The First Ironclad Battle – The USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, 9th March 1862

Speaker: Iain Standen

On the 9th March 1862 in Hampton Roads off the Virginia coast a battle took place that was to go down in history.

The battle was between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia and, although these were not the first ironclads - they were predated by vessels such as HMS Warrior (launched 1860) and the French La Gloire (launched 1859) - it was the first ever time in which Ironclad ships had met in combat.

 American Civil War Round Table UK / Battles & Campaigns / Ironclad

The story of this first Ironclad battle has its roots right at the start of the American Civil War and the Union's need to have some strategy to overcome the Confederacy. A strategy was suggested by the General in Chief of the Army - General Winfield Scott (known as 'old fuss and feathers'). Scott was a native Virginian who believed that the majority of Southerners desired a complete union with the United States; therefore in order to restore the Union with as little bloodshed as possible, he favoured a relatively non-aggressive policy. His basic plan was to strangle the Confederacy through a two pronged approach. The first element would be to blockade the coast of the Southern States to prevent the export of cotton, tobacco, and other cash crops from the South and to keep them from importing much-needed war supplies. The second part of the strategy would be to divide the South by controlling the Mississippi River cutting off the southeastern states from the western.

Scott considered this as an 'envelopment' rather than an 'invasion', although it would require armies and fleets of river gunboats to accomplish it. His proposal received considerable public criticism at the time. A famous newspaper cartoon depicted a huge snake squeezing the Confederacy, thus giving the plan its popular name - the Anaconda Plan.

The United States government never formally adopted the plan, but President Lincoln did implement the two parts. However, he ignored Scott's warning against direct invasion, and used far more troops (nearly two million), trying repeatedly to capture Richmond. Lincoln called for a blockade of the South on April 19 1861, six days after the fail of Fort Sumter The blockade itself, thought to be an impossible task against 3,000 miles of highly irregular coastline, was an unparalleled success within the first six months, and nearly impregnable within the first two years.

The job of creating and maintaining a true blockade of the South fell on the shoulders of Gideon Welles, Secretary for the Navy. He feared that the Anaconda Plan would invite foreign nations to extend diplomatic relations to the Confederacy. The blockade also posed the risk of offending other nations attempting to trade with the Confederacy. If the blockade proved only partially successful, it would only serve to infuriate foreign nations. To meet the challenge of imposing the Blockade the US Navy began a massive expansion of its fleet. In the spring of 1861, the navy consisted of 82 largely obsolete ships; by December of that year there would be 264 ships in the navy. By the end of the war, the United States Navy would maintain a force of over 600 ships.

In the South it was quickly realised that the Southern Navy would have to expand accordingly. The responsibility for this rested with the Confederacy's Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory. Mallory built up the Confederate Navy from only 15 vessels but also has a vision of creating many ironclad warships to destroy the mainly wooden warships of the Union. This vision was greatly helped by the discovery of the burnout hulk of the USS Merrimack in Gosport Naval Dockyard. The Merrimack was in the yard for repair when Gosport was abandoned by the Union in April 1861. The ship had been burned by the Union Navy but not so badly that the Confederates could not recover the sunken hull and start reconstructing the ship as an ironclad. Work started mid July 1861. The Confederates built a deck over the hull and engines and on the deck constructed a casemate. The walls of the casemate were built of wood 20 inches in thickness and then armoured with four inches of iron plating. To arm the ship, the Confederates placed ten cannon (2 x 7 inch rifled, 2 x 6 inch rifled, 6 x 9 inch Dahlgrens), inside the casemate and attached a massive iron ram to the bow of the ship. This armament would allow the ship to attack enemy vessels either by firing its cannon or by ramming them. The most important feature of this experimental ship was its iron armour. The armour would protect the ship from cannon fire, allowing her to attack and destroy the wooden ships of Union navy. After some nine months of construction, the conversion of the Merrimack was complete and the ship was renamed the CSS Virginia. She was completed on 17th February 1862 and on the 4 March 1862 her captain, Franklin Buchanan, reported her ready for combat.

The development of the Virginia had not gone unnoticed in the North where spies and newspaper reports confirmed its existence. At the end of June 1861 Welles decided the Union needed an ironclad. On July 4th he asked Congress for $1.5million to construct three experimental ironclads, which was agreed along with the creation of an Ironclad Board - a panel of three naval officers to regulate it. On the 7th August an invitation to negotiate was issued for designs for an ironclad warship. Fifteen bids were received but only two were considered serious. The board was sceptical 4 either would float and asked to see more calculations. The sponsor of one design was an entrepreneur called Cornelius Bushnell who took both designs to the most reliable marine engineer in the country, the Swedish born John Ericsson. Ericsson calculated that Bushnell's ship and the other competitor would indeed float and then showed him a design he developed for a 'floating battery' with a flat bottom. Bushnell immediately saw the potential and took the idea to Welles who urged him to put it to the Ironclad Board. Bushnell did so but the Board remained to be convinced. Bushnell realised the only way to persuade them would be to get Ericsson to sell the idea to them himself. This would however be difficult as, since 1844, there had been bad blood between Ericsson and the US Navy. The cause of this conflict was the USS Princeton a sloop of war, commissioned in 1843 and powered by a steam driven screw invented by Ericsson. On February 28th 1844 the USS Princeton was on a cruise to demonstrate a new type of cannon to the US President and several dignitaries but ten people were killed when the cannon blew up. Among the casualties were the Secretary of State and two senators. Ericsson unfortunately took the blame even though he had very little to do with the cannon.

Fortunately Bushnell managed to persuade Ericsson to speak to the Ironclad Board by saying that they were impressed by the genius of his design but needed to ask a number of technical questions. This played to Ericsson's vanity and he immediately agreed to go and answer them. The Board was convinced and Ericsson claimed the ship would be built in 100 days and for only $275,000! It was 15 September - the Merrimack had already been recovered and Ericsson had a hundred days - an arms race was on!

Ericsson's design was highly innovative. Her engineer Issac Newton (sic) estimated that the USS Monitor contained at least forty patentable inventions although, in his casual approach to intellectual property, Ericsson do not submit patents for any! The key features of the ship were her low draft, armoured decks/sides and in particular her revolving turret. The turret was designed to house two 11-inch Dahlgren cannon. It was 9ft high, with an inside diameter of 20ft and was built of 8 layers of 1 inch steel. The turret roof was a lattice of 6-inch iron beams over 2 inch iron beams with tear shaped gun-port covers. The turret was innovative because until that point ships had to manoeuvre to get alongside the enemy and fire broadside. The turret allowed the ship to engage other ships from any angle. Weighing over 100 tons and rotated by a two-cylinder steam engine it could be operated by one man and could do a full rotation in 23 seconds.

The USS Monitor was launched in New York on 30th Jan 1862 and had been completed in 118 calendar days or 105 working days assuming a 6-day working week! After completing some none too successful trials in which problems were encountered with the engines, she was nevertheless commissioned on 25th February 1862.

The man chosen to be the Captain was Lieutenant John Worden a 43 years old with 26 years service in the US Navy. Described by one of his crew as 'tall, thin and effeminate.' He was nonetheless a very good sailor who would end the war a hero and his career as an admiral. Worden undertook further trials with his crew on the 27th February, which highlighted problems with the ships steering. Ericsson corrected these and finally on the 3rd March she put to sea for a further trial, which included firing the ships guns. Despite a few other minor problems she was now ready. Thus a little over six months since Ericsson showed Bushnell his design the USS Monitor was ready for battle.

Due to bad weather the USS Monitor did not leave New York until 6th March and headed south for Hampton Roads.

She arrived at 9pm on 8 March in Hampton Roads, only it was too late because earlier that morning the CSS Virginia had put to sea and steamed towards the Union fleet anchored in Hampton Roads. She had closed with the fleet and opened fire crating havoc and sinking the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress. Worden anchored alongside the USS Minnesota, which had run aground in its attempts to get away from the Virginia. Worden went onboard and spoke to its Captain Gerson Van Brunt who implored Worden to stay to protect them. Worden agreed and Van Brunt was to later write that:

'All on board felt that we had a friend who would stand by us in our hour of need.'

The following morning the Virginia put to sea at about 6am and by Barn was in the Roads heading towards the USS Minnesota. At about 8:20am on the Monitor, anchored alongside the Minnesota, Worden saw the Virginia for the first time and orders the anchor to be raised. At about 8:25am the two ships closed together. The Virginia opened fire first and some 10 minutes later the Monitor returned fire. The two vessels closed within 300 yards of each other and began a deadly ballet circling each other for an hour and a half exchanging broadsides.

At about 11:35arn the Virginia ran aground and the Monitor manoeuvred to come on her stern and continued to shell her. Both ships took many direct hits but the armour on both resisted almost everything. The Monitor continued to pour fire into the grounded Virginia, until she managed to free herself. At about 11:45am the Virginia tried unsuccessfully, to ram the Monitor. At 11:55arn the Monitor retired to shallow water to replenish her turret stocks of ammunition from the below deck s