The battle on March 9, 1862, between the USS Monitor and the CSS
Merrimack, officially the CSS Virginia, is one of the most revolutionary naval
battles in world history. Up until that point, all battles had been waged
between wooden ships. This was the first battle in maritime history that two
ironclad ships waged war.
USS Merrimack was a Union frigate throughout most of its existence, up until the
Union Navy abandoned the Norfolk Naval Yard. To prevent the Confederate Navy
from using her against them, the Union Navy scuttled her. The Confederates,
however, raised the ship from the shallow floor of the ocean and began making
some major modifications. Confederate engineers cut the hull down to the water
line and built a slanted top on it. Then, they bolted four layers of iron
sheets, each two inches thick, to the entire structure. Also added was a huge
battering ram to the bow of the ship to be used in ramming maneuvers. The ship
was then fitted with ten twelve-pound cannons. There were four guns placed on
the starboard and port sides, and one on the bow and stern sides. Due to its
massive nature the ship's draft was enormous, it stretched twenty-two feet to
the bottom. The ship was so slow and long, that it required a turning radius of
about one mile. Likened to a "floating barn roof (DesJardien 2)" and
not predicted to float, the only individual willing to take command of the ship
was Captain Franklin Buchanan. After all the modifications were complete, the
ship was rechristened the CSS Virginia, but the original name the CSS Merrimack
is the preferred name.
USS Monitor was the creation of Swedish-American engineer, John Ericsson. The
ship was considered small for a warship, only 172 feet long and 42 feet wide.
Confederate sailors were baffled by the ship. One was quoted describing her as
". . . a craft such as the eyes of a seaman never looked upon before, an
immense shingle floating on the water with a giant cheese box rising from its
center" (Ward 101). The "cheese box" was a nine by twenty foot
revolving turret with two massive guns inside. "The USS Monitor used two of
the eleven inch Dahlgran guns . . ." (Lavy 2). These Dahlgran guns were
massive rifled cannons that were capable of firing a variety of shot. The armor
of this ship was a two-inch thick layer of steel that shielded the ship. The
deck was so low to the water line, about one foot, which waves frequently washed
over the deck causing the ship to lose its balance in the water. Due to the low
profile, the entire crew was located below the water line, so one armor-piercing
hit would kill the entire crew. Like the CSS Merrimack, the USS Monitor was
expected to sink, it was referred to as "Ericsson's Folly" (DesJardien
2). The only individual willing to take command of the ship was Lieutenant John
battle at Hampton Roads was part of the Peninsula Campaign that lasted from
March to August of 1862. There was a total of five ships engaged in the battle.
From the US Navy, there were four ships, the USS Congress, USS Minnesota, USS
Cumberland, and the USS Monitor. The CS Navy had one ship, the CSS Merrimack. On
March 8, 1862, the CSS Merrimack steamed into Hampton Roads. She proceeded to
sink the USS Cumberland and then ran the USS Congress aground. Captain Buchanan
then set his sights on the already handicapped USS Minnesota. The USS Minnesota
was run aground on one of the shores. Capt. Buchanan did not know, but the USS
Monitor was lying in wait, ordered to protect the wounded USS Minnesota. Lt.
Worden steamed out into the middle of the bay to meet the CSS Merrimack. The USS
Monitor fired first in a drawn out battle that lasted about four and a half
hours. "They fired shot, shell, grape, canister, musket and rifle balls
doing no damage to each other" (Lavy 3).
four and a half hours, the CSS Merrimack withdrew due to falling tides. The USS
Monitor did not make chase because of a crack in the turret. The results of the
battle were inconclusive, neither side could claim victory. The estimated
casualties resulting from the battle were extensive. The Union lost about 409
sailors and the Confederacy lost about 24 sailors. The battle was so impressive
to the leaders of both the Union and the Confederacy, that they contracted their
Naval yards to have more ironclad ships built. Additions to the Confederate
fleet included the CSS Tennessee, a 209 foot long blockade runner with four
broadside cannons and pivoted cannons at the bow and stern. Additions to the
Union Navy included the USS Carondelet. Armed with thirteen guns and stationed
on the Mississippi, she was a formidable opponent. Prior to the building of the
USS Monitor, the USS New Ironsides was built. "It was the strongest ship
ever built by the Northern Navy" (Lavy 4). Wooden ships were now obsolete.
Ironclad ships began to roll out of ship yards more often than their wooden
counterparts. "The invention of ironclads in the Civil War set examples for
the future of ship building in the United States" (Lavy 5).
ironclads were at an advantage over the wooden ships of the two Navies because
of their superior technology. Ironclads could withstand hours of battering by
artillery, and they could be used to cut traffic lanes through mine fields.
Their armor could resist the blast from a mine considerably better than any
wooden ship could. They could also carry more powerful guns. Due to their
increased stability in the water these massive ships could easily endure the
recoil of a huge cannon. Another useful characteristic of the ironclads was
their ability to be used in ramming missions. The hull of the ship would not be
compromised by a hit associated with ramming a wooden vessel.
Because of Civil War technology, the United States has never built
another wooden battleship since the introduction of the ironclads. Every armed
conflict since then has seen more and more improvements in the way ironclad
ships were built. The introduction of multiple massive turrets in the late 1800s
improved the firepower dramatically. Later renovations included improved power
plants and more devastating weapons. Perhaps the greatest renovation came in the
pre-World War I era with the introduction of the aircraft carrier. Today,
ironclad ships are so advanced that they are scarcely bigger than the ironclads
used in the Civil War, but they are hundreds if not thousands times more
Although the wooden ship has proved extremely effective in naval battles
throughout history, the advent of the ironclad totally revolutionized the way in
which naval forces around the world approach warfare. "From the moment the
two ships opened fire that Sunday morning, every other navy on earth was
obsolete" (Ward 102).
DesJardien, Matt. "The Ironclads."
Lavy, Gabe. "A Comparison of the Role and Importance of
the Northern and Southern Navies to the Fighting of the
Civil War." www.geocities.com/Athens/2391/Final.htm.
"Monitor v. Merrimack," Microsoft Encarta 1996 Encyclopedia.
Microsoft Corp., Funk and Wagnalls Corp. 1993-95.
Ward, Geoffrey C. The Civil War: An Illustrated History.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990.