This Day in History: USS Monitor and CSS Virginia change naval warfare forever

On this day in 1862, the Battle of Hampton Roads comes to an end. That Civil War battle was notable: For the first time ever, two ironclad warships had met in combat.

Between the two of them, USS Monitor and CSS Virginia would have a lasting impact on naval warfare.

At the time, Union ships were maintaining a blockade at Hampton Roads in Virginia. When CSS Virginia was commissioned in February 1862, she was promptly dispatched to break this Union blockade.

The Virginia got off to a good start. On March 8, she destroyed two Union ships and ran one aground. The Union crews were shocked at the ineffectiveness of their ammunition against the iron-hulled ship. One observer later commented that the shots had “struck and glanced off, no more effect than peas from a pop-gun.”

As evening fell, the Virginia retired, planning to return the next day. That turned out to be a bad idea! Unbeknownst to the Confederates, another new ironclad ship, the Union ship USS Monitor, had steamed into the area after dark. It spent the night beside the grounded Union ship, the Minnesota.

When the Confederate crew returned the next morning, the sailors had no idea what to make of the odd shape sitting next to Minnesota. USS Monitor rode so low in the water that it appeared to be perpetually sinking! It was “the strangest looking craft we had ever seen,” one eyewitness said. At first Confederates thought that the low-lying Monitor was merely a raft. Even after Monitor fired a shot, they “imagined an accidental explosion of some kind had taken place on the raft.”

Needless to say, they soon figured out their mistake.

The two ironclads circled each other for hours. Neither could gain an advantage. The shots of each bounced off the other. The battle ended by happenstance when the Monitor’s captain was temporarily blinded by a shot. He had his men pull the ship back for a moment while he recovered. The Virginia’s captain thought the Monitor was retreating, and he began to retreat also.

The battle ended abruptly. Both sides claimed victory.

In reality, both ironclads had achieved a success of sorts. The battle changed naval warfare forever, quickly making wooden ships obsolete. In fact, when news of the battle made its way to England, the London Times lamented that the British Navy, with its 149 first-class warships, had effectively been diminished to only two ships: its two ironclads. “There is now not a ship in the English navy,” the Times lamented, “apart from these two [ironclads] that it would not be madness to trust to an engagement with that little Monitor.”

The Virginia and the Monitor stayed within range of each other for a few months, but they never came into direct combat again. In the end, both ironclads would have short lives. The Virginia had to be scuttled when it got stuck in a river, and the Monitor got taken down by rough seas.

P.S. The painting is of Virginia sinking USS Cumberland.

Primary Sources:

James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (1988)

John V. Quarstein, The Battle of the Ironclads (1999)

Paul Calore, Naval Campaigns of the Civil War (2001)

Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative (1986) (Vol. 1)