The Battle of the Ironclads

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There are few battles as famous as the battle at Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862. Just a day after the ironclad CSS Virginia (converted from the USS Merrimack) easily destroys several wooden ships on its trial run, the very much different ironclad USS Monitor, also on its trial run, arrives and the two duel to a draw.

The day of wooden ships was now over. `Whereas,' said London Times, `we had one hundred and forty-nine first-class warships, we have now but two."


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March 8, 1862: Iron destroys Wood

The CSS Virginia's Executive Officer describes the events of March 8, 1862 when the CSS Virginia destroyed the frigates USS Congress and USS Cumberland. Three weeks after the battle, flag-Officer Franklin Buchanan described the events. Chief Engineer Ramsay describes the events of that day.

Timeline of events on March 8, 1862.


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March 9, 1862: Iron vs Iron

The CSS Virginia's Executive Officer describes the events of March 9, 1862 when the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor fought. Chief Engineer Ramsay describes the events of that day.

Timeline of events on March 9, 1862.

The Medal of Honor (an award of the United States for both combat and non-combat heroism) was given to Peter Williams, a seaman on the USS Monitor, for the battle on 9 March 1862.


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Who Won?

This battle was very important to both sides. The Confederacy needed to break the blockade. The Union was afraid of the Ironclad, worried that it might sail into Washington or New York. The result of the battle itself was inconclusive as neither ship put the other out of the battle. Both sides desperately wanted to claim victory. Even today, there are strong feelings about designating a winner or loser.

Despite the rhetoric about who won the battle, President Lincoln ordered the Monitor to avoid battle with the Virginia. It was more important to preserve the Monitor with the threat that it might defeat the Virginia than to actually try to defeat the Confederate ironclad.

More information on the views of the battle.


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What Ifs?

Either of the two vessels could have destroyed the other. The Virginia had no solid shot which may have penetrated the armor of the Monitor. The Monitor, on the other hand, used less than full charges of powder in its gun. The Monitor's designer, Ericsson, was incensed at this and felt that full charges would have enabled the shells to penetrate the 4-inch armor on the Virginia. (The conservative limit on the powder charges can be traced to the USS Princeton disaster in 1844 when an experimental gun exploded, killing the Secretary of State and a Representative. Ericsson was involved in designing a different experimental gun aboard that trail run.)

Both vessels had other vulnerabilities. The Confederates had plans to board the Monitor and disable her turret (while the Union had hand-grenades to try to prevent this). The Virginia was most vulnerable at her stern where the propeller was. Neither side was able to take advantage of these vulnerabilities.


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Other Accounts of the Battle

There are many other accounts of the battle in the listing of original documents about the CSS Virginia.

The Southern Historical Society published an account of the battle by Catesby ap Roger Jones.

The War Times Journal has transcriptions from the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion of events leading up to the battle and the reports of the officers of the battle.

W.S. Mabry's book on Jones repeats an account by a the northern historian Henry William Elson in his History of the United States.

A description of the Virginia and the battle from the Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, James L. Mooney, ed., Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, Washington, DC., 1969.


CSS Virginia
Copyright 1996-1997 by Mabry Tyson