Hampton Roads Fight Begins New Era of Naval Warfare

Posted on March 12, 2012 

In a battle that served as a precursor to future naval encounters, the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia squared off in the first meeting of ironclad vessels. The battle which is referred to as the battle of Hampton Roads or the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac served to bring about the eventual end to wooden combat ships and bring forth newer vessels that could take as much punishment as they gave out.

The Federal blockade had successfully cut off Virginia’s two largest cities, Richmond and Norfolk, from international trade. Such trade was needed for the Confederacy to export its vast supply of cotton to other countries in order to get much needed supplies for conducting the Civil War.

Since the Confederacy had no hope of matching the Union navy, ship for ship, an effort was made to produce better quality fighting vessels which would outclass its Federal rivals. In order to do this, the Confederacy concentrated on producing ironclad vessels instead of the usual wooden hull ships.

The USS Merrimack, which was one of nine vessels sunk by Federals upon leaving Norfolk, Va., was raised and converted into what would become the CSS Virginia.

Like most things of this era, the North and South could not agree on what to call the vessel. Northerners still called it the Merrimack while southerners called it the Virginia. If they called it the Merrimack, they did so by leaving off the “k” making it the Merrimac.

No matter what it was called, the Merrimack’s hull and engines were used to make the Virginia. Iron plates were used to cover the upper portion of the vessel. A ram was also added to the Virginia which would allow run into the wooden hulls of Federal ships. Upon hearing news of the Confederacy working on iron-plated vessels, the Union also began designing similar boats.

On Mar. 8, 1862, the Virginia made one of its first appearances at Hampton Roads, Va., where the Elizabeth, Nansemond and James River meet near Chesapeake Bay.

The plan was for the Virginia to attack wooden hull ships that were blockading Norfolk. The Virginia, accompanied by five other ships, immediately attacked the USS Cumberland, ramming the ship below the water line. The Cumberland sank almost instantly. The Virginia’s ram got stuck in the Cumberland and was in danger of being pulled down but the ram broke off, freeing the Virginia.

The next ship to be attacked was the USS Congress. Seeing how quickly the Virginia dispatched the Cumberland, the Congress was ordered to run aground and eventually surrendered. While allowing the Federals to evacuate the Congress, Union land batteries fired upon the Virginia. In retaliation of being fired at, a cannon ball heated to be red hot was fired into the Congress. The vessel burned for the next two days.

Next on the Virginia’s target list was the USS Minnesota which had also run aground. With the tide dropping, the Virginia’s draft was too deep in the shallow water. The vessel withdrew for repairs and waited for a high tide the following day.

On Mar. 9, 1862, the Virginia emerged with repairs made to the smokestack and some loose iron plates. It immediate advanced toward the Minnesota. Between the Minnesota and the Virginia was an unusual looking vessel, the USS Monitor. With only it turret and pilot house above the water line, the Monitor looked like something being towed instead of a true vessel.

The Virginia moved closer and fired the first shot. The shot missed the Monitor, slamming into the Minnesota instead. The Monitor quickly answered the Virginia’s fire. For hours, both ironclads bounced shell after shell off each other’s iron plates without either gaining the upper hand.

Capt. Franklin Buchanan thought his vessel would only be fighting against wooden hull ships so he only had solid shot in the Virginia’s arsenal. No rounds capable of piercing armor were aboard the Virginia.

The Virginia suffered damage to its smoke stack and the Monitor suffered a direct hit on the pilot house, injuring those inside. Each vessel withdrew from the other, thinking they had won the battle, when in fact, the fight was a draw.

News of the battle of the Monitor and Virginia swept across the globe. Countries such as France and Great Britain halted any further construction on wooden hull battleships given the performance of the Union and Confederate ironclads.

For months following the battle of Hampton Roads, the Virginia and Monitor kept a wary eye on each other. The two vessels never fought another battle after their historic encounter.

In May 1862, the Norfolk was abandoned and the Virginia was forced to move to Richmond. The river wasn’t deep enough for the vessel and it was in danger of being captured by the Federals. The Virginia was set afire in order to keep it from falling into Federal hands.

In December 1862, the Monitor was being towed to Beaufort, N. C., to participate in the continuing blockade. High seas and wind rushed over the low sitting vessel and it sank off the coast of Cape Hatteras.

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