The First Battle of Ironclads

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series The Civil War at Sea

The First Battle of Ironclads

On March 9, 1862 in Hampton Roads at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, the first battle of ironclads took place and naval warfare was changed forever. The U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia dueled to a draw for three hours. Although the battle was inconclusive the events leading to it and after are as interesting as the actual battle.

The C.S.S. Virginia was a steam powered ironclad vessel that was the first ship of her kind built by the Confederate Navy. The Virginia had an CSS Virginiainteresting history. When Virginia seceded from the Union Confederate forces attempted to seize the full-equipped Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia on April 20, 1861. The U.S. Navy resisted their attempt and set fire to various ships and facilities to deny them to the Confederates. One of the ships was the steam frigate U.S.S. Merrimack.

The Merrimack sank at her shallow berth before she could be completely burned. The Confederates managed to raise her and moved the ship to a graving dock where the burned superstructure was removed. After a survey it was determined that her lower hull and engines were intact. Confederate Secretary of War Stephen Mallory selected the hull for conversion to an ironclad since it was the only steam powered ship in Chesapeake Bay area.

Naval designers Lieutenants  John Mercer Brooke and John L. Porter envisioned the new ironclads as a casemate style ship. This type of vessel carries its guns on a casemate structure on the main deck. The guns are fixed. This type of arrangement is considered an intermediate stage between broadside frigates and modern warships.

During the construction of the ship the designers decided to equip her with an iron ram. They had heard rumors that the Union side was buildingFranklin Buchanan their own ironclad. They were concerned that cannon fire would not penetrate the iron shielding. Unfortunately, the Merrimack’s engines were in poor working condition. They had been scheduled for an overhaul before her capture. The additional weight of the iron armor and ballast did not improve her agility. The ship had a turning radius of one mile and needed 45 minutes to complete a full turn. This was to be a deficiency against the nimbler U.S.S. Monitor.

The Virginia had 14 gunports with three at each end and four along each broadside. Her complement consisted of four muzzle-loading single-banded Brooke rifles and six smoothbore 9-inch (229 mm) Dahlgren guns salvaged from the old Merrimack. Two of the rifles, the bow and stern pivot guns, were 7-inch caliber and weighed 14,500 pounds each. They fired a 104-pound shell. The other two were 6.4-inch cannon of about 9,100 pounds, one on each broadside. The 9-inch Dahlgrens were mounted three to a side; each weighed approximately 9,200 pounds and could fire a 72.5-pound shell up to a range of 3,357 yards at an elevation of 15°. The two amidship Dahlgrens nearest the boiler furnaces were fitted-out to fire heated shot. In addition, there were two 12-pounder howitzers.

The Virginia was commissioned on February 17, 1862. Her commanding officer, Flag officer Franklin Buchanan arrived on board shortly before her first sortie. The ironclad was placed in commission and equipped by her executive officer,Lieutenant Catesby Catesby Jonesap Roger Jones.

Meanwhile, Union Navy Secretary Gideon Welles upon hearing about the resurrected Merrimack was determined that the Union navy would have their own ironclad. He created a board of three naval officers to solicit and review designs for the new type of vessel. Three designs were submitted and accepted by the board, including John Ericsson’s U.S.S. Monitor.

John Ericsson was a Swedish-born engineer and inventor who had a varied career in both Sweden and Britain. He moved to New York City in 1939. In the United States Ericsson designed and perfected a twin-screw propeller propulsion system.

Ericsson’s design was selected to be built and the vessel was completed in 100 days, an amazing achievement for the time. It was launched on March 6, 1862 in New York. The Monitor was described as “a cheesebox on a raft.” It was 172 feet long and 41 1/2 feet wide. It had a rotating turret with 2-11 inch Dahlgren guns. The Monitor’s turret built up such momentum that the guns needed to be fired on the move. Later models were equipped with a device to overcome this issue. The Monitor had very little freeboard and was hard to spot once it was at sea. This would also cause problems in rough water.

The Monitor, under the command of Lieutenant John L. Worden, had a harrowing voyage from New York to Hampton Roads. It was towed all of theUSS Monitor way there in somewhat rough seas. The ship arrived off Hampton Roads on the afternoon of March 8th, too late for the battle but just in time to help the U.S.S. Minnesota.


The two-day Battle of Hampton Roads started as an attempt by the Confederate States Navy to break the ever-tightening Union blockade. On March 8, 1862 the C.S.S. Virginia accompanied by several supporting ships sailed out of Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia. The Virginia engaged The U.S.S. Cumberland first. The Virginia rammed the Cumberland and she rapidly sank. The Virginia almost went down with the Cumberland but was able to disengage in time.

Lt. John L. WordenThe Virginia next turned to the U.S.S. Congress. In an attempt to save his vessel from sinking the Congress’ captain ordered his crew to try to ground her. After about an hour of unequal combat with the Virginia and several other ships of the James River Squadron the Congress surrendered. When a Union shore battery fired on the Virginia, Buchanan ordered heated shot fired at the Congress. Eventually, the fires reached her magazines and she exploded.

Meanwhile, the Virginia had not escaped unscathed. Fire from the Union ships and the shore batteries had caused her smokestacks to be riddled. Two of her guns were out of action and some of her armor plates were damaged. Buchanan had been hit by a Minie ball in the leg when he went topside to return fire at the shore batteries. The James River Squadron set out to attack the grounded U.S.S. Minnesota but a combination of the falling tide and darkness precluded an attack.

The Confederate forces took shelter at Sewell’s Point for the night, removing their wounded and repairing their damage. Meanwhile, the Monitor had arrived on the scene and took up position near the Minnesota. Worden had been ordered to protect the ship from the Confederates. At dawn on March 9th, the Virginia steamed out to attack the Minnesota only to be surprised by the appearance of the Union ironclad. The Virginia fired the first shot which missed the Monitor and hit the Minnesota. The Minnesota returned fire with a broadside.

The two ironclads battled for several hours without an advantage for either side. The Virginia was not equipped with armor-piercing shells. TheBattle of Hampton Roads Monitor was equipped with a standard powder charge which did not give her shells enough momentum to pierce the enemy’s armor. When a shell from the Virginia hit the Monitor’s conning tower Worden was temporarily blinded. The Monitor was forced to draw off since no one else could conn the ship properly. Once the executive officer took command the Monitor returned to combat but the Virginia believing the fight to be over returned to Norfolk.

Each side claimed victory but in reality the first Battle of Ironclads was a draw.

Both ships had somewhat ignominious ends. When Norfolk was recaptured by Union forces the Confederates blew the Virginia up on May 11, 1862. The Monitor sank off the North Carolina coast in rough seas on December 31, 1862.

Both navies continued to build steam powered ironclads throughout the war. The Age of Sail was drawing to a close as steam ships were faster and more efficient to operate.




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