Research Projects

Countless individuals each year write reports on the Battle of the Ironclads or about the USS Monitor or CSS Virginia. Many of these, particularly for the earlier school years, just repeat the facts found in some book or encyclopedia.

If you are going to be writing a report, we encourage you to do more than that. We hope this web page can be a source of material that allows you to dig deeper than the traditional story.

Here is a set of ideas for research projects. Some will be too challenging unless you are in college, but they may give you an idea of what you might like to pursue.

There were many delays in the conversion of the CSS Virginia. Yet she was rushed out on March 8 with workmen still on board and went straight into battle, even though she hadn't been tested at all. The USS Monitor showed up the next day just in time to save the remainder of the US fleet. Much has been made about the timing of these events. Most people don't realize the Monitor was launched well before the events of March 8. Do you believe the timing of the events were coincidental? What would have been the situation had the Monitor arrived before the Virginia came out?

There is a 9" Dahlgren gun at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia, whose muzzle was shot off. This gun is reported to have been on the Virginia on March 8 and 9, 1862. Remember the Merrimack was as much leading technology then as stealth bombers are in the 1990s. There were 2 guns damaged in that first day, at least one of which was still used. The damaged gun would set the wood inside the ship on fire each time it was discharged. Report on the history this gun has seen.
There were approximately 250 men inside the CSS Virginia during its battles. The space was cramped and very hot. On March 8, the crew did not know whether the ship would survive a trip up the Elisabeth River or out into Hampton Roads. Many doubters called the ship a metal coffin. As they begin their initial voyage, the Admiral announces that they are really going into battle against overwhelming weapons and men, against the best ships of the US Navy. Imagine their fears as they received that first broadside from the USS Congress and how they felt when they rammed the Cumberland and they realized the Virginia was stuck in her and starting to be dragged down. As they realized they were virtually invincible against the wooden ships, imagine their feelings of elation. Then, on the second day, they found themselves facing the much-discussed Ericsson (Monitor) which had heavier armor and bigger guns, was faster and with shallower draft. Write about what it must have been like to have been among the crew of the Virginia on March 8 and 9, 1862.
John L. Porter was the constructor of the CSS Virginia but also vehemently claimed that he was also her designer. The Secretary of the Navy gave that credit to John M. Brooke who was awarded a patent by the Confederacy. This lead to many heated exchanges, including letters to newspapers, about how should get the credit. John Porter's son, John W. H. Porter, continued the strong call that his father should get credit in his book (see the bibliography). Who should get credit for the design of the Virginia?
The events of March 8 caused great concern in Lincoln's cabinet who were worried that the Virginia could sail up the Potomac and attack Washington, or attack New York. If the Virginia had been seaworthy, would these concerns have been valid?
After talking with the severely injured Captain John Worden immediately after the battle, President Lincoln gave orders that the Monitor should not engage the Virginia again. The subsequent Captains of the Monitor kept to this plan and avoided the Virginia much to the consternation of the public of both sides. The official story was that the Monitor was there to keep the Virginia bottled up inside Hampton Roads. Others feel that Lincoln was worried that the Monitor might be defeated in a subsequent battle. Certainly both sides devised plans. The Union brought in fast ships to try to steam onto the decks of the Virginia and to cause her to sink. The South had a similar plan with boarding parties on 5 ships ready to incapacitate the revolving turret and smoke out the crew. What do you think would have happened in a subsequent battle? Was Lincoln right to order the Monitor not to engage the Virginia?
In 1844, two new experimental guns were being tested on the USS Princeton with President Tyler, his department heads, and their families on board. One of the guns exploded, killing the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Navy, and 6 others. The gun that didn't explode was designed by John Ericsson, who designed the Monitor. This lead to strict rules on the amount of powder that could be used in experimental guns. One of the Union claims was that if they had used more powder in the experimental 11" Dahlgrens (the largest aboard any ship), they could have penetrated the shields of the Virginia. On the other hand, the US Navy, years later, confirmed by testing that the Brooke Rifles, given the solid shells, could have penetrated the Monitor's shields. Similarly, the men on the Virginia felt the Monitor could have sunk the Virginia if they had aimed their guns at the right places. How do you feel about these "What if?" questions?
Was the Civil War, and in particular, the race to develop the Virginia and Monitor, the starting point of the United States's pushing the leading edge of technology in order to develop military strength over its enemies?

Much was made of honor before and during the Civil War, especially. How has this honor survived (or not) to this day in the U.S. Navy.

Report on the effect of the Virginia upon the Civil War. It affected the morale, the Peninsula Campaign, European (non-) involvement, the blockade, etc. (This is often covered in books on this battle.)

Report on the balance of offensive vs. defensive capabilities for the Confederate/US Navy in the Civil War vs that balance today in the US Navy. (Neither ship, in that one battle, was able to defeat the other.)

Report in detail on the role of one of key people regarding the Monitor and Virginia battle: US President Abraham Lincoln, Lt. Samuel Dana Greene, Lt. Catesby ap Roger Jones, US Asst. Sec. of Navy Gustavius V. Fox, Confederate Sec. of the Navy Stephen Mallory.
The North and South reported diametrically opposing views of the (immediate) outcome of the battle. What was the role of the media (and official reports) in this disparity? The debate over the results continued in the 1880s when the crew of the Monitor appealed to Congress for bounty for the Virginia but were rebuffed. Dana Greene eventually committed suicide. Why was this?
How did this famous battle affect the careers of the men involved? (That's probably a quite difficult topic.)
The upper deck of the Virginia was a grating of 2" iron. The top grating of the Monitor's turret was also a grating. The grating was necessary to let the smoke and heat out from the firing of the guns. But this also could have been an Achilles heel. What medieval weapon could have been used effectively against each ship?
The ships would use circle firing. That is, the ship would circle around as it was firing. Find out what this means and why it was used.
Catesby ap Roger Jones was concerned that the Monitor would fire at the waterline of the Virginia where the armor was less. How much had the ship lightened (and so how far down did the armor protect below the surface) after two days of burning coal in battle? While the shield had 4 inches of iron, the hull only had one inch, but the shield extended about 5 inches below the surface on March 7, 1862. Could the shells of the Monitor have damaged or burst the sides of the Virginia at a depth of 6 inches or 3 inches? Compute the velocity of the shells after penetrating the water to that depth. You may need to also know the height of the Monitor's guns above the water and the distance between the ships. (Could the Monitor's guns be pointed that low?)

If you pursue one of those topics, we hope you will consider allowing us to add your report to the web site. (You can see a similar report that someone (by a former Navy physician) if you follow down the Participants link to the CSS Virginia, and then to biography of Josiah Tattnall.)

CSS Virginia
Copyright 1999-2003 by Mabry Tyson