, Virginia headed directly for the Union squadron. She opened the engagement when less than a mile distant from USS Cumberland and the firing became general from blockaders and shore batteries. Virginia rammed Cumberland below the waterline and she sank rapidly, "gallantly fighting her guns," Buchanan reported in tribute to a brave foe, "as long as they were above water."

Buchanan next turned the fury of Virginia on USS Congress. Seeing what had happened to Cumberland, the captain of Congress ordered his ship grounded in shallow water. Congress and Virginia traded fire for an hour, after which the badly-damaged Congress surrendered. While the surviving crewmen of Congress were being ferried off the ship, a Union battery on the north shore opened fire on Virginia. In retaliation, the captain of the Virginia ordered Congress fired upon with red-hot shot and incendiary shell. Congress later exploded when fires caused by the rebel ironclad caused her magazine to explode.

Virginia was also damaged. Shots from Cumberland, Congress, and Union troops had riddled her smokestack, reducing her already low speed. Two of her guns were disabled, and a number of armor plates had been loosened. Even so, her captain attacked the USS Minnesota, which had run aground on a sandbank while trying to escape Virginia. However, because of her deep draft, Virginia was unable to get close enough to do significant damage.

It being late in the day, Virginia left with the expectation of returning the next day and completing the destruction of the Union fleet. She retreated into the safety of rebel controlled waters for the night.

The day was Virginia's, but it was not without loss. Part of her ram was wrenched off and left embedded in the side of the stricken Cumberland. While firing on the shore battery, Captain Buchanan's thigh bone was broken by a musket ball. This necessitated his turning over command to Lieutenant Catesby R. Jones. Buchanan's leg was subsequently amputated.

Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory wrote to Confederate President Davis of the action:

"The conduct of the Officers and men of the squadron … reflects unfading honor upon themselves and upon the Navy. The report will be read with deep interest, and its details will not fail to rouse the ardor and nerve the arms of our gallant seamen. It will be remembered that the Virginia was a novelty in naval architecture, wholly unlike any ship that ever floated; that her heaviest guns were equal novelties in ordnance; that her motive power and obedience to her helm were untried, and her officers and crew strangers, comparatively, to the ship and to each other; and yet, under all these disadvantages, the dashing courage and consummate professional ability of Flag Officer Buchanan and his associates achieved the most remarkable victory which naval annals record."

It had been a frightening and demoralizing day for the Union Navy. Late that night, USS Monitor, an innovative ironclad vessel built for the Union, and commanded by Lieutenant John L. Worden, arrived in Hampton Roads. This Union ironclad had been rushed to Hampton Roads in hopes of protecting the Union fleet and preventing Virginia from threatening Union cities.

"Upon the untried endurances of the new USS Monitor and her timely arrival," observed Captain John A. Dahlgren, "did depend the tide of events."

9 March 1862Monitor engages Virginia

The next morning, on March 9, 1862, after undergoing repairs, Virginia returned to finish off the grounded Minnesota. The Confederates found their way blocked by the newly arrived Monitor, which the commander of the rebel ship later described as "little more than a cheesebox on a raft".

After fighting for hours, mostly at close range, neither could overcome the other. The smaller and nimbler Monitor was able to outmaneuver the Virginia, but neither ship proved able to do significant damage to the other. Finally, Virginia retreated, leaving Monitor and the rest of the Union fleet in possession of the "battlefield". Both sides claimed victory.

Ironclads engaged in terrific combat by Currier and Ives

Spring 1862 — a standoff at Hampton Roads

During the next two months, Virginia made several sorties to Hampton Roads hoping to draw Monitor into battle. Most days Virginia would slowly steam down the Elizabeth River to the Confederate forts on Craney Island or Sewell's Point. Across Hampton Roads, Monitor and a vast number of Union ships waited for the Confederate ship to venture down towards Fort Monroe.

The Union plan was to engage Virginia in waters of their own choosing. Monitor was under presidential orders not to enter a fight unless it was absolutely unavoidable. The Union Navy Department had leased several large steamers for the express purpose of running Virginia down. The plan was to wait for the Confederate ship to venture into deep water and the large steamers would attempt to run up on Virginia's submerged deck ends and hopefully sink the ship.

Virginia did venture into Hampton Roads on two occasions and attempted to entice Monitor out to fight, but owing to the presidential order, the challenge went unanswered.

What was probably the most anticipated naval battle of its day never materialized. USS Monitor and CSS Virginia never fought each other again.

Destruction of the rebel monster Merrimac off Craney Island, 11 May 1862 by Currier and Ives.

Events on land surrounding Hampton Roads forced the Confederates to abandon the Norfolk area. As the evacuation of Norfolk and Portsmouth got under way on May 10, 1862, the officers and crew of Virginia were left with few options. Commander Josiah Tattnall realized that his ship had too much draft to make it up the James River to Richmond, and there was little chance of successfully escaping out of Hampton Roads past the waiting fleet of Union warships off Fort Monroe that were surely anticipating just such a move.

To keep her from being captured, early on the morning of May 11, 1862, Tattnall ordered Virginia run aground at Craney Island and set afire. After burning fiercely for about an hour, the flames reached her magazine and the ship was destroyed by a great explosion.

Impact upon naval warfare

The broad impact of the battle on naval thinking was summarized by Captain Levin M. Powell of USS Potomac writing later from Vera Cruz: "The news of the fight between the Monitor and the Merrimac has created the most profound sensation amongst the professional men in the allied fleet here. They recognize the fact, as much by silence as words, that the face of naval warfare looks the other way now and the superb frigates and ships of the line … supposed capable a month ago, to destroy anything afloat in half an hour … are very much diminished in their proportions, and the confidence once reposed in them fully shaken in the presence of these astounding facts." And as Captain Dahlgren phrased it: "Now comes the reign of iron and cased sloops are to take the place of wooden ships."

Fate and heritage of the two famous ironclads

Stereograph of Monitor after the battle, July 1862.

After the Battle of Hampton Roads, neither ship played much of a subsequent part in the war, and neither survived 1862.

CSS Virginia was a one-of-a-kind ship and led a short life before she was destroyed. When the Gosport Navy Yard was evacuated by the Confederate forces in May of 1862, Virginia was found to be too deep for navigation in the James River. To avoid capture, the ship was destroyed by her own crew off Craney Island on May 11, 1862. More than 10 years after the end of hostilities, on May 30, 1876, the wreck of the Virginia was raised and transported back to the ship yard at Portsmouth where it was broken up.

Portions of the Virginia, including her armor, anchor, and guns, have been displayed for many years at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth and the Mariners' Museum in Newport News. The anchor of the Virginia sits on the lawn in front of the Museum of the Confederacy, established in Richmond in 1890.

USS Monitor became the prototype for the monitor warship type. Many more were built, including river monitors, and they played key roles in civil war battles on the Mississippi and James rivers. However, while the design proved exceptionally well-suited for river combat, the low-profile and heavy turret caused poor seaworthiness in rough waters. This feature probably led to the early demise of the original Monitor in December, 1862, when she foundered and sank in the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. In 1973, the wreck was located. (See below for more).

Commemorating the battle

Historical names: Merrimack

The name of the warship which served the Confederacy in the famous Battle of Hampton Roads has been a continuing source of confusion. She was rebuilt and commissioned by the Confederacy as CSS Virginia, but the Union preferred to call the Confederate ironclad warship by its earlier name, "Merrimack". Perhaps because the Union won the Civil War, the history of the United States generally records the Union version. However, at some later time the name commonly used was shortened by dropping the final "-k", hence "the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac".

Confederate ironclad

The small community in Montgomery County near the location where the iron for the Confederate ironclad was forged is now known as Merrimac, Virginia. Some of the iron mined there and used in the plating on the Confederate ironclad is displayed at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth. Other pieces are on display at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News and the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, where the anchor has resided for many years.

Jamestown Exposition of 1907

The Jamestown Exposition was one of the many world's fairs and expositions that were popular in the United States early in the 20th century. It was held from April 26 to December 1, 1907, at Sewell's Point on Hampton Roads, near Norfolk, and commemorated the tercentennial (300th) anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown Settlement.

One of the more popular attractions was a re-creation of the Battle of Hampton Roads, which had taken place 40 years earlier within sight of the exposition. The exterior of the Merrimac-Monitor Building looked somewhat like a battleship while the interior contained a large circular description of the battle.

Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge Tunnel

In 1992, Virginia's Department of Transportation completed the 4.6-mile (7.4 km) Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel. This important traffic link carrying Interstate 664 crosses Hampton Roads very close to the site of the famous clash of the ironclads. It cost $400 million to build, and includes a four-lane tunnel that is 4,800 feet (1460 m) long, two man-made portal islands, and 3.2 miles (5.1 km) of twin trestle. Northbound traffic is provided an exceptional view of the location of the historic battle.

USS Monitor — rediscovery and display

After resting undetected on the ocean floor for 111 years, the wreck of Monitor was located by a team of scientists in 1973. The remains of the ship were found 16 miles (26 km) off Cape Hatteras, on a relatively flat, sandy bottom at a depth of about 240 ft (73.2 m). Monitor's hull lies upside down, with her deck resting on her displaced gun turret. In 1987, the site was declared a National Historic Landmark, the first shipwreck to receive this distinction.

Because of Monitor's advanced state of deterioration, timely recovery of remaining significant artifacts and ship components became critical. Since then, using new technologies, hundreds of fragile artifacts, including the turret and its two Dahlgren cannons, an anchor, steam engine, and propeller, have been recovered and were carefully transported back to Hampton Roads.

The USS Monitor Center is a popular attraction at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, where the artifacts have joined some of those from Virginia.


See also

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