The battle that waged on March 9, 1862, between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, formerly the USS Merrimack, is one of the most revolutionary naval battles in world history. Up until that point, all naval battles had been waged between wooden ships. This was the first battle in maritime history that two ironclad ships waged war.
The USS Merrimack was a Union frigate throughout most of its existence, up until the point that the Union Navy abandoned the Norfolk Naval Yard. To prevent the Confederate Navy from using the ship against them, the Union Navy scuttled her. The Confederates, however, raised the ship from the shallow floor of the harbor and began making some major modifications. Confederate engineers cut the hull down to the water line and built a slanted top. From there, 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 each placed on the starboard and port sides, and one each on the bow and stern sides. Due to its massive size and weight 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" (Williams), it was not expected to stay afloat. The only individual willing to take command of the ship was Captain Franklin Buchanan. After all the modifications were complete, the USS Merrimack was re-christened the CSS Virginia.
The USS Monitor was the creation of Swedish-American engineer, John Ericsson. The ship was considered small for a warship, only 179 feet long and 42 feet wide (Williams). The ship baffled Confederate sailors. 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" (Johnson). The "cheese box" was a nine by twenty foot revolving turret with two massive guns inside. For armament, the USS Monitor used two eleven-inch Dahlgran guns (Doughty 218). 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 18 inches) that 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. As a result, one armor-piercing hit could kill the entire crew. Like the CSS Virginia, the USS Monitor was expected to sink; it was referred to as "Ericsson's Folly" (Johnson). Lieutenant John Worden took command of the USS Monitor.
The battle at Hampton Roads was part of the Peninsula Campaign that lasted from March to August of 1862 (Doughty 131). There were 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, which had already been run aground. Capt. Buchanan was unaware that Lt. Worden and the USS Monitor were lying in wait. With orders to protect the wounded USS Minnesota. Lt. Worden steamed out into the middle of the bay to meet the CSS Virginia. 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" (Williams).
After 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 result of the battle was an inconclusive one; neither side was able to claim victory. The casualties resulting from the battle were extensive. The Union lost 409 sailors and the Confederacy lost 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. Wooden ships were now obsolete. Ironclad ships began to roll out of shipyards more often than their wooden counterparts.
The 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 ever 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 during the Civil War, but they are hundreds if not thousands of times more powerful (Microsoft Encarta).
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" (Williams).
Johnson, Jeff. "The USS Monitor."