One of the most famous naval engagements in American history was the duel fought at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on March 9, 1862 between the ironclad warships USS Monitor and CSS Merrimack (more precisely named the CSS Virginia). I have recently been learning much more about the details of the battle, in Richard Snow’s wonderfully entertaining Iron Dawn: The Monitor, the Merrimack, and the Civil War Sea Battle That Changed History. I listened to the audiobook, and wanted to convey some basic outlines of the story here.
When the American Civil War began in 1861, there was a general sense that the days of the wooden warship were coming to a close. The Americans may not have invented the ironclad, but they were the first nation to need it in great numbers. The Confederacy, given its limited resources and technical capacity, showed remarkable innovation and determination in turning out the armored vessels. Perhaps this was because they had been unsuccessful in buying them abroad; nothing focuses creativity like necessity. The South had few shipyards, a blockaded coastline, and limited access to iron and scrap metal. During the war, the Confederates laid down over 50 ironclad ships, but only 22 were ever commissioned; the remainder could not be finished.
The South’s desire to build ironclads came from the same impulse that prompted her to experiment later with submarines: the need to destroy the Union blockade of her coast, and perhaps even sail up the Potomac and bombard Washington. All things considered, the South made efficient use of the limited resources it had. Instead of building a completely new ship, it took the hull of a scuttled vessel (the USS Merrimack) and built an iron-plated superstructure above the waterline. Lieutenants John Mercer and John Brooke handled the design work, with the overall supervision falling to Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory.
The ship had a screw propeller and–most unusual for the time–an iron ram affixed to its bow. If the Merrimack could not blast away an enemy, it would still be able to cause havoc with its ram. Construction took place in the open, and attracted a good deal of attention in the Southern press, to the mounting unease of Union officials. When completed (and renamed Virginia), the vessel was a formidable one. It was essentially a floating gun battery, and had minimal accommodations in the modern sense. But it worked, it was armored, and it would be led by men who were motivated and determined.
To meet this challenge, Union naval officials contracted Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson (1803–1889) to build something that could meet the South’s behemoth in open battle. Ericsson was a brilliant and driven man, but he was also irascible, impatient, and lacking in tact. When he submitted his designs for the kind of ship he had in mind, his employers were dismayed. The Monitor looked like nothing anyone had ever seen before; indeed, it was so low in the water that some doubted whether it would even be able to handle the stresses of battle. But Ericsson insisted that his calculations and figures were right, and that the ship would work. The ship’s revolving turret was a truly inspired invention: with it, the Monitor would be able to fire nearly simultaneously in any direction.
The most incredible thing about the Monitor’s construction was the speed with which it took place. From its beginnings until it was launched there passed only about 100 days, an incredible pace. The ship was about 180 feet long and was constructed at the Continental Iron Works at Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in New York (the city at that time was a center of heavy industry). On January 30, 1862, the ship was launched. Before the war would end, the Union would be swept by “monitor fever,” building over fifty of the ships. The ship was in many ways a technological marvel. Thick plates of iron had to be rolled, planed, and then bent to an exact degree of specification.
On March 9, 1862, the Merrimack was conducting operations near Hampton Roads against the Union blockading ships. At around 8:00 a.m., the Merrimack moved to attack the Union ship Minnesota; at about the same time, the Monitor steamed to intercept the Merrimack. At around 8:35 a.m., both ships had come within 500 yards of each other, each circling the other like two snarling lions on the savannah. Then they began to pound each other with shells and shot for over 90 minutes. At times the two ships even touched each other.
It is incredible today to imagine what conditions inside the Monitor‘s turret must have been like. With no hearing protection from the concussions of battle, sailors manning the guns experienced bleeding from the ears and nose. The diameter of the turret was only 20 feet, and most of the space inside was taken up by two Dahlgren smoothbore guns riding low carriages. The turret malfunctioned during the battle, and the crew were unable to rotate it as it had been designed. They had to keep the turret moving, or else it would “stick” in place. But things more or less worked, and it was able to keep up its rate of fire. One wonders what might have happened if either ship had been equipped with some kind of “flame-throwing” device. Technology for such a weapon had been around for centuries in the form of “Greek fire” (i.e., naphtha or pitch pumped from tubes or hurled from canisters).
Neither ship was able to destroy the other, although the Monitor was forced to withdraw after one of her officers was temporarily blinded from the impact of a cannon-shot. The Merrimack had meanwhile ran aground; it had also suffered some shot damage. Both combatants moved away from each other, and each side could claim a victory. Each ship, however, would find its own watery grave. The Virginia was destroyed by its own captain later in the war to prevent its capture, and the Monitor was lost in a storm at sea. Yet it mattered little, for each had done its duty to its cause and to history. The battle would revolutionize naval warfare: author Richard Snow claims that British naval authorities, upon hearing of the battle, ordered all work on wooden warships to cease. The age of the battleship had begun.
Read more stories of bravery in action in Thirty-Seven: