The USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia were not the first iron-clad war ships, but they were the first to face each other in battle. One hundred and fifty years ago today, the two ironclads met in Hampton Roads, VA and fought each other to a draw. After hours of close range fighting, the CSS Virginia retired, having failed to break the Union blockade.
The CSS Virginia was built from the scuttled hull of the steam frigate, USS Merrimack, which was burned to the waterline at her berth in the Norfolk to prevent her from falling into rebel hands. From the burned hull, the Confederates fabricated new iron-clad upper works featuring a sloping armored casement, pierced for 12 guns. Renamed the CSS Virginia, her construction caused near panic in the Union government and navy.
On March 8, 1962, the fears surrounding the CSS Virginia appeared well founded. The Confederate ironclad rammed and sank the sloop-of-war, USS Cumberland, and destroyed the frigate USS Congress by gun fire. Return fire from the Cumberland and the Congress bounced off the ironclad’s armored plating.
That night the USS Monitor arrived in Hampton Roads. The ship was a radical design developed by Swedish engineer and inventor John Ericsson. Described as looking like a cheese box on a raft, the Monitor featured a steam powered rotating armored gun turret mounting two 11″ Dalhgren guns. The ship was low in the water and heavily armored. The fire from the Virginia never breached the Monitor‘s plates. Part way through the battle Virginia ceased firing and attempted to ram the Monitor. The Monitor however was more maneuverable and avoided the Virginia. While neither ship was able to defeat the other, fire from the Monitor did considerable damage to the Virginia‘s armor plate.
This would be the first and last battle for each ship. In early May, 1862 the Virginia was burned by its crew when the city of Norfolk fell. The Monitor also was short lived, sinking on December 31, 1862 while under tow off Cape Hatteras in heavy seas.