On March 9, 1862, Hampton Roads was the scene of a terrific engagement, which revolutionized naval warfare. The first battle between ironclad ships, often called the Monitor-Merrimack (Virginia) engagement, is perhaps the most significant naval event of the entire Civil War. This duel is an epic tale that tells how steam-powered iron ships rang the death knell for wooden vessels and echoed the dawn of modern navies.
When the Confederate batteries encircling Charleston Harbor opened fire on Fort Sumter during the early morning of April 12, 1861, the bombardment set in motion a naval race resulting in the first battle between ironclad ships. Little did the Confederates realize that soon their harbors would be blockaded by the Union fleet attempting to sever the vital link between the agrarian South and industrialized European nations. The question in the spring of 1861 was how could the Confederacy maintain this critical industrial lifeline.
Onto this stage stepped Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Russell Mallory. Perhaps one of Jefferson Davis’ better cabinet appointments, Mallory served as the pre-war chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Naval Affairs Committee and immediately recognized that the South could never match the North’s superior shipbuilding capabilities unless a novel weapon was introduced into the fray. Mallory’s solution was to build or purchase a fleet of ironclad vessels.
The concept of pitting “iron against wood” was not new naval warfare. The Koreans had repulsed a Japanese invasion in 1592 with an iron-covered “tortoise ship,” and during the Crimean War the French utilized floating ironcased batteries to shell Russian forts. Based on this experience in 1859, the French navy launched the Gloire, which was a traditional warship design covered with iron plates.
The Royal Navy, not to be outdone by the French, introduced an ambitious production program. The H.M.S. Warrior and H.M.S. Black Prince were two of 10 armorclads under construction in British shipyards by early 1861. Despite the European rush to build iron warships, the U.S. Navy had not made any concerted effort to construct armored vessels by the time of the Civil War. Mallory’s desire to construct Confederate blockade-breaking iron-plated steam ships was given a tremendous boost when Virginia seceded from the Union. The Federals were forced to abandon Gosport Navy Yard across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk in Portsmouth. Gosport had been one of the U.S. Navy’s finest shipyards, containing excellent shipbuilding facilities and materials. Of perhaps equal importance was that the retreating Federals had scuttled several ships, including the steam frigate U.S.S. Merrimack. The Confederates then raised the Merrimack and began to convert the frigate into an ironclad. The effort would tax Southern resources severely, yet it was an amazing test of Confederate ingenuity.
The Merrimack was completely reconfigured during its conversion. A 178-foot long slope-sided casemate, covered by 4 inches of ironplate bolted to 24 inches of oak and pine backing, was constructed atop the ship’s charred hull. The ironclad was armed with six 9-inch Dahlgren smoothbores, two 6.4-inch Brooke rifles, and two 7-inch Brooke rifles, which served as pivot guns. A 6-foot-long, 1,500-pound cast iron ram completed the vessel’s weaponry.
The Merrimack was launched on Feb. 17, 1862, and recommissioned as the C.S.S. Virginia. The ironclad appeared to be a powerful vessel, but there were numerous defects. With her 268-foot length and draught of 22 feet, the Virginia proved to be difficult to maneuver. The two salvaged 600-horsepower engines of the old Merrimack, previously condemned, were used to propel the Virginia. Lt. John Taylor Wood noted that the ironclad was as unmanageable as a “waterlogged vessel.”
While the Southerners grappled with the Merrimack’s conversion, Union leaders also recognized the importance of building ironclads. The U.S. Navy established an ironclad board in August 1861 to review armored ship concepts. The board reluctantly selected John Ericsson’s novel design as one of three iron vessels to be constructed in East Coast shipyards. The U.S.S. Monitor, initially called “Ericsson’s Folly,” was truly a unique vessel. The ironclad was 173 feet in length, weighed 776 tons and had a beam of 41.5 feet. With a draft of 11 feet and a freeboard of less than 1 foot, the ironclad was virtually awash with the sea. The Monitor’s most impressive and dominant feature was its rotating turret, which contained two 11-inch smoothbore Dahlgrens. One crew member noted the ironclad as “the strangest craft I had ever seen”; and another observed before the Monitor left New York, “She had not been pronounced seaworthy, and no one could safely judge of her fighting qualities.”
The Monitor was constructed in a little more than 100 days. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wanted the Union ironclad to reach Hampton Roads quickly to destroy the Confederate ironclad in drydock. His dreams would be shattered by a mere day.
Even though both ironclads were ready for battle by early March 1862, the Merrimack, now re-christened as the C.S.S. Virginia, would win the race to gain naval supremacy in Hampton Roads. While the Monitor struggled against a gale along the mid-Atlantic coast toward the Chesapeake Capes, the Confederate ironclad embarked on its first cruise. The Confederates, however, were unsure of the vessel’s capabilities as the ironclad steamed away from its dock at Gosport Navy Yard. Most of the officers and crew believed the trip down river was just a trial run, but Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan had other thoughts. “Old Buck” had been assigned to the Virginia because of his aggressive nature and he planned to test the vessel in combat. Buchanan had corresponded with Maj. Gen. John Bankhead Magruder, commander of the Confederate Army of the Peninsula, in late February to develop a joint Army-Navy operation against the Union Camp Butler on Newport News Point. Even though “Prince John” initially had agreed to this plan, he backed off as time neared to execution, stating that “no one ship can produce such an impression upon the troops at Newport News as to cause them to evacuate the fort.”
Undaunted, when the Virginia reached Craney island at 12:30 pm on March 8, 1862, Buchanan ordered the ironclad forward to attack the Union fleet. The Virginia entered Hampton Roads appearing, according to Henry Reaney of the tugboat Zouave, like “the roof of a very big barn belching forth smoke as from a chimney on fire.” The entire Union fleet went to battle stations. The Federals had been expecting the ironclad for some time and the U.S.S. Congress and U.S.S. Cumberland were positioned off Newport News Point. Buchanan’s first target was the Cumberland. He previously had told Chief Engineer H. Ashton Ramsay, “I am going to ram the Cumberland, I’m told she has the new rifles, the only ones in their whole fleet we have cause to fear. The moment we are out in the Roads I’m going to make right for her and ram her.