Officials at Washington were still in a state of panic on the morning of March 9. The ironclad C.S.S. Virginia had nearly destroyed the Federal blockading fleet off Hampton Roads, Virginia, the previous day, and there was great fear that the vessel could steam up the Potomac River without challenge and bombard the capital itself. Only those in the know, such as Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, knew that the Virginia’s heavy iron plating prevented her from going very far from Hampton Roads. President Abraham Lincoln consulted with Commander John A.B. Dahlgren at the Washington Naval Yard, and Dahlgren confirmed that even if the Virginia managed to reach the Potomac, she could not get to Washington.
The Virginia’s commander, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, had no intention of threatening Washington. Instead, he sought to finish off the grounded flagship of the Federal blockading fleet, the U.S.S. Minnesota. When the Virginia returned to Hampton Roads on the 9th, Jones was unaware that the Federal ironclad U.S.S. Monitor, designed specifically to neutralize the Virginia, was waiting nearby.
The stationary Minnesota began firing at the Virginia as she closed to within a mile, but no damage was done. The Monitor then answered signals that the enemy was approaching by coming out to confront her. A midshipman aboard the Virginia recalled, “We thought at first it was a raft on which one of the Minnesota’s boilers was being taken to shore for repairs.”
The Monitor did not seem nearly as formidable as the Virginia, but she was iron-plated just like her Confederate adversary. The Monitor was also faster and more maneuverable than her lumbering opponent, with a more stable engine and a 10 1/2-foot draft as opposed to the Virginia’s 21-foot draft. Although the Virginia outgunned the Federal ship 10 to two, the Monitor’s two guns were on an innovative revolving turret.
The Monitor fired first, hitting the Virginia with a shot at the waterline. It did no damage, but the Confederate crewmen were startled to see such a strange craft firing on them. A Federal aboard the Monitor said, “You can see surprise in a ship just as you can see it in a man, and there was surprise all over the Merrimac.”
The Virginia opened fire at 8:06 a.m. with a shot that passed over the Monitor and struck the Minnesota. The Minnesota and Federal shore batteries returned fire as the ironclads closed in on each other. Lieutenant John L. Worden, the Monitor’s commander, stopped his engines and allowed his ship to drift alongside the Virginia, as both crews began firing as fast as they could from just a few yards apart. The Monitor’s revolving turret was struck twice, but the mechanism continued to function properly.
The Monitor’s heavy shot managed to crack the Virginia’s iron plating in some places, but for the most part, her broadsides bounced or slid off the Confederate vessel’s armor “with no more effect… than so many pebblestones thrown by a child.” Conversely, the Monitor sat so low on the water that most of the Virginia’s shots passed harmlessly overhead.
Thousands of spectators gathered on shore to watch the ironclads battle “mercilessly, but ineffectively” for four hours. With his shots having no effect, Worden directed his men to ram the Virginia’s stern to try to disable her propeller. The Monitor narrowly missed, and the firing resumed. As the ships circled each other, the Monitor came perpendicular to the Virginia, and Jones directed his Confederates to ram her. But Worden easily evaded the larger, slower vessel.
Near noon, the Monitor disengaged to replenish her ammunition. The Virginia steamed to within 10 yards and fired a round that struck the pilot house, sending iron splinters through the viewing slit and partially blinding Worden. Thinking that the pilot house had been seriously damaged, he ordered a withdrawal and retired to quarters, relinquishing command to Lieutenant Samuel D. Greene.
Meanwhile, the Virginia’s unstable engine began struggling and she went aground. Greene ordered his Federals to reengage the Confederates, but by the time they returned, the Virginia had broken free and was withdrawing back to Sewell’s Point, under the cover of Confederate artillery. The vessel was low on ammunition, she was taking on water due to the engine problems, and Jones feared that she could be grounded again in the lowering tides. The battle was over.
The Monitor, which had been hit 23 times, resumed guard duty alongside the Minnesota, but the Virginia’s engine proved too ineffective to pose any further threat to the Federal naval fleet on the Atlantic. Nevertheless, this began a new era in naval warfare, as the Monitor’s chief engineer Alban Stimers wrote to his father that this battle “was the first of its kind that ever occurred in history.” John Dahlgren noted, “Now comes the reign of iron–and cased sloops are to take the place of wooden ships.” The wooden navies of the world had instantly become obsolete.
Both the exhausted crews were mutually happy to be done with each other, and they both claimed victory. Stimers wrote to John Ericcson, the inventor who designed the Monitor: “Captain Ericsson, I congratulate you upon your great success. Thousands have this day blessed you. I have heard whole crews cheer you. Every man feels that you have saved this place to the nation by furnishing us with the means to whip an iron-clad frigate that was, until our arrival, having it all her own way with our most powerful vessels.”
The Monitor may have won a strategic victory by preventing the Virginia from accomplishing her mission to destroy the Federal blockading fleet. However, the Confederates may have won a psychological victory by making the Federal navy expend large amounts of resources to defend against enemy ironclads in the future. The resources included vessels that had originally been assigned to support General-in-Chief George B. McClellan’s Peninsula campaign. Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox confessed to McClellan that the battle showed only “a slight superiority in favor of the Monitor,” and as for the Virginia, “it is too good luck to believe that we are yet clear of her.”
At Washington, panic over the prospect of the Virginia steaming up the Potomac turned to jubilation when Fox telegraphed from Fort Monroe at 9 p.m.: “These two ironclad vessels fought part of the time touching each other, from 8 a.m. to noon, when the Merrimac retired… The Monitor is uninjured and ready at any moment to repel another attack.” This meant that Fort Monroe was safe for now, McClellan’s Peninsula campaign could proceed, and Washington would not fall under naval bombardment.
Soon “Monitor fever” swept the northern states in celebration of the Monitor’s defense of Hampton Roads. Naval officials quickly focused on constructing more Monitor-class vessels for the war effort. Worden later received a vote of thanks from Congress and a promotion to captain for leading the crew of the U.S.S. Monitor in this fight.
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