Battle of the and the Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although this first battle between ironclad ships was inconclusive and had little direct impact on the Civil War, it marked the beginning of a new era in naval warfare by demonstrating that wooden warships had no future.

Summary of Event

To build a new navy while his new nation was engaged in a war for survival, Confederate secretary of the navy Stephen R. Mallory determined to adapt new technologies. First on his agenda was equipping his navy with ironclad warships. Although both France and Great Britain were then building such vessels, the Union navy had continued to maintain its faith in wooden frigates, sloops, and gunboats. The Union’s reliance on wooden ships presented the Confederacy with an opportunity to gain a technological advantage. However, the Confederacy was agrarian in outlook and character and had neither the skilled shipbuilding Shipbuilding;United States personnel nor the iron-manufacturing industry to construct a fleet of iron-armored war vessels immediately. Nevertheless, Mallory Mallory, Stephen Russell lobbied the Confederate congress to invest in new and expensive technology, telling them, “I regard the possession of an iron armored vessel as a matter of the first necessity.” The Confederacy could never compete with the U.S. Navy in numbers of vessels, he said; thus, armored ships that could stand up to squadrons of wooden-walled frigates were essential. Weapons;ironclad ships Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Battle of Monitor and Virginia Monitor and Virginia, Battle of (1862) Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);naval actions Virginia;Battle of Monitor and Virginia Hampton Roads, Virginia Steamships;Monitor and Virginia Confederate States of America;navy Navy, U.S.;Civil War Navy, Confederate Iron;and shipbuilding[Shipbuilding] [kw]Battle of the Monitor and the Virginia (Mar. 9, 1862) [kw]Monitor and the Virginia, Battle of the (Mar. 9, 1862) [kw]Virginia, Battle of the Monitor and the (Mar. 9, 1862) Weapons;ironclad ships Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Battle of Monitor and Virginia Monitor and Virginia, Battle of (1862) Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);naval actions Virginia;Battle of Monitor and Virginia Hampton Roads, Virginia Steamships;Monitor and Virginia Confederate States of America;navy Navy, U.S.;Civil War Navy, Confederate Iron;and shipbuilding[Shipbuilding] Hampton Roads, Virginia [g]UnitedStates;Mar. 9, 1862: Battle of the Monitor and the Virginia[3530] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 9, 1862: Battle of the Monitor and the Virginia[3530] [c]Engineering;Mar. 9, 1862: Battle of the Monitor and the Virginia[3530] [c]Military history;Mar. 9, 1862: Battle of the Monitor and theVirginia[3530] Mallory, Stephen Russell Welles, Gideon Ericsson, John Worden, John L. Greene, Samuel Dana Buchanan, Franklin Jones, Catesby ap Roger

Mallory sent agents to Great Britain Great Britain;and U.S. Civil War[U.S. Civil War] Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and Great Britain[Great Britain] to order ironclad warships from English and Scottish naval yards, and at home, put naval lieutenant John M. Brooke Brooke, John M. and naval constructor John L. Porter Porter, John L. to work designing an ironclad to be built in the Confederacy. Both men independently developed the same design: a ship with a gun deck protected by an armored casemate, its sides sloping inward to deflect enemy shot. The decks fore and aft of the casemate would ride at water level, and boilers and machinery would be mounted below the waterline to protect them from enemy fire.

Meanwhile, Union secretary of the navy Gideon Welles Welles, Gideon , blessed with a strong fleet of conventional wooden warships, was less inclined toward new technology than were others, such as the Swedish-born inventor Inventions;ironclad ships Ericsson, John John Ericsson. Ericsson took a number of recent ideas and combined them into a new and radical ironclad design. Instead of a long casemate housing many guns, his ironclad would mount two huge cannons in a revolving cylindrical turret, set squarely in the center of a flat-decked iron ship.

When the Union navy had abandoned its base at Norfolk, Virginia, to the Confederates, it burned and scuttled several war vessels. Among them was the six-year-old steam frigate Merrimack. Confederate engineers calculated that the Merrimack’s hull would make a good platform for their casemated ironclad, and a conversion project began. When word of it reached Union president Abraham Lincoln and Secretary Welles Welles, Gideon , it spurred the Union navy into immediate action to begin building ironclads of their own. The peculiar vessel that John Ericsson called the Monitor became a naval priority.

The Confederates renamed the ship they built from the remains of the Merrimack the CSS Virginia. Yet, perhaps because of the alliterative properties of “Monitor and Merrimack,” the name of the earlier, U.S. wooden frigate has been used more often than Virginia to identify the Confederate vessel. Even during the war, Confederate citizens and newspapers generally referred to the Confederate ironclad Virginia as the Merrimack.

The race to have an ironclad combat-ready on the eastern fighting front resulted in a draw. The Monitor, which was built in one hundred days, showed development problems during its trial runs. Its speed was minimal because of a malfunctioning blower, and it would barely answer its helm; it was said to have weaved like a drunkard while sailing on the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan. However, Ericsson Ericsson, John fixed these problems, and on March 6, 1862, the Monitor left New York bound for Hampton Roads to challenge the Virginia.

Meanwhile, the Confederates’ Virginia made its trial run on March 8, steaming toward the U.S. blockading squadron in Hampton Roads. Its commander, Franklin Buchanan Buchanan, Franklin , made the test run a trial by fire, steaming with his untried, ten-gun vessel into the teeth of the enemy’s naval might. The Virginia rammed and sank the forty-four-gun Cumberland and chased aground the fifty-gun Congress, the forty-six-gun Minnesota, and the forty-six-gun St. Lawrence. The Virginia’s shells set the Congress afire. The Yankees’ return fire had no effect on the ironclad.

The battle of the Union’s turreted Monitor (right) and the Confederacy’s Virginia.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

Burning and aground, the Congress surrendered. Confederate gunboats moved in to evacuate wounded sailors from the vessel, drawing small arms fire from U.S. soldiers ashore. Captain Buchanan returned fire from the Virginia’s foredeck and was wounded in the thigh. Command of the ironclad then passed to his executive officer, Catesby ap R. Jones Jones, Catesby ap Roger . With the tide falling, two Union ships destroyed, and two more aground and awaiting execution, Jones did not want to risk grounding the Virginia, so he took it back to its moorings near Norfolk. During the next morning, of March 9, with the rising tide, the Virginia steamed back into the Hampton Roads to finish off the wooden Union fleet. Unexpectedly, however, it encountered the Monitor, which had arrived there during the night. The two ironclad ships immediately locked in combat, and the nearby wooden ships were all but forgotten.

In anticipation of fighting only wooden ships, the Virginia carried only explosive Explosives shells, instead of heavier solid shot, and was consequently unable to penetrate the Monitor’s armor. One of its shells did, however damage the Monitor’s pilot house, wounding its captain, Commander John L. Worden Worden, John L. . Lieutenant S. Dana Greene Greene, Samuel Dana then assumed command. The Monitor’s shot broke some iron plating on the Virginia but could not penetrate its sloping armor. For four hours, the two ships fought, giving spectators around Hampton Roads a show that some thought to be the greatest naval battle of all time.

The falling tide finally forced the deep-draft Virginia to break off the engagement and steam for home. It returned to a hero’s welcome, but Jones Jones, Catesby ap Roger and others aboard were frustrated at having sunk neither the Monitor nor the Minnesota. In four hours of combat, Jones had developed a great respect for the Monitor. “Give me that vessel,” he told a friend, “and I will sink this one in twenty minutes.” In the days that followed, the Virginia was unable to force the Monitor to resume the duel. Secretary Welles Welles, Gideon forbade the Monitor the option of renewing the fight unless it were absolutely necessary to save the wooden blockading fleet.


After the inconclusive battle, Southerners looked to the creation of more ironclad ships to break the Union blockade Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Union blockade of their port cities. Mallory had hoped that the Virginia could steam to New York, carrying the war to the north and laying that city under tribute, but Buchanan Buchanan, Franklin told him that was impossible because the Virginia was insufficiently seaworthy. The Monitor was not seaworthy, either; it went down at sea only a few weeks after the Virginia was burned when General George B. McClellan’s McClellan, George B. army forced the Confederates to evacuate Norfolk.

The quick dashing of Mallory’s Mallory, Stephen Russell hopes to mount a naval offensive may have made him more amenable to President Jefferson Davis’s idea of fighting a strictly defensive war. The Confederacy eventually acquired more than twenty ironclad ships, but they operated mostly on the defensive, successfully holding the ports of Mobile, Savannah, Charleston, and Wilmington, as well as the capital city of Richmond, Richmond, Virginia;port of against the Union navy. Like Norfolk, all those Confederate ports were eventually taken by land-based armies from the rear.

The Monitor also inspired more ships built on its design. Its design eventually proved militarily superior to that of the Virginia. With their lighter draft, heavily armored turrets, and larger guns, ships built on the Monitor design fared well in battle against the Confederate ironclads Atlanta and Tennessee. Moreover, the Monitor’s revolving turret became the standard of the world’s navies during the next century.

Armored ships and floating batteries had seen combat before the Virginia fought the Monitor, but the devastation the Virginia wrought on the U.S. wooden ships and the publicity surrounding the Hampton Roads battle made the contest of the Virginia and the Monitor the defining moment in the world’s move from wood to armor in naval warfare.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baxter, James P., III. The Introduction of the Ironclad Warship. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1933. A scholarly analysis of the British, French, and U.S. ironclad programs, including the Virginia, the Monitor, and other Confederate and Union ironclads.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooke, John M., and John L. Porter. “The Plan and Construction of the Merrimack.” In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel. Vol. 1. New York: Century, 1887. This and six other articles by participants provide fascinating reading and are invaluable for their insight and detail. As with all participants’ accounts, they must be read with a critical eye.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Durkin, Joseph T. Stephen Russell Mallory: Confederate Navy Chief. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954. The standard study of the Confederate secretary of the navy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nash, Howard P., Jr. A Naval History of the Civil War. Cranbury, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1972. Concise history of the naval struggle between the North and the South.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nelson, James L. Reign of Iron: The Story of the First Battling Ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimack. New York: William Morrow, 2004. Lively history of the battle that is rich in details about naval architecture, weaponry, and the people involved.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Poyer, David. That Anvil of Our Souls: A Novel of the Monitor and the Merrimack. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Well-researched and provocative novel about the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack that is part of the author’s Civil War at Sea series. Poyer introduces fictional characters and imaginary plot elements, but otherwise sticks closely to historical events and personages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scharf, J. Thomas. History of the Confederate States Navy. New York: Rogers & Sherwood, 1887. This giant work by a Confederate midshipman and postwar Baltimore attorney has been the standard work on the Confederate navy for more than a century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Still, William N., Jr. Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1971. Reprint. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985. The standard work on the Confederacy’s ironclad warships.

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