Written by Anna Gibson Holloway, former curator of the USS Monitor Center
In early March 1862, construction crews in Brooklyn, New York and Portsmouth, Virginia were rushing to complete two vessels of radically different designs. In Brooklyn, the Union ironclad Monitor was completing her sea trials before heading south to Hampton Roads to counter the threat of the Confederate ironclad Virginia (formerly Merrimack). The Virginia‘s first mission was to break the Union blockade of Hampton Roads and protect the waterways to Richmond from Union advances. Yet Stephen Russell Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate Navy, had even grander plans for the ironclad. He hoped that the Virginia could then continue on and ravage the coastal cities of the Union. Washington, New York, and Boston were desired targets. In contrast, the Monitor‘s mission was very focused; destroy the Virginia at her moorings if possible, but more importantly, protect the fleet at Hampton Roads as well as the city of Washington D.C. from attack by the “rebel monster.”
Both ironclads achieved certain elements of their objectives. The Virginia destroyed key Union vessels in Hampton Roads and kept the James River closed to Union advances for a time. The Monitor saved the fleet from further destruction and kept the Virginia trapped in Hampton Roads. However, the significance of March 8 and 9, 1862 went far beyond the immediate needs in Hampton Roads. The Virginia demonstrated the power of iron over wood on March 8, and the Monitor and Virginia showed the world’s navies the future of warship construction when the two clashed on March 9. This first meeting of two ironclad warships in battle forever changed naval architecture, battle tactics, and the very psychology of the men who served within them.
Saturday, March 8, 1862 was laundry day for the crews of the Union’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron in Hampton Roads, Virginia. The rigging of the wooden vessels was festooned with blue and white clothing, drying in the late winter sun. Shortly after noon, the quartermaster of the USS Congress, which was anchored off Newport News Point, saw something strange through his telescope. He turned to the ship’s surgeon and said, “I wish you would take the glass and have a look over there, Sir. I believe that thing is a’comin’ down at last.”
That “thing” was the CSS Virginia. The Confederates had been converting the burnt-out hull of the steam screw frigate Merrimack into a casemated ironclad ram at Gosport Navy Yard on the Elizabeth River. It had taken nine months for the conversion, and Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, was impatient to strike at the blockading fleet. March 8, 1862 would be the Virginia’s sea trial, as well as her trial by fire.
The men of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, who had grown weary of waiting for the Virginia to come out, now scrambled to prepare for battle. In the panic of the moment, and with the tide at ebb, several vessels ran aground, including the USS Congress and the USS Minnesota.
The USS Cumberland was Buchanan’s first target. With his guns firing at the wooden ship, Buchanan rammed the Cumberland on her starboard side. The hole below her waterline was large, and the ship immediately began to sink, nearly taking the Virginia with her. Scores of Union sailors from the Cumberland died at their guns, or went down with their ship; guns still firing and flags still defiantly flying.
The Virginia broke free, and steamed slowly into the James River. The men on the stranded Congress began to cheer, thinking they had been spared the same horrific fate. That cheer was cut short, however, when they saw that the Virginia had made her ponderous turn.
The Virginia’s withering firepower tore into the USS Congress for nearly two hours. With most of the crew dead or wounded, including the commanding officer, the remaining men of the Congress surrendered. Enraged at Union shore batteries which continued to fire upon the white flag, Buchanan ordered the Congress to be set afire, and then began personally firing back at the shore with a rifle. He quickly became a target on the exposed top deck of the Virginia. Wounded, he turned command over to his Executive Officer, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, who returned the Virginia to her moorings that evening. Falling darkness and a receding tide had saved the steam frigate USS Minnesota from the same fate as the Congress and Cumberland.
The mood in Hampton Roads was one of disbelief and for some, resignation. The hope of the Union navy—the USS Monitor—had been too late to sink the Virginia at her moorings. The Monitor, a radical vessel designed by Swedish-American genius John Ericsson, had been built in just a little over 100 days, thanks to the combined muscle of the Northern iron industry. Launched in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, this strange little ship had only two guns—XI-inch Dahlgrens—housed in her most distinctive feature: a revolving gun turret which sat upon her flat deck. Commanded by Lieutenant John Lorimer Worden, the Monitor and crew had left New York bound for Hampton Roads on March 6, 1862. A storm very nearly sank her before they arrived at their destination on the evening of March 8.
The distant sound of booming guns greeted the Monitor as she approached the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Nearing Fortress Monroe as darkness fell, the Monitor’s Acting Paymaster, William Keeler, recalled that as the Monitor drew closer to the scene, 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 grounded Minnesota, still trapped on Hampton Flats. The burning Congress provided an eerie backdrop to the fevered activities in Hampton Roads, along with the “considerable noise” floating across the water from Confederate celebrations at Sewell’s Point. Union crews struggled in vain to tow the Minnesota to safety. Exploding munitions from the Congress pelted the Minnesota throughout the evening.
After midnight, the flames of the Congress reached the ship’s powder magazine and the whole of Hampton Roads was treated to a horrific fireworks display. Despite being over two miles from the dying vessel, the explosion was so intense it “seemed almost to lift us out of the water,” William Keeler wrote. It was felt for miles around.
Just after dawn on March 9, the men of the Virginia tucked into a hearty breakfast made all the more festive by two jiggers of whiskey for each man. In contrast, the Monitor‘s exhausted crew sat together on the berth deck eating hardtack and canned roast beef, washing it down with coffee. Many of them had been awake for well over 24 hours.
Intense fog early that morning delayed the Virginia‘s assault upon the stranded Minnesota, so it was not until 8:00 a.m. that the Virginia was able to approach her prey. The Virginia‘s crew saw what appeared to be “a shingle floating in the water, with a gigantic cheesebox rising from its center” sitting alongside the frigate. Confederates who had been following the Northern newspapers knew that this cheesebox must be the anticipated Union ironclad. The Virginia‘s first shot went through the Minnesota’s rigging shortly before 8:30 a.m. while the Monitor&rquo;s crew braced for battle inside of their untested, experimental vessel.
Worden moved the Monitor directly towards the Virginia, placing his ship between the Virginia and her prey. Within yards of the Virginia, Worden called all stop to the engines and sent the command to the crew in the turret to “Commence firing!” The “cheesebox” had found her voice.
A “rattling broadside” which could have easily as come from the Minnesota as the Virginia soon slammed into the turret. The gunners quickly realized that both they and the turret were unharmed. They also found that while the turret turned well, it proved difficult to stop revolving once in motion. Eventually, they let it continue to revolve, firing “on the fly” when the enemy target came in sight.
The conventions applied to traditional naval tactics soon went by the wayside as well. Though the men had carefully marked the stationary portion of the deck beneath the turret with chalk marks to indicate starboard and port bearings, and bow and stern, the marks were soon obliterated by sweat, which fell from the gunners “like rain.” Worden, who was stationary in the pilothouse continued to give commands in the traditional way. When asked, “How does the Merrimac bear?” Worden’s reply of “on the starboard beam” was of little use to the turret crew.
For over four hours, both vessels circled one another, testing each other’s armor and looking for vulnerabilities. Finally, just after noon, the Virginia‘s rifled stern gun fired directly into the Monitor‘s pilothouse at a range of ten yards, just as Worden was peering out. Stunned and temporarily blinded, Worden gave the order to “shear off” temporarily. He turned command over to his Executive Officer, Samuel Dana Greene, and told his officers, “to [s]ave the Minnesota if you can.” Returning to the damaged pilothouse, Greene observed that the Virginia appeared to be in retreat and abandoned the chase in order to protect the Minnesota. On the Virginia, Catesby Jones interpreted Greene’s action as retreat and believed the Monitor had broken off the fight. With the tide receding, Jones made a course for Gosport in order to repair the damage done to his vessel.
Both sides claimed victory.
Though the March 9 battle itself was largely uneventful, the long-term effect of the action was significant. The Monitor’s timely arrival on the evening of March 8 insured that the Virginia would be unable to break the blockade in Hampton Roads. The Monitor saved the Minnesota outright (so much so that one Minnesota crew member had his tombstone designed to look like the Monitor—the ship that saved his life), and helped keep the Virginia forever trapped in Hampton Roads until the Confederate vessel was destroyed by her own crew on May 11, 1862, following the fall of Norfolk to Union forces.
The long-term impact of the battle was more profound, however. Both the Monitor and the Virginia served as prototypes for classes of vessels that drew upon their innovative designs. The ironclad rams of the Confederacy and the turreted monitors of the Union saw action in the Atlantic, Gulf, and Western rivers. The monitor design continued as the principal coastal and riverine warship in North and South America as well as Europe until the turn of the century. While ironclads had certainly existed before the Monitor and Virginia, their meeting on March 9, 1862 ushered in the next phase of naval warfare, where machine and armament become paramount and the graceful wooden sailing ships of the age of fighting sail became forlorn relics of the past.
The author Herman Melville summed it up rather gloomily:
Yet this was battle, and intense —
Beyond the strife of fleets heroic;
Deadlier, closer, calm ‘mid storm;
No passion; all went on by crank,
Pivot, and screw,
And calculations of caloric.
He ends with the pronouncement that “War shall yet be, but warriors/Are now but operatives….”
In this way, the first battle of ironclads marked a shift in warfare that would be manifested in ship design, battle tactics, and the very psychology of the men involved. “There isn’t enough danger to give us glory,” lamented William Keeler, Paymaster of the USS Monitor, to his wife. A Confederate officer of a later ironclad simply said that “the poetry of the profession is gone.” Life in the ironclad age would be very different indeed.