The Battle of Hampton Roads
Ask anyone to choose a ship of the Civil War Union Navy and a ship of the Confederate Navy; they will undoubtedly name USS Monitor and CSS Merrimack (CSS Virginia).
Both Union and Confederate sailors lined railings and climbed ratlines, watching, scowling and cheering like a crowd at a heavyweight bout. A short distance away, in the cold waters of Hampton Roads, Va., two ironclad warships battled for the title of the mightiest ship afloat. Bathed in clouds of white sulfuric gun smoke, the contenders slammed away at point-blank range like armored knights dueling with sledgehammers. The winner would dominate naval warfare into the next century.
The showdown on March 9, 1862, between the CSS Virginia—a rebuilt federal frigate that never shook her original name, Merrimack and the USS Monitor created widespread attention on both sides of the Mason-Dixon. The Union and Confederate governments, desperate for a morale boost, spun the tactical draw into a strategic victory. Harper’s Weekly thrilled its readers with an action-packed cover story on the battle; Currier & Ives issued three different lithograph versions of the “Terrific Combat”; and the New York Times ran 17 articles on the battle and its participants over the next three days.
The Monitor and Merrimack were not the first iron-hulled steamers of a major national navy to see combat. That distinction belongs to the Mexican sloop-of-war Guadalupe, driven off the Yucatán coast by the aggressive Texas Navy in 1843. During the Crimean War a decade later, three French ironclads reduced a weak Russian land battery at Kinburn, and stories embellishing the French navy’s performance spurred the construction of iron-plated steam frigates in Europe.
When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Union anchorages were crammed with wooden warships already obsolete. Unable to compete with the U.S. Navy on statistical terms, the South saw the opportunity to seize a technological edge that would negate the North’s advantage in timber and guns.
The Merrimack was built out of necessity. Although in April 1861 her Union masters burned the wooden steamer to the waterline during the evacuation of Virginia’s Gosport Navy Yard, the Merrimack’s hull, boilers, and screw propellers remained salvageable, saving the Confederacy precious time and cash. Confederate Naval Secretary Stephen Mallory backed “the fuming, dimly understood, deeply resented machinery” of steam power and teamed with John Mercer Brooke, a gunnery expert, to sheathe the Merrimack in 4 inches of iron plate and fit her out with oak-smashing firepower. By March 1862, the Merrimack was transformed into an iron-plated frigate with guns heavy enough to send any wooden opponent to the bottom.
On the Potomac’s northern shore, the job of stopping the Rebel threat fell to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles. Sporting a bushy white beard that prompted President Lincoln to dub him “Old Father Neptune,” Welles looked the part of a hidebound bureaucrat from the Age of Sail. But Welles was no traditionalist. Under orders to blockade 3,500 miles of Rebel-held coastline, Welles aimed to build an ironclad to match the Southern ship and approved an all-metal design by an irascible Swedish inventor named John Ericsson.
Tacking through headwinds of naval doubters and government red tape, Ericsson built the USS Monitor, an unorthodox two-gun steamer with a round, flat turret dubbed the “cheesebox” by incredulous sailors. Ericsson’s design was so radical that his contract contained a unique provision stating that the ironclads validity could only be tested in battle and if the fight went against the ship, the backers would lose not just their final 25 percent payment, but also have to pay back every dollar the government had spent on it
As the Merrimack weighed anchor, the Monitor, the Union’s answer, remained at dockside, an untested experiment whose crew stood a fair chance of dying by drowning, scalding or carbon-monoxide poisoning before reaching the enemy. Without the Monitor, Lincoln’s Atlantic Blockading Squadron was, little better prepared for its enemy’s arrival than another American fleet would be on December 7, 1941.
The Merrimack reached full steam on March 8, 1862, when the 10-gun oddity wreaked havoc on the Union blockading force at Hampton Roads. During the afternoon, she rammed and sank the 24-gun Cumberland and sent the 52-gun frigate Congress to a fiery death. She then turned her large-caliber attention to the stranded 44-gun Minnesota until an ebbing tide and dusk ended the day’s carnage.
At the end of the day, the Union had suffered a terrible defeat at Hampton Roads. Lincoln’s high command was dumbfounded to learn that the naval secretary’s answer to the Rebel behemoth was a two-gun iron box. Lincoln, wrote Welles, was driven to distraction by the specter of the Merrimack returning to finish off his squadron. Gen. George McClellan, “who rarely underestimated a threat,” talked about changing his war strategy, while Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Secretary of State William Seward scouted spots on the Potomac where the dreaded Merrimack might appear to shell the nation’s capital.
That night, the Monitor chugged into Hampton Roads to incredulous looks from the sailors that the little cheesebox was ordered to save. “Was this pathetic metal pie plate the famous Ericsson ram?” Mr. Snow has the Minnesota’s captain wondering. “Was this what the mighty industries of the North had so tardily sent to counter the titan that had cut its killing path through a Union fleet a few hours earlier?” One sailor called the Monitor “but a speck on the dark blue sea at night, almost a laughable object by day.”
But the Merrimack’s crewmen weren’t laughing when the Monitor’s two 11-inch guns wheeled on them the next morning. Thinking they would only fight wooden ships, the Merrimack’s officers had sailed without the armor-piercing solid shot, and the Confederate titan reeled under the pounding of the Monitor’s guns. “You can see surprise on a ship just as you can on a human being,” remembered the Monitor’s quartermaster. “There was surprise all over the Merrimac.”
The design philosophy behind both warships was that you did not need to “drench an enemy in shellfire, but merely to stand up to whatever is thrown at you while delivering a few decisive blows. For three hours, the two ships blasted each other at close range, but neither delivered a coup de grace. Both withdrew, but the Union blockade held. The North would build more Monitors, while the dry-docked Merrimack, threatened by McClellan’s advancing troops, was destroyed by her owners two months later.
The three-hour Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862, marks the birth of the Modern Navy.