Monitor vs Virginia - History

Monitor vs Virginia - History

In one of the most famous naval battles in history the Union Monitor defeated the Confederate Virginia. It was the first battle between two steel navy ships and marked the end of the wood based navy.


When the Confederates seized the navy base at Norfolk they came into possession of the hull of the frigate USS Merrimack. They raised the hull and outfitted it with thick steel plate surrounding it. They thus created the first ironclad. Word that the south was creating a ship that might threaten the union blockade fleet soon reached the North. In August Congress forced the Union navies hand when it enacted a law directing the building of three ironclads. John Ericsson reluctantly submitted a bid for a radical design. It was a lightly armored small craft that was highly maneuverable, and had a heavily armored turret that could fire in any direction.

On March 8th the CSS Virginia was ready to sail. It steamed out of Norfolk harbor and headed for the Union blockade fleet at the mouth of the James at Hampton Roads. Five Union ship were waiting there. The Virginia headed for the first the Cumberland, shelled her and then rammed her sending the ship to the bottom. She then turned to the Congress, who was helpless against her onslaught. All the while the shells of the Union ships bounced harmlessly off the Virginia. Next on her list was the Minnesota, which had run aground. However, the Virginia's draft was too deep to allow her to close on the Virginia. The Virginia retired for the night planning to finish off the Union fleet in the morning.

The next morning when the Virginia returned to finish its handiwork, it was surprised to discover a new strange vessel near the Minnesota. A crewman from the Virginia recounted- "we though at first it was a raft on which one of the Minnesota's boilers was being taken to shore for repairs". That raft soon came out and fired on the Merrimack. Hour after hour the two ships slugged it out, neither side achieving a decisive advantage. Finally both ships withdrew. The day had ended in a draw. It was however a strategic victory of the Union, as its fleet had been saved and the Virginia was bottled up in the James River. The day of the wooden navy was over.

Hampton Roads

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Hampton Roads, great natural roadstead, southeastern Virginia, U.S., formed by the deepwater estuary of the James River, protected by the Virginia Peninsula. The Nansemond and Elizabeth rivers also enter the roadstead, which is connected to Chesapeake Bay by the Thimble Shoal Channel, some 1,000 feet (300 metres) wide the channel extends for 12 miles (19 km) and reaches 45 feet (13 metres) in depth. Two deepwater channels branch out from the harbour, the southern of which is linked with the coastal inlets of North Carolina through the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. Port cities facing the roads include Norfolk and Portsmouth on the south and Newport News and Hampton on the north. Norfolk is joined to Hampton by a bridge-tunnel 5 miles (8 km) long and to the eastern shore of Virginia by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel complex, which stretches 17.6 miles (28 km) and spans the Chesapeake Bay. The Hampton Roads area also includes the cities of Chesapeake, Suffolk, Yorktown, and Virginia Beach.

Hampton Roads, an important military base since colonial days, is the headquarters of the 5th Naval District, the Atlantic Fleet (Norfolk), the Air Combat Command (Langley Air Force Base), the Continental Army Command (Fort Monroe), and the Army Transportation Center (Fort Eustis). Portsmouth has an important naval shipyard, officially called the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, which is the oldest U.S. Navy shipyard in the country.

During the American Civil War, Hampton Roads was the scene of the battle (March 9, 1862) between the ironclads Monitor and Virginia (Merrimack). The Hampton Roads Conference, unsuccessful negotiations for ending the war, between President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate representatives, was held in the roads aboard the Federal transport River Queen on February 3, 1865.

The port cities comprise the Port of Hampton Roads, created in 1926 under the State of Virginia Port Authority it is one of the busiest seaports in the country. Exports include tobacco and paper products, while imports include petroleum products, ores, and automobile parts. Shipbuilding, food products, and chemicals are important local industries.

10 Facts: Hampton Roads

Wikimedia Commons

It was here at Hampton Roads that the true power of ironclad warships would be discovered. And it was here that the revolutionary USS Monitor, with its armored rotating turret would first enter combat. We hope that these ten interesting facts will help expand your knowledge and appreciation of this important Civil War naval battle.

Library of Congress

Fact #1: The CSS Virginia and USS Monitor were not the first ironclad warships, but they were the first ironclads to battle against one another

The Virginia and the Monitor were not the first ironclad warships. In November 1859, the French navy had launched La Glorie, the first ironclad battleship. The Royal Navy, in response to the new French warship, had launched HMS Warrior, an iron-hulled frigate, in October of 1861.

Even in the American Civil War, the Virginia and Monitor were not the first ironclads. To support Union naval operations on the rivers in the western theater, ironclad river gunboats (City Class gunboats) had been built, launched, and deployed by January 1862. These gunboats played an important role in the battles for Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in February of 1862.

Fact #2: The Confederacy had great difficulty in sourcing the iron plating needed for the Virginia

In October of 1861 it was determined that the Virginia (the converted ex-USS Merrimack) would require two layers of two inch iron armor plate covering its entire casement. Requiring upwards of 800 tons of iron, there simply was not that much iron available. To make up for this painful shortage, the Confederacy was reduced to scavenging old scrap iron, melting down old smoothbore cannon and iron tools, and even ripping up hundreds of miles of railroad track. The delays in obtaining and shaping these iron plates gave the Union more time to construct their counters to the growing menace of the Virginia.

Fact #3: The first “trial run” of the Virginia was its combat debut against the US Navy at Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862

On the morning of March 8, 1862, the Virginia made steam and moved slowly out into the Elizabeth River for its inaugural voyage. The Virginia's engines had not been fully tested and the armored shields for its broadside gun ports had not been installed, but these "minor details" did not greatly concern the ship's new captain, Franklin Buchanan. Buchanan, who had been selected by Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory for his aggressive tendencies, was determined to make the Virginia's first voyage an attack on the nearby Union navy.

Fact #4: The March 8, 1862 battle that pitted the Virginia against wooden US Naval vessels was the worst defeat in the history of the United States Navy until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

While much attention has been focused on the near bloodless duel between the Monitor and Virginia on March 9, 1862, the action between the Virginia and the US Navy on the preceding day was a far bloodier affair. The Virginia’s attack on the USS Cumberland killed 121 out of 376 onboard and the subsequent attack on the USS Congress killed 27% of its crew – 120 out of 434. The CSS Virginia, on the other hand, suffered just two killed and a dozen wounded in its fight with the Union navy.

Over the two day battle, the Federal navy suffered 261 killed and 108 wounded in its struggle with the Virginia – more killed and wounded than any other sea battle in American history at that time. And March 8, 1862 would remain the bloodiest day in American naval history until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese navy struck the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

This comparison of the CSS Virginia and USS Monitor (in the foreground) shows the significant size differential between these two famous combatants. Where the Virginia was built on the hull of the Merrimack, the USS Monitor was built from the keel up. © James Gurney ( James Gurney

Fact #5: Despite carrying twelve large caliber guns, one of the Virginia’s most lethal weapons was a simple 1,500lb iron ram projecting from its bow

Despite the many technological innovations that were on display during the Battle of Hampton Roads, one of the most lethal weapons employed was a large, 1,500lb iron ram attached to the bow of the Virginia. This simple weapon, altogether similar to what one would have found on a Roman Trireme or Ottoman Galley, devastated the USS Cumberland. The Virginia steamed straight for the Cumberland and punched through its starboard bow with its mighty ram. Ironically, the mortal blow delivered by the Virginia’s ram almost led to its own destruction. With its ram stuck fast inside the Cumberland, the Virginia risked be carried under by the sinking Federal ship. After some effort the Virginia was able to separate and back away, but is lethal ram had broken free.

During its battle with the USS Monitor the next day, the Virginia sought to employ its ram, not knowing that this weapon now lay at the bottom of Hampton Roads.

Photograph of Captain Franklin Buchanan, USN by Matthew Brady circa 1855-1861. Naval History and Heritage Command

Fact #6: The Virginia’s commander, Franklin Buchanan, was seriously wounded by musket ball on March 8 and did not participate in the Virginia’s famous March 9 duel with the USS Monitor

Per the well-established norms formed during the Age of Sail, it was customary for a defeated ship and its captain to formally surrender to their victorious counterparts. After viewing a white flag above the stricken USS Congress, Franklin Buchanan ordered that the Congress be taken as a prize. Unfortunately for the Confederates, Union soldiers on shore nearby knew or cared little for naval tradition and fired upon the exposed officers and men. Franklin Buchanan, who had gone on deck to supervise this surrender, was struck in the upper thigh by a bullet and was hastily taken back into the interior of the Virginia. Removed to shore that evening, Buchanan turned over command of the Virginia to his executive officer, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones who would command the famous ironclad during its fight with the Monitor the next day.

Buchanan, who would recover from his wound, captained the CSS Tennessee in its battle with Rear Admiral David Farragut’s squadron in the Battle of Mobile Bay. During that battle, Buchanan would suffer a broken leg and would surrender with his ship on August 5, 1864.

Fact #7: Sensing that their shells could do little damage, even at close range, the Virginia ceased firing at the Monitor during the battle

Two hours of close-range naval gunfire finally convinced the Confederates of the futility of wasting shell and powder on the Monitor. Lieutenant John Eggleston onboard the Virginia, when asked why his gun crews had stopped firing at the Monitor, stated that “[a]fter two hours of incessant firing I find that I can do her [the Monitor] about as much damage by snapping my thumbs at her every two minutes and a half.”

The Virginia's armor penetrating capabilities were further reduced by its carrying only explosive shells, rather than solid shot. At one point in the battle, crew members aboard the Virginia resorted to attempting to fire muskets into the open gun ports of the Monitor.

Fact #8: If the Monitor had used larger gunpowder charges in its 11-inch guns, it's likely that it would have holed and sunk the Virginia

The Monitor had been hurried down to Hampton Roads shortly after its launch and little time had been set aside for testing this new, radical weapon system. Despite being designed to carry two 12-inch Dahlgren naval guns, the Monitor launched with two smaller 11-inch Dahlgrens within its armored, rotating turret. To prevent any catastrophic gun bursting within the confined turret, each of the 11-inch guns was restricted to using 15-lb gunpowder charges. Even with this lower gunpowder charge, the 165lb solid shot projectiles did much to dent and disfigure the armor plating on the Virginia. Later tests conducted after the battle showed that if the Monitor had used 25lb or 30lb gunpowder charges that its 11-inch guns would have punctured the Virginia’s hull with relative ease at close ranges.

USS Monitor battling the CSS Virginia at close range in the Battle of Hampton Roads Library of Congress

Fact #9: Ironically, as the Virginia fired more of its onboard ordnance, the ship became more vulnerable to attack

Unlike the Monitor, whose belt of armor descended well below its waterline, the Virginia’s iron plating extended barely to its waterline when fully loaded. With each broadside, the Virginia would expend 350lbs of ordnance. And after two hours of firing upon the Monitor and other nearby ships, the Virginia had lightened its load by 5 tons. Ironically, as the ship became lighter it also became more vulnerable. As the ship lightened, its unarmored sides, below the iron casemate, were visible above water and could have been more easily punctured.

Lt. John L. Worden, captain of the USS Monitor Naval Historical Center

Fact #10 Franklin Buchanan and John L. Worden both became superintendents of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland

John L. Worden, promoted to rear admiral after the war, was the commandant of the United States Naval Academy between 1869 and 1874. A drill field at the Academy is named for Worden.

Prior to the Civil War, Franklin Buchanan was the first superintendent of the Unites States Naval Academy (1845 - 1847). The stately Buchanan House, current residence of Academy superintendents, is named after this famous Confederate admiral.

Monitor–Merrimac Memorial Bridge–Tunnel

Monitor–Merrimac Memorial Bridge–Tunnel (MMMBT) is the 4.6 mile-long (7.4 km) Hampton Roads crossing for Interstate 664 in the southeastern portion of Virginia in the United States. It is a four-lane bridge–tunnel composed of bridges, trestles, man-made islands, and tunnels under a portion of the Hampton Roads harbor where the mouths of the James, Nansemond, and Elizabeth Rivers come together.

It connects the independent cities of Newport News on the Virginia Peninsula and Suffolk in South Hampton Roads and is part of the Hampton Roads Beltway, a circumferential interstate highway which links the seven largest cities of Hampton Roads.

The MMMBT, completed in 1992 provided a third major vehicle crossing of the Hampton Roads harbor area, supplementing the Hampton Roads Bridge–Tunnel which carries Interstate 64 between the independent cities of Hampton and Norfolk, and the James River Bridge connecting the independent city of Newport News and Isle of Wight County in the South Hampton Roads region. All three facilities are toll-free.

The MMMBT cost $400 million to build, and it includes a four-lane tunnel that is 4,800 feet (1,463 m) long, two man-made portal islands, and 3.2 miles (5.1 km) of twin trestle.

The Monitor and the Merrimack: Final Days

Both ships met ignominious ends. When the Yankees invaded the James Peninsula two months after the Battle of Hampton Roads, the retreating Confederates scuttled the Virginia. The Monitor went down in bad weather off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, at the end of the year. In 1973, the wreck of the Monitor was discovered at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Many artifacts from the vessel have since been recovered and are on display at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

Though they had short lives, the naval battle between the two ironclads ushered in a new era in naval warfare. By the end of the Civil War, the Confederacy and Union launched over 70 ironclads, signaling the end of wooden warships.

Monitor vs Virginia - History

T he battle that waged on March 9, 1862, between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, formerly the USS Merrimack, is one of the most revolutionary naval battles in world history. Up until that point, all naval battles had been waged between wooden ships. This was the first battle in maritime history that two ironclad ships waged war.

The USS Merrimack was a Union frigate throughout most of its existence, up until the point that the Union Navy abandoned the Norfolk Naval Yard. To prevent the Confederate Navy from using the ship against them, the Union Navy scuttled her. The Confederates, however, raised the ship from the shallow floor of the harbor and began making some major modifications. Confederate engineers cut the hull down to the water line and built a slanted top. From there, they bolted four layers of iron sheets, each two inches thick, to the entire structure. Also added was a huge battering ram to the bow of the ship to be used in ramming maneuvers. The ship was then fitted with ten twelve-pound cannons. There were four guns each placed on the starboard and port sides, and one each on the bow and stern sides. Due to its massive size and weight the ship's draft was enormous. It stretched twenty-two feet to the bottom. The ship was so slow and long, that it required a turning radius of about one mile. Likened to a "floating barn roof" (Williams), it was not expected to stay afloat. The only individual willing to take command of the ship was Captain Franklin Buchanan. After all the modifications were complete, the USS Merrimack was re-christened the CSS Virginia.

The USS Monitor was the creation of Swedish-American engineer, John Ericsson. The ship was considered small for a warship, only 179 feet long and 42 feet wide (Williams). The ship baffled Confederate sailors. One was quoted describing her as "a craft such as the eyes of a seaman never looked upon before, an immense shingle floating on the water with a giant cheese box rising from its center" (Johnson). The "cheese box" was a nine by twenty foot revolving turret with two massive guns inside. For armament, the USS Monitor used two eleven-inch Dahlgran guns (Doughty 218). These Dahlgran guns were massive rifled cannons that were capable of firing a variety of shot. The armor of this ship was a two-inch thick layer of steel that shielded the ship. The deck was so low to the water line (about 18 inches) that waves frequently washed over the deck causing the ship to lose its balance in the water. Due to the low profile, the entire crew was located below the water line. As a result, one armor-piercing hit could kill the entire crew. Like the CSS Virginia, the USS Monitor was expected to sink it was referred to as "Ericsson's Folly" (Johnson). Lieutenant John Worden took command of the USS Monitor.

The battle at Hampton Roads was part of the Peninsula Campaign that lasted from March to August of 1862 (Doughty 131). There were a total of five ships engaged in the battle. From the US Navy, there were four ships, the USS Congress, USS Minnesota, USS Cumberland, and the USS Monitor. The CS Navy had one ship, the CSS Merrimack. On March 8, 1862, the CSS Merrimack steamed into Hampton Roads. She proceeded to sink the USS Cumberland and then ran the USS Congress aground. Captain Buchanan then set his sights on the already handicapped USS Minnesota, which had already been run aground. Capt. Buchanan was unaware that Lt. Worden and the USS Monitor were lying in wait. With orders to protect the wounded USS Minnesota. Lt. Worden steamed out into the middle of the bay to meet the CSS Virginia. The USS Monitor fired first in a drawn out battle that lasted about four and a half hours. "They fired shot, shell, grape, canister, musket and rifle balls doing no damage to each other."

After four and a half hours, the CSS Merrimack withdrew due to falling tides. The USS Monitor did not make chase because of a crack in the turret. The result of the battle was an inconclusive one neither side was able to claim victory. The casualties resulting from the battle were extensive. The Union lost 409 sailors and the Confederacy lost 24 sailors. The battle was so impressive to the leaders of both the Union and the Confederacy that they contracted their Naval yards to have more ironclad ships built. Additions to the Confederate fleet included the CSS Tennessee, a 209 foot long blockade runner with four broadside cannons and pivoted cannons at the bow and stern. Additions to the Union Navy included the USS Carondelet. Armed with thirteen guns and stationed on the Mississippi, she was a formidable opponent. Wooden ships were now obsolete. Ironclad ships began to roll out of shipyards more often than their wooden counterparts.

The ironclads were at an advantage over the wooden ships of the two Navies because of their superior technology. Ironclads could withstand hours of battering by artillery, and they could be used to cut traffic lanes through mine fields. Their armor could resist the blast from a mine considerably better than any wooden ship ever could. They could also carry more powerful guns. Due to their increased stability in the water, these massive ships could easily endure the recoil of a huge cannon. Another useful characteristic of the ironclads was their ability to be used in ramming missions. The hull of the ship would not be compromised by a hit associated with ramming a wooden vessel.

Because of Civil War technology, the United States has never built another wooden battleship since the introduction of the ironclads. Every armed conflict since then has seen more and more improvements in the way ironclad ships were built. The introduction of multiple massive turrets in the late 1800s improved the firepower dramatically. Later renovations included improved power plants and more devastating weapons. Perhaps the greatest renovation came in the pre-World War I era with the introduction of the aircraft carrier. Today, ironclad ships are so advanced that they are scarcely bigger than the ironclads used during the Civil War, but they are hundreds if not thousands of times more powerful .

Although the wooden ship has proved extremely effective in naval battles throughout history, the advent of the ironclad totally revolutionized the way in which naval forces around the world approach warfare. "From the moment the two ships opened fire that Sunday morning, every other navy on earth was obsolete" .

Ironclad Navies: The USS Monitor and CSS Virginia during the Civil War

March 9 marks the famous meeting of the Civil War ironclad ships the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads, Virginia. The Cartographic Branch holds numerous plans and maps relating to the Battle of Hampton Roads and to the Civil War ironclads and ships involved in the battle. This post highlights some of the records relating to this noted engagement.

Following the firing on Fort Sumter by Southern forces in April 1861, the United States Navy evacuated the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia. Retreating forces set fire to the USS Merrimac (Merrimack), which had been at Gosport for engine repairs and not seaworthy at the time of the evacuation. In May 1861, Confederate forces, now in control of the navy yard, raised the partially burned frigate and began converting the ship into an armored vessel, or ironclad. They repaired the ship and reinforced it with 2-inch iron plating cast at Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond, Virginia. In February 1862, the ship was launched and re-christened the CSS Virginia.

The Cartographic Branch holds numerous ship plans relating to the original USS Merrimac and the later ironclad, the CSS Virginia. Reference reports for both ships, listing the available plans, are available in our research room and at the following link: Reference Report: USS Merrimac/ CSS Virginia. Below are two examples of plans relating to the CSS Virginia that are within the holdings of the Cartographic Branch. The first is a color drawing showing a profile view of the ironclad. The second blueprint drawing shows the gun desk arrangement for the Merrimac.

In response to the construction of a Confederate ironclad, the US Navy also began working on plans to build an ironclad of their own. The Navy put out a call for proposals for such a ship, and received numerous designs. Eventually, after lengthy consideration, plans moved forward to build a ship proposed by Swedish immigrant John Ericsson. Ericsson’s design was very different from past proposals, which attached iron plating to the exterior of a traditional warship, similar to the CSS Virginia. Ericsson’s design instead sat low in the water, almost fully submerged, leaving only 18 inches of deck above the water line. It also contained a novel revolving turret, which contained two cannons. Because the entire turret could be rotated independently of the ship, the two cannons could be rapidly aimed and fired at enemy ships or targets. This was a great advantage over other ships, which had to be steered so that their guns pointed in the correct direction of the target. The USS Monitor, as Ericsson’s ship was named, launched in late January 1862.

The Cartographic Branch holds numerous plans related to the USS Monitor and monitor class ironclad ships. A reference report for plans relating to the USS Monitor is available in the research room and at the following link: USS Monitor Reference Report. The following are a few examples of plans relating to the USS Monitor and Ericsson’s monitor class ironclads.

The two ironclads met in battle on March 9, 1862. This marked the first engagement between two ironclads. On March 8, the CSS Virginia got her first test of power, steaming toward Union ships located in the Hampton Roads area. She engaged with two warships, the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress. The Virginia rammed the Cumberland with a metal ram, creating a large gash in the side of the hull and causing the ship to sink. The Congress ran aground, preventing a ram attack. However, the CSS Virginia shelled the USS Congress forcing the stranded and wrecked ship to surrender. Additionally, in the confusion, the nearby USS Minnesota also ran aground. The Virginia fell back to her wharf, planning to return the following day to finish off the Union fleet. The Virginia proved the success of iron versus wood, and the iron plating proved effective in protecting the ship from shot and shell.

That night, the Union Navy’s new ironclad, the USS Monitor, entered Hampton Roads and took up a position next to the stranded USS Minnesota. On the morning of March 9, the Virginia headed back to finish off the Minnesota, but instead encountered the Monitor. The two ironclads engaged in a close rang artillery fight, each having little effect on the other due to their armored designs. The Virginia tried unsuccessfully to ram the Monitor, but the Monitor, a lighter and quicker ship, managed to avoid the ram. Both ships eventually withdraw, leaving the engagement between steam powered ironclad ships a draw. The map below shows the site of the battle of Hampton Roads and depicts the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (labeled as the Merrimack), along with other ships in the area.

Both the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor suffer unfortunate fates during the next few months of the Civil War. In early May 1862, Union forces approached Norfolk, forcing the Confederates to abandonthe city and destroyed the navy yard. Without a home, the Virginia’s commander attempted to lighten the ship and travel up the James River to the safety of Richmond, but this plan proved unsuccessful. The Confederates instead were forced to scuttle the ship on May 11, 1862, blowing her up rather than allow the Union forces to capture the ship.

In late 1862, after supporting numerous military operations near Norfolk and Richmond, the USS Monitor received orders to move south to Beaufort, North Carolina. On December 30, 1862, off of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Monitor encountered a bad storm. In the rough seas, the Monitor, whose deck was only 18 inches above the waterline, began to take on water, flooding the engine room. Around midnight, her engines flooded completely and her pumps stopped working. All hopes for saving the struggling ship were gone and the ship was abandoned. Forty-seven men were rescued from the sinking USS Monitor. Sixteen were lost, swept overboard, unable to reach the rescue boats, or trapped inside the sinking vessel.

The wrecked Monitor remained lost until the 1970s. In 1973, a team from Duke University began searching for the location of the wreck. After a tentative identification, the team confirmed they had found the wreck 16 miles off of Cape Hatteras after a second visit to the site in the spring of 1974. Research on the wreck began and over the years, many artifacts were recovered from the USS Monitor. In 2002, the famous turret was raised from the sea floor. Today, the turret and artifacts related to the USS Monitor are housed at the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum, located in Newport News, Virginia near the site of the battle of Hampton Roads. The Cartographic Branch holds a collection of oversize materials relating to the discovery, stabilization, research, and recovery efforts of the wreck of the USS Monitor. These records include maps, diagrams, and drawings related to the wreck site, underwater archaeology and research missions, scientific data and research, artifact recovery, and other aspects of the research surrounding the wreck site. Additional records related to these activities can also be found in the Textual, Still Pictures, and Motion Pictures holdings of the National Archives.

Monitor vs Virginia - History

Battle of Hampton Roads

Other Names: Monitor vs. Virginia, Monitor Merrimack Battle, Battle of the Ironclads, Duel of the Ironclads, Monitor and Merrimac Fight

Location: Hampton Roads, Virginia

Principal Commanders: Lt. John Worden [US] Capt. Franklin Buchanan and Lt. Catesby ap R. Jones [CS]

Forces Engaged: 4 warships [US] 1 warship [CS]

Estimated Casualties: 433 total (US 409 CS 24)

CSS Virginia (ex-USS Merrimack) vs. USS Monitor

Battle of Hampton Roads

Description: On March 8, 1862, from her berth at Norfolk, the Confederate ironclad Virginia (formerly Merrimack) steamed into Hampton Roads where she sank Cumberland and ran Congress aground. On March 9, the Union ironclad Monitor, having fortuitously arrived to do battle, initiated the first engagement of ironclads in history. The two ships fought each other to a standstill, but Virginia retired.

Significance: The Battle of Hampton Roads, often referred to as the Battle of Monitor and Merrimack (often misspelled or misidentified as the Merrimac , which was a different vessel), and the Battle of the Ironclads, was the most noted and arguably the most important naval battle of the American Civil War from the standpoint of the development of navies. It was fought over two days, 8𔃇 March 1862, in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and it rendered every single navy in the world obsolete. Numerous well documented first-hand accounts, from Union and Confederate seamen and officials to civilians and onlookers, have assisted greatly in preserving the world's first ironclad duel: Battle of Hampton Roads: Official Reports and USS Monitor Versus CSS Virginia (aka Monitor - Merrimack Battle) .

The victory claims that were made by each side in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Hampton Roads, based as both were on misinterpretations of the opponent's behavior, have been dismissed by present-day historians. They agree that the result of the Monitor-Merrimack encounter was victory for neither. As the combat between ironclads was the primary significance of the battle, the general verdict is that the overall result was a draw. All would acknowledge that the Southern fleet inflicted far more damage than it received, which would ordinarily imply that they had gained a tactical victory. Compared to other Civil War battles, the loss of men and ships for the Union Navy would be considered a clear defeat. On the other hand, the blockade was not seriously threatened, so the entire battle can be regarded as an assault that ultimately failed.

Battle of Hampton Roads Map

Map of Monitor-Virginia Battle, aka Monitor-Merrimack Battle

Evaluation of the strategic results is likewise disputed. The blockade was maintained, even strengthened, and Virginia was bottled up in Hampton Roads. Because a decisive Confederate weapon was negated, some have concluded that the Union could claim a strategic victory. Confederate advocates can counter, however, by arguing that Virginia had a military significance larger than the blockade, which was only a small part of the war in Tidewater Virginia. Her mere presence was sufficient to close the James River to Federal incursions. She also imposed other constraints on the Peninsula Campaign then being mounted by the Union Army under General George B. McClellan, who worried that she could interfere with his positions on the York River . Although his fears were baseless, they continued to affect the movements of his army until Virginia was destroyed.

Fort Monroe Map

Map of Fort Monroe Virginia, and Hampton Roads Area

Impact upon Naval Warfare

Both days of the battle attracted attention from all the world's navies. 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. The US immediately started the construction of ten more monitors based on Ericsson's original larger plan, known as the Passaic-class monitors. However, while the design proved exceptionally well-suited for river combat, the low profile and heavy turret caused poor seaworthiness in rough waters. Russia , in fear of being drawn into the American Civil War, launched ten sister ships, as soon as Ericsson's plans reached St. Petersburg . What followed has been described as "Monitor mania". The revolving turret later inspired similar designs for future warships, which eventually became the modern battleship.

Peninsula Campaign Map

Map of Peninsula Campaign and Battles

The vulnerability of wooden hulls to armored ships was noted particularly in Britain and France , where the wisdom of the planned conversion of the battle fleet to armor was given a powerful demonstration. Another feature that was emulated was not so successful. Impressed by the ease with which the Virginia had sunk the Cumberland , naval architects began to incorporate rams into their hull designs. The first purpose-built ram in the modern era was the French armored ram Taureau (1863), whose guns were said to have "the sole function of preparing the way for the ram." The inclusion of rams in warship hull design persisted almost to the outbreak of World War I, despite improvements in naval gunnery that quickly made close action between warships almost suicidal, if not impossible. See also: Battle of Hampton Roads: A Civil War History .

Recommended Reading : The Battle of Hampton Roads: New Perspectives on the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (Mariner's Museum). Description: On March 8 and 9, 1862, a sea battle off the Virginia coast changed naval warfare forever. It began when the Confederate States Navy’s CSS Virginia led a task force to break the Union blockade of Hampton Roads. The Virginia sank the USS Cumberland and forced the frigate Congress to surrender. Damaged by shore batteries, the Virginia retreated, returning the next day to find her way blocked by the newly arrived USS Monitor. The clash of ironclads was underway. Continued below…

After fighting for nine hours, both ships withdrew, neither seriously damaged, with both sides claiming victory. Although the battle may have been a draw and the Monitor sank in a storm later that year, this first encounter between powered, ironclad warships spelled the end of wooden warships—and the dawn of a new navy. This book takes a new look at this historic battle. The ten original essays, written by leading historians, explore every aspect of the battle—from the building of the warships and life aboard these “iron coffins” to tactics, strategy, and the debates about who really won the battle of Hampton Roads. Co-published with The Mariners’ Museum, home to the USS Monitor Center, this authoritative guide to the military, political, technological, and cultural dimensions of this historic battle also features a portfolio of classic lithographs, drawings, and paintings. Harold Holzer is one of the country’s leading experts on the Civil War.

Recommended Reading : Ironclad Down: USS Merrimack-CSS Virginia from Design to Destruction (Hardcover). Description: The result of more than fifteen years of research, Ironclad Down is a treasure trove of detailed information about one of history s most famous vessels. Describing the fascinating people--Stephen Russell Mallory, John Mercer Brooke, John Luke Porter, et al.--who conceived, designed and built one of the world's first ironclads as well as describing the ship itself, Carl Park offers both the most thoroughly detailed, in-depth analysis to date of the actual architecture of the Virginia and a fascinating, colorful chapter of Civil War history.

Recommended Reading : Confederate Ironclad vs Union Ironclad: Hampton Roads 1862 (Duel). Description: The Ironclad was a revolutionary weapon of war. Although iron was used for protection in the Far East during the 16th century, it was the 19th century and the American Civil War that heralded the first modern armored self-propelled warships. With the parallel pressures of civil war and the industrial revolution, technology advanced at a breakneck speed. It was the South who first utilized ironclads as they attempted to protect their ports from the Northern blockade. Impressed with their superior resistance to fire and their ability to ram vulnerable wooden ships, the North began to develop its own rival fleet of ironclads. Eventually these two products of this first modern arms race dueled at the battle of Hampton Roads in a clash that would change the face of naval warfare. Continued below…

Fully illustrated with cutting-edge digital artwork, rare photographs and first-person perspective gun sight views, this book allows the reader to discover the revolutionary and radically different designs of the two rival Ironclads - the CSS Virginia and USS Monitor - through an analysis of each ship's weaponry, ammunition and steerage. Compare the contrasting training of the crews and re-live the horrors of the battle at sea in a war which split a nation, communities and even families. About the Author: Ron Field is Head of History at the Cotswold School in Bourton-on-the-Water. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in 1982 and taught history at Piedmont High School in California from 1982 to 1983. He was associate editor of the Confederate Historical Society of Great Britain, from 1983 to 1992. He is an internationally acknowledged expert on US Civil War military history, and was elected a Fellow of the Company of Military Historians, based in Washington , DC , in 2005. The author lives in Cheltenham , UK .

Recommended Reading : A History of Ironclads: The Power of Iron over Wood. Description: This landmark book documents the dramatic history of Civil War ironclads and reveals how ironclad warships revolutionized naval warfare. Author John V. Quarstein explores in depth the impact of ironclads during the Civil War and their colossal effect on naval history. The Battle of Hampton Roads was one of history's greatest naval engagements. Over the course of two days in March 1862, this Civil War conflict decided the fate of all the world's navies. It was the first battle between ironclad warships, and the 25,000 sailors, soldiers and civilians who witnessed the battle vividly understood what history would soon confirm: wars waged on the seas would never be the same. Continued below…

About the Author: John V. Quarstein is an award-winning author and historian. He is director of the Virginia War Museum in Newport News and chief historical advisor for The Mariners' Museum's new USS Monitor Center (opened March 2007). Quarstein has authored eleven books and dozens of articles on American, military and Civil War history, and has appeared in documentaries for PBS, BBC, The History Channel and Discovery Channel.

Recommended Reading : Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads. Description: William N. Still's book is rightfully referred to as the standard of Confederate Naval history. Accurate and objective accounts of the major and even minor engagements with Union forces are combined with extensive background information. This edition has an enlarged section of historical drawings and sketches. Mr. Still explains the political background that gave rise to the Confederate Ironclad program and his research is impeccable. An exhaustive literature listing rounds out this excellent book. While strictly scientific, the inclusion of historical eyewitness accounts and the always fluent style make this book a joy to read. This book is a great starting point.

Recommended Viewing: The First Ironclads - Into the Modern Era (DVD) (2008). Description: This is the story of the great vessels, the formidable warships, the epic ironclads (early battleships), that changed forever naval ship design as well as naval warfare: the Monitor, the Merrimack (later renamed the Virginia ) and it presents a fascinating animated reconstruction of their epic battle during the American Civil War. Continued below.

The Battle of Hampton Roads, aka Duel of the Ironclads, which made the world's navies tremble as well as obsolete, is handsomely depicted in this video. The First Ironclads – Into the Modern Era is a welcome addition for the individual interested in the Civil War, U.S. Naval Warfare, and shipbuilding and design. It also includes footage from aboard the world's most devastating “sailing ironship” the HMS Warrior.

Recommended Reading : A History of the Confederate Navy (Hardcover). From Publishers Weekly: One of the most prominent European scholars of the Civil War weighs in with a provocative revisionist study of the Confederacy's naval policies. For 27 years, University of Genoa history professor Luraghi (The Rise and Fall of the Plantation South) explored archival and monographic sources on both sides of the Atlantic to develop a convincing argument that the deadliest maritime threat to the South was not, as commonly thought, the Union's blockade but the North's amphibious and river operations. Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory, the author shows, thus focused on protecting the Confederacy's inland waterways and controlling the harbors vital for military imports. Continued below…

As a result, from Vicksburg to Savannah to Richmond , major Confederate ports ultimately were captured from the land and not from the sea, despite the North's overwhelming naval strength. Luraghi highlights the South's ingenuity in inventing and employing new technologies: the ironclad, the submarine, the torpedo. He establishes, however, that these innovations were the brainchildren of only a few men, whose work, although brilliant, couldn't match the resources and might of a major industrial power like the Union . Nor did the Confederate Navy, weakened through Mallory's administrative inefficiency, compensate with an effective command system. Enhanced by a translation that retains the verve of the original, Luraghi's study is a notable addition to Civil War maritime history. Includes numerous photos.

Naval history is made with the Monitor vs. the Merrimac.

A significant issue reporting one of the most famous naval battles of the 19th century: the Monitor vs. the Merrimac. It ushered in "modern" naval engineering with the use of iron-clad vessels.
One column heads on the back page include: "THE GREAT NAVAL FIGHT" "Official Report Of The Affair" "The Maiden Cruise Of The Monitor" "Rebel Accounts of their Losses and Damages" with the text taking 3 1/2 columns with considerable detail.
Included is an official report received by the Navy Department about the Rebel attacks at Newport News, mentioning in part: ". I arrived only in time to see the Cumberland sunk, by being run into by the Rebel ironclad steamer Merrimac. ", signed in type: Wm. Radford, Commander. There is also a report from Lieut. Morris who was temporarily in command of the frigate Cumberland when she was attacked and sunk by the Merrimac.
Much other Civil War reporting throughout the issue but it pales in comparison to the Monitor-Merrimac content.
Although not photoed, there is an interesting article on page 4 under the heading: "Slavery At The Capital", a photo which can be viewed on our History's Newsstand Blog.
Eight pages, very nice condition.

Monitor and Merrimack

The next day, however, the Virginia, now under command of Lt. Catesby Jones, was challenged by the strange-looking Union ironclad Monitor (see monitor), built by John Ericsson and commanded by Lt. John L. Worden. The Monitor had just reached Hampton Roads after a precarious voyage from New York City. The ships engaged in a four-hour close-range duel, which resulted in a draw. This combat between two ironclad warships marked a revolution in naval warfare.

In April the Virginia, under Capt. Josiah Tattnall, again challenged the Monitor, but the Union ship declined combat. When General McClellan's advance in the Peninsular campaign forced the Confederates to abandon Norfolk, Tattnall, unable to lighten the Virginia sufficiently for passage up the James River, destroyed her (May, 1862). The Monitor foundered and sank in heavy seas off Cape Hatteras in Dec., 1862.

In 1973 scientists discovered the intact wreck of the Monitor, and the site was subsequently protected by the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. The steam engine and turret of the Monitor were recovered in 2002 for display with other artifacts at the Mariner's Museum, Newport News, Va.

See R. M. McCordock, The Yankee Cheese Box (1938) H. A. Trexler, The Confederate Ironclad Virginia (1938) R. W. Daly, How the Merrimac Won (1957) W. C. White and R. White, Tin Can on a Shingle (1957) W. C. Davis, Duel between the First Ironclads (1981) J. T. deKay, Monitor (1997) D. A. Mindell, Iron Coffin: War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor (upd. ed., 2012).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

Watch the video: The USS Monitor