March, 1862: vs. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

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 England were building such vessels, the Union navy had maintained its faith in wooden frigates, sloops, and gunboats. The new Southern nation, agrarian in outlook and character, had neither the skilled shipbuilding personnel nor the iron-manufacturing industry to lay down a fleet of iron-armored war vessels immediately. Yet Mallory lobbied the Confederate Congress for such 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.

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 England were building such vessels, the Union navy had maintained its faith in wooden frigates, sloops, and gunboats. The new Southern nation, agrarian in outlook and character, had neither the skilled shipbuilding personnel nor the iron-manufacturing industry to lay down a fleet of iron-armored war vessels immediately. Yet Mallory lobbied the Confederate Congress for such 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.

Mallory sent agents to England to order ironclads from British and Scottish naval yards, and at home, he put naval lieutenant John M. Brooke and naval constructor John L. Porter to work designing an ironclad to be built for the Confederacy. Independently, both developed the same design—the ship’s gun deck protected by an armored casemate, its sides sloping inward to ricochet enemy shot. The decks fore and aft of the casemate would ride at water level, and boilers and machinery would be carried below the waterline to further protect them from enemy fire.

The Union Navy

Union secretary of the navy Gideon Welles, blessed with a strong fleet of conventional wooden warships, was less inclined toward new technology than were others, such as Swedish-born inventor 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 round, revolving turret, set squarely in the center of a flat-decked iron ship.

When the Union navy abandoned its base at Norfolk, Virginia, to the Confederates, it burned and scuttled several war vessels, including the six-year-old steam frigate Merrimack. The frigate’s hull, the Rebels found, would make a good platform for their casemated ironclad, and the conversion began. When word of it reached President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary Welles, it spurred the Union navy into immediate action on ironclads. The peculiar vessel John Ericsson called the Monitor was now a top naval priority.

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

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

The <i>Virginia</i>

The Confederates’ Virginia made its trial run on March 8, steaming toward the U.S. blockading squadron in Hampton Roads. The vessel’s commander, Franklin Buchanan, made it a trial by fire, steaming with an 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.

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 passed to his executive officer, Catesby ap R. Jones. With the tide falling, two Union ships destroyed, and two more aground and awaiting execution, Jones avoided grounding the Virginia by taking it back to its moorings near Norfolk. The next morning, with the rising tide, the Virginia steamed back into the Hampton Roads to finish off the wooden fleet. Unexpectedly, they encountered the Monitor, which had arrived during the night. The two ironclads immediately locked in combat, the wooden ships all but forgotten.

The Battle

Carrying only explosive shell (no solid shot) in anticipation of fighting only wooden ships, the Virginia was unable to penetrate the Monitor‘s armor. One of its shells damaged the Monitor‘s pilot house, however, wounding the captain, Commander John L. Worden. Lieutenant S. Dana Greene assumed command. The Monitor‘s shot broke some iron plating on the Virginia but could not penetrate its armor. For four hours, the two heavyweights fought it out, giving spectators around Hampton Roads a show some thought to be the greatest naval battle of all time.

A falling tide finally forced the deep-draft Virginia to break off the engagement and steam for home. The Virginia returned to a hero’s welcome, but Jones and others aboard were frustrated at having sunk neither the Monitor nor the Minnesota. In four hours’ 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 subsequent days, the Virginia was unable to force the Monitor to resume the duel. Secretary Welles forbade the Monitor the option of renewing the fight unless it were absolutely necessary to save the wooden blockading fleet.

Aftermath

Southerners looked to subsequent Confederate ironclads to break the Union blockade of their port cities. Mallory had thought that the Virginia could steam to New York, carrying the war to the north and laying that city under tribute. Buchanan told him that was impossible: The Virginia was not seaworthy. (Neither was the Monitor. It went down at sea within weeks after the Virginia was burned when McClellan’s army forced the evacuation of Norfolk.) This quick dashing of Mallory’s offensive hopes may have made him more amenable to President Jefferson Davis’s idea of fighting a strictly defensive war. Thus, the score and more of Confederate ironclads the Virginia spawned stayed mostly on the defensive, successfully holding the ports of Mobile, Savannah, Charleston, and Wilmington, as well as the capital city of Richmond, against the Union Navy. All were taken, like Norfolk, by armies from the rear.

Near-contemporary illustration of the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. (National Archives)

The Monitor, too, begat copies. This style of Union ironclad proved superior, with its lighter draft, heavily armored turret, and larger guns, when tried in battle against the Confederate ironclads Atlanta and Tennessee; and its revolving turret became the standard of the world’s navies for 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 entire Hampton Roads affair, made the contest of the Virginia and the Monitor the defining moment in the world’s move from wood to armor in naval warfare.

Categories: History Content