Battle Of Ironclads : Monitor & The Merrimack

Battle Of Ironclads : Monitor & The Merrimack

The heart of battle, from an 1871 wood engraving published by A.S. Barnes & Co.

Most high school students know that on March 9, 1862, at the Battle of Hampton Roads, a pitched battle occurred between the ironclads US Ship Monitor and the CS Ship Merrimack to test the Union blockade. 

After battling each other for hours, both ships retired with minimal damage to their hulls. The blockade held; but the future of naval construction was apparent to everyone. 

The battle changed maritime history; both Britain and France immediately stopped producing wooden ships and redoubled their efforts to build boats with metal armor.

The funny thing though is that some of these “well-known” facts aren’t accurate and many of the most interesting details are left out of simple renditions of the story.

For starters, Merrimack was not actually the name of the Confederate ship, which was the CSS Virginia. The name Merrimack is given in historical accounts probably for alliterative purposes.  

CSS Virginia (ex-USS Merrimack)

With the onset of the war and the blockade of its ports, the Confederacy faced a serious problem: it had no navy to combat the ships of the US Navy. For the Confederates, finding a way around the blockade was critical. The only way its military could receive supplies and the economy kept afloat was by international commerce.

The cabinet officer placed in charge of this incredibly daunting challenge had no military experience, had never designed ships, and had no direct naval knowledge whatsoever. 

Stephen R Mallory was considered an expert in maritime law. He had been chairman of the US Senate Committee on Naval Affairs. He was also from Florida, and Jefferson Davis had no other cabinet member from that state. Unlike the army, in which everyone thought they were an expert, absolutely no one in the Confederate government had any idea about how to build a navy, what to do with one, or who was to build it. Mallory was entirely on his own.

USS Monitor

But here’s what happened. Because he knew nothing, he had no ties to tradition or to the old ways. He used the technology of the day to create ships and weapons that were so innovative and thoughtful that they became the standards of the next century (or two). 

Sherman’s March To The Sea

His initial thought was to refurbish captured or scuttled Federal vessels. When the state of Virginia seceded, the fleet based in Portsmouth, called Gosport Naval Yard, was ordered to leave and join the blockade. However, the commander didn’t move in time and was forced to scuttle 9 ships. One of them, the USS Merrimack, was a state of the art wooden frigate. It burned but only to the waterline, so its engines were intact. Secretary Mallory was in a bind: there was no capability in the South to build engines to run a heavy ironclad ship. William P Williamson proposed raising the Merrimack and putting the armor on it. John L Porter drew up the designs.

The original purpose of the repurposed vessel was to create a ram ship to destroy wooden boats in the Union blockade and to have enough armor to protect it against cannons that were meant to destroy other wooden ships.

The CSS Virginia was commanded by Commodore Franklin Buchanan, and was highly effective at this task; the day before the great battle, it defeated and sank the USS Cumberland and caused the USS Congress to surrender, ultimately destroying it.

Sinking of Cumberland by the ironclad Virginia
Virginia drives Congress away from her anchorage
The Monitor was a radical new design for ships.

Under the command of Lieutenant John Worden, it had just 2 guns, but they were large caliber mounted in a cylindrical turret. This design was intended to precisely be the solution to the ironclad rams the South was rumored to be producing. However, in the battle, only 15 pounds of powder was used instead of the intended 30 pounds for fear of an explosion; no one had ever tested such a design in battle.

Since both ships were using less powerful munitions than what they could have, neither had the firepower to destroy the other. 

The ships spent a good deal of time maneuvering for position. Both crews lacked training and both ships’ firing was ineffective. The Monitor could fire only once in seven or eight minutes, but was faster and more maneuverable. After additional action and reloading, the Monitor’s pilothouse was hit, driving iron splinters into Worden’s eyes.

First Battle of Iron Ships of War by Henry Bill. Shown are USS Monitor, CSS Virginia. USS CumberlandCSS JamestownUSS Congress, and USS Minnesota

The ship sheared into shallow water, and the Virginia, concluding that the enemy was disabled, turned again to attack other ships.

However, at this stage it was low on ammunition and a leak was present in the bow. It also had difficulty in keeping up steam.

At about 12:30 PM the Virginia headed for its navy yard; the battle was over.
Print shows a battle scene between the ironclads Monitor and Merrimac just offshore. Also shows a Union ship sinking and rescue boats being put to sea from shore, as well as a Union artillery bunker. Union soldiers and officers, and some rescued sailors.

The duel between these 2 ships is usually considered a draw, although tactically, more Union casualties occurred in the 2 day overall battle; strategically, the blockade held, a Union victory.

Map of events of the Battle of Hampton Roads

Often overlooked is that the two ironclads faced off again on April 11, 1862, but did not engage. The Union side wanted the battle to take place in the open sea. The Virginia, on the other hand, tried unsuccessfully to lure the Monitor into another battle in Hampton Roads harbor.

Stereograph of Monitor after the battle, July 1862

Neither ship ever fought again. The Virginia went into dry dock to repair its injuries, but was destroyed by the Confederate Navy when it abandoned the port.

Destruction of the rebel monster Merrimac off Craney Island, May 11, 1862, by Currier and Ives

The Monitor was sunk when being towed down the coast to another port to blockade during a storm.

Engraving of Monitor sinking

Besides using armor plating in warship construction, the innovations of the Monitor forever changed battleships. Over 30 Monitor-like boats were constructed during the war, primarily for river battles, as the experience of the sinking showed sea travel was not yet optimized. The idea of using ships as powered rams persisted until World War I. Lastly, the rotating turret remains today the central design feature of modern battleships.

Written by Dr. Lloyd Klein

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein

Battle Of Ironclads : Monitor & The Merrimack

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Cardiology Division of the University of California, San Francisco. In addition, Dr. Klein is an accomplished consultant, author, lecturer and investigator. In addition, with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise in managing myocardial infarction and tailoring coronary revascularization strategies. 

Moreover, Dr. Klein is a nationally recognized expert in individualizing coronary revascularization strategies. He has published extensively on analyzing operator quality and decision making.

Dr. Klein is also an amateur historian who has read extensively on the Civil War with a particular interest in political and military leadership and their economic ramifications. Furthermore, Dr. Klein has published numerous articles on the Civil War. Moreover, with a special concentration in why decisions were made and the people who made them. Lastly, using his professional experience in appraising leadership, he is especially insightful in evaluating the internal and external motivations which influenced decisions in battle and in the political hall.

Please see Dr. Klein’s Works:

Siege of Vicksburg

The Battle of Shiloh

The Hampton Roads Conference

Sherman’s March To The Sea

Why Did the North Win the Civil War (and, Alternatively, Why Did the South Lose?)

The Atlanta Campaign : The Conundrum of General Joseph E Johnston

The “Lost Order” Of General Lee

What caused the South to start the Civil War?

Was the Reconstruction of the Civil War successful?

Battle Of Ironclads : Monitor & The Merrimack