In early March 1862, crews in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Portsmouth, Va., rushed to complete two vessels radically different designs. In Brooklyn, the Union ironclad Monitor completed sea trials before heading to Hampton Roads, Va., to counter threats from the Confederate ironclad Virginia. The Virginia’s first mission? Break the Union blockade of Hampton Roads and protect waterways leading to Richmond. Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory hoped the Virginia could then ravage coastal cities—Washington, New York, Boston.
The Monitor’s mission was more focused: Destroy the Virginia at its moorings if possible, but more important protect the fleet at Hampton Roads as well as Washington, D.C., from attack by the “Rebel monster.”
Both achieved elements of their objectives. The Virginia destroyed key Union vessels and kept the James River closed to Union advances for a while. The Monitor saved the fleet from further destruction and trapped the Virginia at Hampton Roads. But the significance of March 8-9, 1862, went far beyond that. The Virginia proved the power of iron over wood March 8, and both showed the world’s navies the future of warship construction when they clashed March 9. This first meeting of ironclad warships transformed naval architecture, battle tactics and the very psychology of the men who served within them.
Saturday, March 8, was laundry day for the crews of the Union’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron at Hampton Roads. The wooden vessels’ rigging was festooned with clothing drying in the late winter sun. Shortly after noon, the quartermaster of the USS Congress, anchored off Newport News Point, saw a strange thing through his telescope. “I wish you would take the glass and have a look over there, Sir,” he told the ship’s surgeon. “I believe that thing is a’comin’ down at last.”
That “thing” was the CSS Virginia, converted from the burned-out hull of the steam screw frigate Merrimack into a casemated ironclad ram at Gosport Navy Yard on the Elizabeth River. Conversion took nine months, and Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan was impatient to strike.
The Cumberland was Buchanan’s first target. With guns firing, he rammed the Cumberland on its starboard side. With a large hole below the waterline, it immediately began to sink, nearly taking the Virginia with it. Scores of Union sailors died at their guns or went down with the ship, guns still firing and flags defiantly flying.
The Virginia broke free and steamed slowly into the James River. Men on the stranded Congress cheered, thinking they’d been spared. The cheer was cut short, however, when the Virginia made a ponderous turn.
The Virginia’s withering firepower tore into the Congress for nearly two hours. With most of the crew (including the commanding officer) dead or wounded, the remaining men surrendered. Enraged at Union shore batteries still firing despite the white flag, Buchanan ordered the Congress set afire, and shot back at the shore with a rifle. But exposed on the Virginia’s top deck, he was wounded in the thigh. He gave command to Lieutenant Catesby Roger Jones, who returned the Virginia to its moorings that evening. Falling darkness and receding tide saved the USS Minnesota.
The mood in Hampton Roads was disbelief and for some, resignation. The hope of the Union Navy— the USS Monitor—had been too late to sink the Virginia at its moorings.
The Monitor, a radical vessel designed by Swedish-American genius John Ericsson, had only two guns—11-inch Dahlgrens—housed in a revolving gun turret that sat upon a flat deck. Commanded by Lieutenant John Lorimer Worden, the Monitor and crew left New York on March 6. It almost sank in a storm before arriving, however.
The distant sound of booming guns greeted the Monitor as it approached the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Nearing Fort Monroe as darkness fell, the Monitor’s acting paymaster, William Keeler, noticed civilian vessels “were leaving like a covey of frightened quails & their lights danced over the water in all directions.”
Worden immediately received orders to protect the Minnesota, trapped on Hampton Flats. The burning Congress provided an eerie backdrop to the fevered activities, along with the “considerable noise” from Confederate celebrations at Sewell’s Point. Union crews struggled in vain to tow the Minnesota to safety. Exploding munitions from the disabled Congress pelted the Minnesota throughout the evening.
After midnight, flames reached the Congress’ powder magazine and Hampton Roads was treated to a horrific fireworks display. The explosion “seemed almost to lift us out of the water,” Keeler wrote, despite being more than two miles away.
Just after dawn March 9, the Virginia’s men tucked into a hearty breakfast made more festive by two jiggers of whiskey for each. The Monitor’s exhausted crew sat together on the berth deck eating hardtack and canned roast beef, washed down with coffee. Many hadn’t slept in well over 24 hours.
The Virginia’s first shot went through the Minnesota’s rigging shortly before 8:30 a.m., while the Monitor’s crew braced for battle inside their untested vessel. Worden moved the Monitor directly toward the Virginia, placing his ship between the Virginia and the Minnesota. Within yards of the Virginia, Worden called “all stop” to the engines and commanded the turret crew to “Commence firing!”
A “rattling broadside” that could as easily have come from the Minnesota as the Virginia soon slammed into the turret. The gunners quickly realized both they and the turret were unharmed. They also found that while the turret revolved well, it was difficult to stop. Finally they let it spin, firing “on the fly” when the target came in sight.
For more than four hours the vessels circled one another, testing each other’s armor and looking for vulnerabilities. Shorly after noon, the Virginia’s rifled stern gun fired directly into the Monitor’s pilothouse at a range of 10 yards, just as Worden peered out. Stunned and briefly blinded, Worden gave the order to “shear off.” He turned command over to Samuel Dana Greene and told his officers to “[s]ave the Minnesota if you can.” Returning to the damaged pilothouse, Greene believed the Virginia was in retreat and abandoned the chase in order to protect the Minnesota. On the Virginia, Catesby Jones thought the Monitor had broken off the fight. With the tide receding, Jones headed to Gosport for damage repair.
Both sides claimed victory.
Though the battle itself was largely uneventful, the Monitor’s arrival kept the Virginia from breaking the blockade, saved the Minnesota outright and helped keep the Virginia trapped at Hampton Roads until it was destroyed by its own crew on May 11, 1862, following the fall of Norfolk.
The long-term impact was more profound. The monitor design remained the principal coastal and riverine warship in both North and South America and in Europe for decades. While ironclads existed before, the battle ushered in the next phase of naval warfare—where machine and armament became paramount and graceful wooden sailing ships became forlorn relics.
Anna Gibson Holloway is curator of the USS Monitor Center in Newport News, Va.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.