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US Civil War
History of the United States
War and Military History

What was the importance of the battle of the Monitor vs the Virginia?

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November 26, 2007 8:59PM

The battle marked the death knell for wooden ships in the naval services of the world.
The epic battle between the ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly the steam frigate USS Merrimack) and the USS Monitor made history not simply because ironclads were involved, but rather because it was the first engagement between two ironclads. The outcome of the battle is generally considered to have been a draw, although Monitor was firing solid shot throughout and designer John Ericsson was reportedly furious that Monitor had not been supplied with explosive shells, which he was sure would have sunk Virginia had they been employed by firing at Virginia’s waterline. As it was, Monitor probably did more overall damage to Virginia. Monitor had heavier guns and cracked Virginia’s armor in several places, whereas Monitor suffered only dents, literally.

Ironclad warships were not new. The first ironclad ship of the line was the French La Gloire (1859), which looked like any other “broadside” warship of the period except that she was armored with wrought iron plates. The U.S. Navy had several lightly armored gunboats at the start of the Civil War, and these did great service in the rivers and bays of the South, running past heavily gunned forts which could do little to stop them because the solid shot of the guns bounced off their sloped armor.

When the Civil War started in 1861, the steam frigate USS Merrimack was laid up at Gosport (now Norfolk) Naval Base in Virginia needing her boilers serviced. The Federals were ordered to destroy everything and abandon the base, but in their haste to destroy the Merrimack they only burned her to the waterline, when she sank and put out the fire. The Confederates raised the hulk, repaired the boilers, renamed her CSS Virginia and set about creating a true juggernaut of an ironclad to try to break the Federal blockade at the mouth of the James and Elizabeth rivers in what is called Hampton Roads.

The Confederates built her as a ram, which was an obsolete technology that was coming back into vogue. Some of her armor was railway rails laid over thick oak timbers. She was so heavy and drew so much water that her top speed with her rickety boilers was just over 4 knots. She resembled a floating barn roof because her fore and after decks were almost awash. She was always in danger of going aground because of her deep draught, and because she was so underpowered she was nearly impossible to turn. But she mounted ten powerful guns, including 7-inch rifles bow and stern, and she had that ram which could easily sink any wooden warship even without the use of her firepower. Her sloped sides made solid shot simply bounce off her 4-inch armor. The Federals in their wooden ships had every reason to fear this behemoth, but at the same time it was no secret that the Confederates were building her, and president Lincoln called for designs for an ironclad of his own.

The man who came forward with the winning design was a Swedish American inventor named John Ericsson. His ship was unique. USS Monitor could be called a semi-submersible. She had only 14-inches of freeboard. Her decks were almost completely bare of everything except a tiny pilothouse forward (really just an armored viewport for the captain standing on the deck below), a short funnel for her steam engine, and her most distinctive feature, a revolving turret amidships housing two powerful 11-inch smoothbore Dahlgren guns. Because the deck was essentially bare the guns could be fired in virtually any direction without turning the whole ship, and because she was so low in the water there was virtually nothing for an enemy to shoot at except the turret. If you didn’t consider seaworthiness (which was nil), it was a marvelous design.

Despite a rushed building schedule, Monitor was late arriving in Hampton Roads. The day before Monitor's arrival, Virginia had already sortied on March 8, 1862, and despite her ponderous speed she had managed to sink or destroy two Federal wooden warships and damage a third before retiring, herself somewhat damaged but not seriously.

The next morning, March 9, 1962, Virginia again sortied to finish off the damaged Federal warship but was met by the USS Monitor, often described as a “cheesebox on a raft” because of her bizarre look. The two ships opened fire on each other and slugged it out for hours, but neither was able to do significant damage to the other. Virginia had broken off part of her ram in sinking the USS Cumberland the day before, and that put her at something of a disadvantage against Monitor which, had Virginia been able to ram, might have sunk her. But the probability of Virginia getting into position to ram Monitor would have been low anyway, since Monitor was lighter and more nimble. The fact is that Monitor literally ran rings around the slow, cumbersome Virginia. Despite this, Monitor was only able to crack or dislodge some of Virginia’s armor plates, while herself suffering only dents to the turret. Monitor was equipped with shutters to protect the gunners during reloading, but they quickly realized that it was simpler and faster to just revolve the turret away from the enemy, reload, then revolve the turret back and fire.

The noise within both warships must have been literally deafening. Finally a near miss at the pilothouse injured the eyes of the captain of the Monitor, which withdrew, but the Virginia had also had enough and withdrew as well. The epic battle was over in a draw. Neither ship ever fought another ship again. Virginia had to be destroyed when events on land forced the evacuation of Norfolk and her draught was too deep for her to flee, and Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras while being towed in a storm. Her low freeboard was her undoing.

The battle proved, of course, that wooden warships were instantly obsolete, and thereafter naval architects turned their attention to bigger and better ironclads, which eventually evolved into battleships, the heyday of which ended nearly a century later in WW2 when it was shown that even the biggest and most powerful battleships were no match for tiny airplanes equipped with armor piercing bombs and torpedoes. The Japanese Imperial Navy's Mushashi and Yamato, with their incredible 18-inch guns and thick armor, were sunk within months of each other by American aircraft in 1944 and 1945. Today’s modern missile cruisers and destroyers do not even bother with armor, except for a little Kevlar here and there as protection against flying splinters, relying instead on anti-ship missile and torpedo defense systems. No modern ship can outrun a plane, missile or torpedo, and heavy armor just slows a ship down and makes her less maneuverable. The day of the ironclad is over.