Hampton Roads and a Battle that Changed Naval History

9 March 1862: At the mouth of the James River in Virginia during the U.S. Civil War, the second day of the Battle of Hampton Roads saw the epochal first combat of two armoured warships.
"Whereas we had available for immediate purposes 149 first-class warships, we have now two, these two being the WARRIOR and her sister IRONSIDE. There is not now a ship in the English Navy apart from these two, that it would not be madness to trust to an engagement with that little MONITOR."(The Times, March 1862)


"The Monitor and Merrimack: The First Fight Between Ironclads", a chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, produced by Louis Prang & Co., Boston“, 1886


When France launched “La Gloire”, the first purpose-built ocean-going ironclad in 1859, the naval powers of the world cocked their ears, invasion scare spread in England, the Queen began to ask question and Austria, Italy, Russia and Spain as well as England started to lay down armoured warships. The Royal Navy commissioned HMS “Warrior” and “Black Prince” in 1861 and 1862, while the US Government, back then not really interested in supporting an expensive overseas state-of-the-art naval presence, was apparently sufficiently equipped to blockade the ports of the secession states when the Civil War broke out. All of a sudden, though, the Union wished they hadn’t ignored the innovative concepts of the late 1850s, when the South began to armour at least one of the few captured warships that made up the Confederate States Navy. The arms race began in earnest and the Swede John Ericsson’s design of a purely steam-driven, iron-hulled warship with her main armament in a revolving twin gun turret was completed in only 101 days at the Continental Iron Works in Brooklyn. 
On March 6th, 1862, the 1.000 ton and 180’ long USS “Monitor” chuffed south to Norfolk, Virginia.



"Cheese on a raft": USS "Monitor"


The unique idea of a casemate ironclad was born out of necessity in the South and the old steam-frigate USS “Merrimack”, captured in May 1861, got her upper works armoured with 4’’ steel plates and, interestingly enough, a ram bow flanged on, making her basically a floating steam hammer with a broadside armament of relatively modern 9’’ Dahlgren guns. The result was ugly like a sack full of toads in terms of naval architecture and not really innovative but nonetheless quite effective against wooden rag wagons. And then, on March 8th 1862, the renamed CSS “Virginia” steamed out of the James River to break the Union blockade. The Battle of Hampton Roads had begun. When the day was over, the Confederate ironclad had proven her combat strength. Two Union sloops had been rammed and sunk and a third ran aground while the “Virginia” took no damage to speak of. Just one day later, USS “Monitor” came in from Chesapeake Bay and prepared to give battle to the enemy she was designed to defeat.




CSS "Virginia" ramming and sinking USS "Cumberland" on the first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads


The “cheese on a raft”, as one of the “Virginia’s” crew remarked upon “Monitor’s” alien design, and the floating ram began their engagement at the dawn of the next day, the more manoeuvrable “Monitor” avoiding to get run down by “Virginia” and while both sides did not have the relatively new armour-piercing shot available, the two iron-clads pounded at each other for hours without causing any significant damage, even at point-blank range and the engagement was broken off. However, when the day was over, the encounter at Hampton Roads revealed that the navies all over the world were now hopelessly out of date. The two ships never met in battle again. CSS “Virginia” was scuttled a few weeks later when Union troops took Norfolk, since she could not escape to the High Seas, being as ocean-going as a brick, but neither was “Monitor”. She sank in December off Cape Hatteras in a storm, but the Union blockade remained in place until the end of the war anyway. The first open sea battle of ironclad warships was to be fought at Lissa four years later between the Italian and Austrian navies.


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