When people think of the American civil war, most of them think of great and bloody army battles. There was a naval side of the war too. This was the time when ironclad made their first auspicious appearance.
The Confederates started first by raising the wreck of the USS Merrimac. The had converted the Merrimac into an iron clad ram and rechristened her the CSS Virginia. She was the first ironclad steam powered ship built by the Confederate Navy. Commanded by Captain Buchanan she made her debut on March 8, 1862. She sailed into Hampton Roads and engaged the Union fleet blockading the harbor. The first ship she engaged was the wooden warship, the USS Cumberland. The Cumberland was all wood and still under sail power, and she was sunk in the first cannon exchange. The USS Congress moved to shallower water so she would not sink and exchanged cannon fire with the Virginia for an hour, but eventually was set ablaze. The Union had a serious problem with their all wooden navy.
They had been studying ironclads since 1861, and had some ships in production by the time of the Battle of Hampton Roads. Three designs were selected for construction, two very conventional and the third innovative. This third design became the USS Monitor. It was designed by Swedish engineer, John Ericsson and was full of innovations. Its relatively shallow-draft iron hull, topped by an armored raft that provided good protection against ramming and cannon fire was perfect for the in shore fighting that was prevalent in the Civil War. The biggest innovation was the thickly-armored round gun turret, which rotated by steam power. This meant that the ship could provide nearly all around fire from the turrets with less maneuvering. The Monitor was outfitted with a pair of eleven-inch Dahlgren smoothbore shell guns, which were the heaviest weapons available. The Monitor was loaded for bear.
The two ironclads met two days after the Virginia had sown fear in the Union Navy. She was still damaged from her battle with the USS Cumberland, but they were ready to take out some more wooden ships in Hampton Roads. The Virginia made for the USS Minnesota and prepared to take her out, but was greeted with her escort the newly launched Monitor. She had sailed hell for leather all night from New York, but her exhausted crew was ready to fight. It probably didn’t look to imposing, as one observer described the Monitor as looking like a cheese box on a raft, but looks were deceiving. The two ships reigned down cannon fire on each other as the Virginia tried to take out the Minnesota and the Monitor tried to protect her. The Virginia lost her smokestack reducing her mobility and the two Union ships retreated to shallower water where the deep drafted Virginia could not follow. The Monitor’s innovative guns were causing problems and reduced their effectiveness. However, the ships’ iron plating prevented any fatal blows from being landed.
The battle was fought to a draw as the Virginia had to withdraw to Norfolk. One conclusion was sure. The era of wooden ships were over. Iron clad programs in both America and Europe accelerated. Ships of the line would never look the same again.
Sources available on request