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.
Although thousands witnessed the battle, the accounts of the battle differ according to the allegiance of the reporter. The disparity of the reports can not be dismissed as simply due to different knowledge of the events. It seems clear that there were deliberate misrepresentations. After all, careers and public opinions were on the line. It becomes necessary to look closely at the reports of the participants and witnesses to extract the truth. Propaganda, however widely published, should not be allowed to be accepted as truth.
One misstatement is that the Virginia rammed the Cumberland more than once. Even recent books (such as Hoehling) seem to support this. The official report of the Cumberland only mentions a single ramming. The officers of the Virginia indicate they only rammed once. The earliest report I have found of multiple rammings was by the French ship ???? which could not see the action (and whose report was obviously full of incorrect information).
Another source of confusion is how the Congress went aground. The Virginia crew seems to have thought that the Congress ran aground as she attempted to maneuver or flee. In fact, the Congress had been intentionally run aground in order to prevent its sinking as had happened to the Cumberland.
There is also some ambiguity of the white flags of the Congress. Many reports indicate that the Congress struck her colors and raised white flags. Even the official report of the Congress indicates that the commanding officer "deemed it proper to haul down our colors." However, the Beaufort indicates that the colors were still flying (as were the white flags) and they were struck by a midshipman from the Beaufort.
One perpetuating misstatement is that the Virginia withdrew from the battle. Even some modern books (for example, Hoehling's book, p167), seemingly intentionally mislead their readers. Here is a quote from the Union Captain Van Brunt of the Minnesota (from the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion ). In here, he clearly states that the Monitor "stood down", the Virginia then approached his ship, and then sailed to Norfolk. His account correlates with the report from the Virginia (below).
...For some time after the rebels concentrated their whole battery upon the tower and pilot-house of the Monitor, and soon after the latter stood down for Fortress Monroe, and we thought it probable she had exhausted her supply of ammunition, or sustained some injury. Soon after the Merrimack and the two other steamers headed for my ship, and I then felt to the fullest extent my condition. I was hard and immovably aground, and they could take position under my stern and rake me. I had expended most of my solid shot, my ship was badly crippled, and my officers and men were worn out with fatigue, but even then, in this extreme dilemma I determined never to give up the ship to the rebels, and after consulting my officers, I ordered every preparation to be made to destroy the ship after all hope was gone of saving her.
On ascending the poop deck I observed that the enemy's vessels had changed their course and were heading for Craney island. I then determined to lighten the ship by throwing overboard my eight-inch guns, hoisting out provisions, starting water, &c. At 2 p.m....G.J. Van Brunt, Captain, US Navy, Commanding Frigate Minnesotato Hon. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D.C.March 10, 1862
The report of the officer (Lt. Catesby ap Roger Jones) in command of the Virginia relates (from the Official Records, also available from the same source):
...The pilots declaring that we could get no nearer the Minnesota, and believing her to be entirely disabled, and the Monitor having run into shoal water, which prevented our doing her any further injury, we ceased firing at 12 [o'clock] and proceeded to Norfolk.Report of Flag-Officer Franklin Buchanan, C.S. Navy(Quoting the report of Lt. Catesby ap Roger Jones)March 27, 1862
As it turns out, some reports indicate that without orders, the Quartermaster of the Monitor turned away from the Virginia about the time Captain Worden was blinded by a shot at 11:30AM. The Monitor continued away from the battle for approximately half an hour while the officers of the Monitor decided what to do. The command devolved to Lt. Greene. When the Monitor turned to return to protect the Minnesota, the Virginia had already turned away. This is how Greene reported it at the time:
...At 8:45 we opened fire on the Merrimack, and continued the action until 11:30 a. m. when Captain Worden was injured in the eyes by the explosion of a shell from the Merrimack upon the outside of the eye-hole in the pilot-house, exactly opposite his eye. Captain Worden then sent for me and told me to take charge of the vessel. We continued the action until 12:15 p.m., when the Merrimack retreated to Sewell's Point, and we went to the Minnesota, and remained by her until she was afloat.S. D. Greene,Lieutenant and Executive OfficerUnited States Iron-Clad Steamer MonitorHampton Roads, March 12, 1862To Hon. Gideon Welles,Secretary of the Navy
In the 1880s, he indicates the time could be no more than 20 minutes versus the 45 minutes he reported earlier. Also, he indicates that during that time, the Monitor "retired temporarily" as opposed to "continued the action" as he reported to his superiors at the time.
...[After his injury, Worden] believing the pilot-house was seriously injured, if not destroyed; he gave orders to put the helm to starboard and "sheer off." Thus the Monitor retired temporarily from action, in order to ascertain the extent of the injuries she had received.
...In the confusion of the moment resulting from so serious an injury to the commanding officer, the Monitor had been moving without direction. Exactly how much time elapsed from the moment that Worden was wounded until I had reached the pilot-house ..., it is impossible to state; but it could hardly have exceeded twenty minutes at the utmost. During this time the Merrimac...had started in the direction of the Elizabeth River.S. Dana Greene, Commander, U.S.N.In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War
Virginius Newton, aboard the Beaufort, indicated that the Monitor (on her second withdrawal) withdrew for three-quarters to an hour.
After the action, both vessels were battered and in need of repairs.
In the months to come, the Virginia tried to engage the Monitor but the Monitor was under orders by Lincoln not to "too much exposed" to the Virginia. The Monitor stayed under the protective guns of Ft. Monroe when the Virginia was around. By not engaging the Virginia, she assured that although the Virginia might control Hampton Roads, she would not defeat the Union blockade. To that extent, the Monitor achieved her purpose.