The battle of Hampton Roads was an historic draw. For the first time in history, two ironclad vessels engaged in combat. Neither was able to gain the upper hand. A tactical draw meant a strategic victory for the North, however, in that it was trying to maintain a blockade of the South, and Confederate forces failed to break the blockade. Northern planners were enthusiastic about the design features of their combatant, the USS Monitor; despite a short service life of less than a year and an ambiguous service record, the Monitor had a profound effect on subsequent warship design.
The American ironclads were not the first vessels of their kind; both France and Britain had produced ironclad warships in the years immediately preceding the American Civil War. The US Navy had even experimented with the idea as early as 1842, but construction was delayed for twelve years, and before it could be completed, its creator died and work stopped again. When the Civil War began, the Navy was uninterested in resuming this project.
It was not uninterested in ironclads in principle, however. Strategically, the naval contribution to the Civil War consisted mainly of the creation and enforcement of a blockade on southern ports; the US Navy was far too small in 1861 to perform this task, and an aggressive program of naval expansion dominated naval planning for that year. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles always believed that the construction of ironclads would be an important part of this expansion. The Confederacy, however, hastened his plans.
In August, the Navy learned that the Confederates were refitting the former USS Merrimac (a conventional frigate that also carried a steam engine) as an ironclad, and so the Navy needed an immediate ironclad program of its own to counter that threat. Congress authorized this spending on August 3, and three contracts were awarded on September 16. Two of these vessels, the New Ironsides and the Galena, were planned as iron versions of wooden ships; the first was a clear imitation of the French ironclad Gloire, and the second was subsequently refit as a wooden vessel. The third contract was awarded to John Ericsson, who offered a radical design that had the supreme virtue of a rapid construction.
Construction of this vessel, dubbed the Monitor, was completed in January 1862; it entered active service in February. Its shallow-draft hull was almost completely submerged, surrounded at the water level on all sides by a five-foot-thick “lip” that protected it from ramming. In the event that an enemy vessel did ram the Monitor, only this “lip” would be damaged, while hull integrity and the propulsion mechanisms would be unharmed. Only a few features extended visibly above the water line: a small, reinforced box to house the helm, known as the pilot house, a large rotating turret housing two 11-inch guns, a smokestack, and the flagpole.
The Monitor was smaller than most ironclads, and only carried two guns, albeit heavy ones. It was hoped that its armor, its speed, and the small target that it posed would compensate for its limitations. Moreover, the placement of its guns in a turret made up for their smaller number: a conventional vessel can only fire its guns in a broadside, while the Monitor could fire two heavy cannon in any direction. In any event, it was the only choice available when the Confederate ironclad, dubbed the CSS Virginia, sprang into action on March 8 at Hampton Roads.
Hampton Roads is the name given to the outlet of the James River into Chesapeake Bay. The James River flows past Richmond on its way towards the Atlantic, and the Confederate capital was the object of General McClellan’s peninsular campaign. With the James River to their left, and the York to their right, McClellan’s forces were slowly pushing their way inland towards Richmond. The US Navy supplied those forces while enforcing a blockade against vessels entering or leaving Confederate ports. This is why the appearance of the Virginia was so important.
On that first day, the Virginia threatened to change the naval balance of power in that theatre of war. Steaming out with several escort vessels, the Virginia engaged Union warships, sinking the Cumberland and burning the Congress before the end of the day. It demonstrated its strength both in ramming and in cannon fire, while the Union vessels were unable to harm it. The Virginia broke off the attack at 6:30 pm, anticipating a renewal of effort the following day.
Around 9 pm, the Monitor arrived at Hampton Roads.
After the fog dissipated the following morning, the Virginia and its escorts resumed the attack, intending to destroy the Minnesota. At 8:35, the Monitor engaged the Virginia, beginning a four-hour battle. Neither vessel managed to cause significant damage to the other, whether by shot or by ramming. Not expecting to face another ironclad, the Confederates had supplied the Virginia with explosive shot and heated shot; they had no ammunition to penetrate an armored target. For its part, the Monitor did little better with its ammunition, although the gunners hoped that repeated hits against armored plates might cause one or two to loosen, opening up a weak spot for a telling blow.
As it happened, it was the Monitor’s shallower draft that proved more telling. Shortly after 11:00, the Monitor withdrew to the shallows to bring more ammunition to the gun turret. The Virginia attempted to take advantage of the Monitor’s absence to renew the attack on the Minnesota, but by 11:30, the Monitor had returned. Almost immediately thereafter, the Virginia, with its deeper draft, ran aground. After five minutes, it was able to free itself, but the Virginia’s limitations at low tide were abundantly clear.
At 12:10, the Monitor’s commander, Lt. Worden, was injured when a direct hit on the pilot house was made. With its skipper blinded, the Monitor left the battle; once more, the Virginia targeted the Minnesota, but withdrew ten minutes later because of the lowering of the tide. Each vessel had shown that it could neutralize the other; because of this, the Union blockade was unbroken, and the Confederate effort at a breakout was thwarted.
The Virginia attempted another breakout in April, but the US Navy had adopted a new strategy, hoping to lure it out into the open where superior numbers could destroy it. The Virginia did not follow. In May, the Confederates retreated from Norfolk, taking most of their vessels upriver with them. The Virginia could not travel so far upriver, even after its armor had been removed, and so it was scuttled on May 11.
The Union government was thrilled with the performance of the Monitor, even if they chose not to risk it a second time against the Virginia in April; the US Navy abandoned alternate ironclad designs and focused solely on constructing new variants of the Monitor design in its ironclad program. An abortive effort against shore batteries on May 15 demonstrated one of the design’s weaknesses, namely light deck protection. Fire from another ship would not penetrate the deck, but fire from shore bombardment could do so. Still, the Monitor’s usefulness against other vessels was unchallenged, and so neither was the government’s enthusiasm for its design.
Eventually, McClellan retreated from the peninsula, and the Monitor was ordered to take up a position outside of Wilmington. Towed by the USS Rhode Island, the Monitor proceeded toward its destination until the night of December 30, when a heavy storm struck. At 12:30 am, the Monitor sank, killing 16.
The Monitor served for less than year, but it had managed to enforce the Union blockade at the only time when it was in doubt. Its design became the new orthodoxy in Union naval construction, and it inspired imitators in Europe as well. Before long, wooden vessels would become militarily irrelevant; ships of iron would dominate the waves. True maritime vessels could not imitate the Monitor’s low profile, but the emplacement of guns inside rotating turrets was a major development leading to the battleships of the twentieth century.
Batchelor, John and Chris Chant. The Complete Encyclopedia of Warships: Steam – Turbine – Diesel – Nuclear 1798-2006. Rebo Publishers, 2007.
Flagel, Thomas R. The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War. Cumberland House, 2003.
Konstam, Angus. Duel of the Ironclads: USS Monitor & CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads 1862. Osprey, 2003.
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