The Battle of Hampton Roads


Who: USS Monitor vs. CSS Virginia (formerly Merrimack)

What: Inconclusive, tactical Confederate victory

Where: Hampton Roads, Virginia

Why: First battle of ironclad warships in history

When: March 8-9, 1862

“The turrets and other parts of the ship were heavily struck, but the shots did not penetrate” Lieutenant S. Dana Greene, aboard the USS Monitor

As part of the Union’s ‘Anaconda Plan’, the North had blockaded the Confederacy’s ports, strangling the Confederate war effort. On March 8, a strange-looking ship lumbered into the blockade, intent on breaking it. The ship was the CSS Virginia, built from the burned hull of the captured USS Merrimack, fitted with iron armor. The wooden-hulled ships of the US Navy were no match for the new ironclad, who wreaked havoc amongst the Union squadron, sinking the USS Cumberland, setting fire to the USS Congress and damaging the USS Minnesota. However, on hearing of this new ship, the North had hurriedly built an ironclad of their own. Enlisting the help of Swedish inventor John Ericsson, the USS Monitor had been built, covered in iron armor and bearing a revolving turret for its two cannons. The Virginia had returned to Norfolk for the night to repair, and the Monitor raced to Hampton Roads. By the morning, the Monitor was waiting. The ironclads fought for hours, pounding each other at close range, but neither sustained any real damage. The battle was a stalemate, but had global implications. It had spelled out the end of the wooden warship, and Great Britain and France, the two great European naval powers, both began to convert their fleets to iron, changing the course of naval warfare. From two ships battering each other in a corner of Virginia, the modern battleship was born. For the two ironclad pioneers, it wasn’t combat that defeated them; Virginia was scuttled and destroyed when the Union took Norfolk in May, and the Monitor sank while being towed under choppy seas in December.

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