Monitor vs. Merrimack

Gay Lynn HillStudy Break

On Mar. 9, 1862, the Civil War naval battle between the USS Monitor (Union) and the CSS Merrimack (Confederacy) took place. Known as the Battle of Hampton Roads, this engagement was history’s first duel between ironclad warships.

Let’s learn about the “contestants.”

The Merrimack was built first. Originally a Union ship, the vessel had been decommissioned for extensive repairs and moored in Norfolk, Virginia, when the Civil War began. Union sailors sank the ship as the yard was evacuated in Apr. 1861. Six weeks later, the Confederacy claimed the ship for themselves, raised and rebuilt it as an ironclad. The Union responded with the launch of their new ironclad, the Monitor, on Jan. 30, 1862.

Both ships had their strong points. The 275-foot Merrimack was the maritime equivalent of a wrecking ball and was constructed from wood reinforced with four-inch-thick iron plate. Its most eye-catching feature was a large, sloping casemate that housed a floating battery of 10 cannons—four on each side and one at both ends. The ship’s bow bristled with a 1,500-pound iron battering ram. The New York Times described the Merrimack as “a submerged house, with the roof only above water.”

The Union’s Monitor was by far the more unusual of the two crafts and more nimble. The ship was around 173 feet long and featured a main deck that sat just 18 inches above the waterline. Its armaments were limited to two 11-inch Dahlgren guns, but they were housed in a revolving turret powered by a steam engine. This never-before-seen feature gave the ship’s gun crews a 360-degree range of fire, earning its nickname “Yankee cheesebox on a raft.”

So what happened? In an attempt to break the Union blockade of Norfolk and Richmond, the Confederacy ordered the Merrimack to Hampton Roads, a body of water next to the Chesapeake Bay. With crowds watching along the shore, the Merrimack proved the effectiveness of iron against wood by virtually decimating a Union fleet of wooden boats on Mar. 8, 1862. The Monitor arrived overnight, but when the two ships engaged in a 3-hour battle the next morning, it resulted in a draw. While the ships withdrew, the effects of the battle were clear – no more wooden navies.

Neither ship had a long life. The two ironclads faced off once more, on Apr. 11, 1862, but did not engage, neither being willing to fight on the other’s terms. On May 9, 1862, following the Confederate evacuation of Norfolk, the Merrimack was destroyed by its crew. The Monitor—with 16 crewmen—was lost during a gale off North Carolina on Dec. 31, 1862. The wreck of the Monitor was located in 1973, and in 2002 marine salvagers raised the ship’s gun turret and other artifacts from the wreckage.

While the success of the two ironclads changed naval warfare, did the Battle of Hampton Roads make a difference in the Civil War? With the advancement of technology, are naval battles antiquated? Take this discussion to our Facebook page.