When I was around 10 or 11, I found a reproduction print called “Battle of the Ironclads” in a discount store called Hammer’s and convinced my mom I needed it. There was something about the funny-looking ships that I just loved and I remember thinking that this was “real adult history,” and I needed to learn more. It, of course, immediately got put in some stack of other things I “needed” as a kid. I’d run across it every 2 or 3 years, and even as a old, wise teenager, I’d stare at the explosions of what I knew as the Monitor and Merrimac and remember that first glimpse of what real history looked like.
On March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) went out for her first trial run – and immediately sank two ships. Its 4 inches of armor more than made up for its lack of mobility. And if it couldn’t get its 10 guns into position, there was always the four foot long ram on the front. After sinking the first 2 ships on the 8th, three more suddenly-outdated wood ships – run aground and virtually helpless- awaited the Virginia on the next day.
Months earlier when the Confederates were changing history and turning the former USS Merrimack into an unstoppable weapon, rumors of the plans reached New York, and a decision was made to build their own ironclad from scratch. The USS Monitor turned out have fewer guns – just two – but they were mounted on a rotating turret, so navigation of the ship was not as important. But just in case, the Monitor sat higher in the water making it faster and more maneuvrable than its nemesis, and it also had thicker plating – up to 9 inches in its most critical areas.
Now to March 9th… As the Virginia set out to continue the work of the day before, it set its sights first on the USS Minnesota. But unknown to the Rebels, the Monitor had appeared in the middle of the night and lay waiting. To the soldiers on board the Virginia, this strange-looking ship appeared as if “dropped from the sky.” In fact, some of them weren’t even sure it was a ship.
“We thought at first it was a raft on which one of the Minnesota’s boilers was being taken to shore for repairs, and when suddenly a shot was fired from her turret we imagined an accidental explosion of some kind had taken place on the raft.”
It didn’t take much longer for them to figure out what that oddly-shaped thing was, and the battle began. Neither ship could do much damage with their guns at first, and the Virginia was unable to take a shot with its ram since the Monitor was so nimble. But enough damage was done to each ship eventually that they both retired, and officially the battle must go down as a draw. But it was a history-making fight that literally changed the way naval battles were fought.
Interestingly, while both ships eventually met their demise, neither was lost in a battle. The Monitor, while nimble, was not very good in high, open waters and sank in a storm at the end of ’62. The Virginia did not even make it that long. After Union troops captured her home base of Norfolk, she was purposely blown up to keep her out of enemy hands.
Recommended reading: The Civil War: A Narrative–Fort Sumter to Perryville, Vol. 1