The battle between USS Monitor and CSS Virginia(1) around Hampton Roads in March of 1862, though tactically indecisive, had positive results for both sides, making it one of the most decisive draws in history. For the North, Monitor proved that the United States could build warships more powerful than nearly any other then afloat in a very short time, and could defend Northern interests against any interference by Europe into American affairs. For the South, Virginia represented sound and powerful harbor defense warship design that was at least equal to anything the Union could float, and that compelled the Union to take the threat of other, similar ships seriously. Further, her short career may have saved the Confederate capitol and lengthened the war by two years.
By March of 1862 the fortunes of the Confederacy were in decline. In Tennessee the Federals had taken Forts Henry and Donelson that January, forcing the evacuation of Nashville. In February an audacious naval operation had secured New Orleans. Surprising Army/Navy operations had secured Roanoke Island in Virginia and Port Royal in South Carolina, providing important bases for blockading ships.
The hopes of the Confederacy, a nation without a navy, rested in part on a new ship that then was being finished in Norfolk. The hull of USS Merrimac, one of the prewar US Navy's largest and most powerful steam cruisers, had been salvaged after she was burned at her moorings during the Union's hurried evacuation of the Gosport naval yards. The hull below the berth deck was practically intact, and her power plant was salvageable. Confederate authorities had approved the plans for the ship that would be dubbed Virginia.
In October 1861, as news of Virginia spread widely, the Union commenced construction of an iron ship of a completely new design. Designed by a Swedish-born inventor of considerable genius, John Ericsson, the warship had only two guns mounted in a centrally mounted turret. The new ship, called Monitor, was commissioned four months later.
In February 1862, Franklin Buchanan was ordered to take command of the Confederate James River Squadron that included Virginia. Neither he nor the squadron had orders to break the blockade or attack blockading ships, but was specifically part of the naval defenses of the James River. On Sunday 7 March 1862, Virginia attacked the Union blockaders. The resulting battle lasted little more than three hours, leaving the 24- gun sailing sloop Cumberland rammed and sunk, the 50-gun frigate Congress burning, and 47-gun steamer Minnesota, which rushed into the Roads to help, aground some two miles east of Newport News. In a single morning, the Confederacy had become a naval power.
But the Yankee sailors and land batteries had put up a fight, hitting Virginia more than 100 times with artillery, sweeping her outsides clear of all fittings, destroying her boats, riddling her smokestack, and destroying two guns. Two of her crew were killed and another nineteen wounded, including Buchanan. As the battle ended Monitor entered Hampton Roads, having worked her way south from New York through two days of storms.
On the morning of 8 March, Virginia and Monitor clashed in the Roads. Within minutes the two were side by side, pounding each other with gunfire from less than fifty yards in an age when it was more common to fight at ten times that. For the next three hours the two ships dueled. Virginia's casement was nearly breached once, but Monitor's guns misfired and the advantage was lost.
At about 10 o'clock Virginia grounded. After furious work and a tremendous pounding from Monitor she managed to scrape off and continued the fight. At about 11 o'clock Monitor hauled off into shallow water to replenish her shot lockers, while Virginia turned her attentions to Minnesota. The stranded Federal ship delivered a broadside that would have destroyed any wooden ship afloat but left Virginia unaffected. When the battle with Monitor was joined again Virginia's gunners despaired of hurting their enemy's thick turret so they concentrated on her pilot house at twenty yards, destroying it and blinding her captain. That caused Monitor to withdraw to shallow water again to assess damage. Virginia, having trouble with her engines and with parts of her unarmored hull exposed after consuming prodigious amounts of coal, headed back to Norfolk. The most important sea fight since Trafalgar was over.
The two ships never fought each other again, but Virginia sortied later in March and snapped up a couple of Union Army transports in the Roads. The Federals left Hampton Roads to Virginia for the next two months of her life, forcing Union plans for the Peninsula campaign to shift from using the James as an axis of supply to using the York, which may have saved Richmond and thus, for the moment, the Confederacy. Her crew later destroyed her when Norfolk was evacuated in May. Monitor never fought another ship, and foundered off Cape Hatteras at the end of 1862.
Virginia’s very existence, and that of her later sisters, was a threat to all Union conventional ships, especially older sailing vessels. She showed that the Confederacy had a workable and powerful ship design based on a conventional hull that could be easily replicated, as long as the armor plate could be made and delivered, and adequate power plants could be found (admittedly two big “ifs”). The design was unsuitable for blockade breaking or operating at all in open water, despite Confederate desires and Union fears to the contrary, but several Virginias in major ports could make attacking these ports far more difficult for attacking Northern fleets.
Monitor was a work in progress when she was built, as nothing like her in the world up to that time had actually been put to a real-life test. Though she had severe operational limitations and could no more sail the high seas than Virginia could, she turned out to be as workable and as powerful as her Rebel nemesis. More important, as the New York yards ably demonstrated, many of her like could be built quickly. Though Monitors would make clumsy blockaders, as coastal and harbor defense (or attack) vessels they would know few rivals in their day.
Although the French and British observers were generally unimpressed by the indecisive clash at Hampton Roads, the Royal Navy canceled all contracts for wooden ships just days after reports of the battle reached London. In an editorial shortly afterwards, the Times of London stated:
There is not now a ship in the English Navy apart from [HMS Warrior and her sister Ironsides, Britain’s first ironclad ships] that it would be not madness to trust to an engagement with that little Monitor.
The Union had won its strategic victory against European intervention by building a cranky cheese box on a raft. The Confederacy had succeeded in convincing the Union that she would be defending her coasts, rivers and harbors with ships powerful enough to require several ironclads to counter. Also, the Union Peninsula Campaign was forced to change in critical ways that just might have lengthened the war. The world had seen, once and for all, that the day of the wooden fighting ship was over. Iron-armored ships with shell-firing guns were the future of naval warfare.
1. This article refers to the ship as CSS Virginia, her official name, even though neither side called her that.
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