The Battle of Hampton Roads: Historic First Clash of Ironclad Warships
In early March 1862, sailors just off the Virginia coast saw something strange and terrifying when they witnessed history’s first clash of ironclad warships. The Battle of Hampton Roads, a two-day affair highlighted by the ferocious fight between the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia (a.k.a. Merrimac) the morning of March 9, was truly historic. Though the battle itself ended in a draw its impact was immense, for naval and military history would never again be the same. In one four-hour battle the two ironclads made every navy in the world archaic, as wooden ships were instantly obsolete in the new age of armored warships.
Article continues after this newspaper image from the March 10, 1862, issue of the Sun (Baltimore, Maryland)
A week after the attack on Fort Sumter began the Civil War on April 12, 1861, President Lincoln announced the Union strategy of blockading all Southern ports, a blockade extended to the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina after they, too, seceded. In coping with this naval “Anaconda Plan,” the Confederacy was fortunate to have a very able Secretary of the Navy, Stephen R. Mallory, who as a Florida senator had been chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee. At the outset of the war the South had no navy, and Mallory knew it could never obtain enough ships to overcome the U.S. Navy.
However, his Senate chairman experience had made him aware of the emerging phenomenon of ironclad warships. The French had used ironclad floating batteries to great effect in the Crimean War, and afterward built the world’s first oceangoing ironclad warship, the Gloire, launched in November 1859. The British followed with the world’s first iron-hulled, armor-plated warship, the Warrior, launched in December 1860. Neither ship had been tested in battle, but they looked impressive. Mallory knew that if the Confederacy had one of these ironclad monsters, it could break the back of the Union’s wooden-ship blockade.
On May 30, 1861, the Confederacy raised a wooden frigate the Union had scuttled when it abandoned the Gosport Navy Yard near Norfolk, Va., the month before: the Merrimac. In mid-July, work began to transform the Merrimac into an ironclad warship featuring ten heavy guns protected in a casemate angled at 35 degrees (to deflect enemy shells), sheathed with four inches of iron plating. The ship also boasted a fearsome four-foot-long iron ram weighing 1,500 pounds. The Merrimac was enormous and heavy, 275 feet long and bearing 723 tons of armor plating, all powered by decrepit steam engines the U.S. Navy was planning on replacing when the ship was scuttled. The South lacked the industrial capacity to build new steam engines, so they set to work repairing what the ship had. Since there was only one iron mill in the entire Confederacy capable of producing sheet iron, the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond which was busy making heavy ordinance for the Confederate Army, work on the Merrimac progressed slowly.
Seven months later, the South’s mighty warship was ready, and the new Merrimac was launched on Feb. 3, 1862. Though commissioned on Feb. 17 as the C.S.S. Virginia, the press continued to call the ship Merrimac, the name most often used today.
The Mobile Advertiser had a correspondent in Norfolk reporting on the Merrimac’s readiness. This report was reprinted by the Daily True Delta (New Orleans, Louisiana) on March 5, 1862:
As the Merrimac will be amongst the enemy before this reaches you, there can be no harm in saying that she came out of dock yesterday, and took her armament aboard. She is an ugly-looking customer, and is so low in the water, that she will be a small target for their guns. She is called the “Virginia.”
Word of the Merrimac’s progress leaked out, and the North’s military and press kept a wary eye on how things were developing. This notice was printed by the Daily Commercial Register (Sandusky, Ohio) on March 2, 1862:
Times’ dispatch—Advices received from Fortress Monroe are quite conclusive that the Merrimac is out of the dry dock and prepared to run out when she chooses.
The Merrimac’s progress was well known in the U.S. capital as well. A March 7 report from the Baltimore American was reprinted by the Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) on March 10, 1862:
Direct News from Norfolk
The Iron-Clad Steamer Merrimac
(Correspondence of the Baltimore American.)
Fortress Monroe, March 7.—I had an interesting conversation today with a gentleman who has spent the last two days in Norfolk, having left there at 10 o’clock this morning…The steam ram Merrimac was lying in the stream towards the navy yard, where the ship-of-the-line Pennsylvania formerly laid. She had her flag flying, and was reported ready for action, with a crew on board. My informant says she has the appearance in the water of a submerged house, with the peak of the roof only visible, and a smokestack. She was understood to draw not less than twenty-two and a half feet of water, whilst but twenty-one feet can be carried over the bar at high water. It is understood to be the intention to merely use her as a battery in the channel above Craney Island, taking her down as far as they can get her before she grounds.
During the months the Merrimac was being rebuilt, the U.S. Navy Secretary, Gideon Welles, was frantically trying to build up a navy large enough to enforce the blockade President Lincoln had ordered. A former newspaper editor in Connecticut, Welles was appointed in order to give New England representation in the Cabinet, not because he knew anything about navies. He certainly was not interested in ironclad warships. He was busy buying up any wooden ship big enough to carry at least one cannon, even tugboats and ferries.
However, Welles eventually accepted that he was going to need a weapon powerful enough to negate the Merrimac, and he advertised for ironclad designs. A wild and innovative design by Swedish-born inventor John Ericsson was accepted. His vessel, the Monitor, was aptly (even if derisively) described as a round cheese-box on a raft. The Monitor was small, fast, and almost entirely underwater. Only a small pilothouse and a nine-foot-tall cylindrical revolving turret housing the ship’s two enormous 11-inch guns (protected by eight inches of iron plating) stuck up above the waterline. Ericsson was given $275,000 on Sept. 17, 1861, and with the North’s industrial might the vessel was finished in 118 days. The ship was launched on Jan. 30, 1862, and commissioned on Feb. 25.
The press closely watched the progress of the Monitor, and perhaps published more information than the War Department would have liked. This admonishment was printed by the Boston Daily Advertiser (Boston, Massachusetts) on March 3, 1862:
Good Faith Needed
About three weeks ago we received accurate information of certain facts connected with the destination and armament of the Monitor, as Ericsson’s battery is called, which gave conclusive indications as to the point where she is expected to operate. As it was obvious that the battery ought to be left to announce its own movements, we carefully abstained from all allusion to what we had learned.
This was before the government had made known its sense of the importance of withholding such intelligence. But since Mr. Stanton issued his order, information as to the destination of the battery and peculiarities connected with its ordnance has been widely published by the press, in quarters to which the “censorship” does not extend, conveying information of great probable importance, in advance of the arrival of the battery. As we cannot suppose anyone to be insensible to the fact that this case comes within the spirit of Mr. Stanton’s order, to say no more, we can only add that it would be for the advantage of the country, if there were a little more good faith and cooperation in carrying out a regulation of so much consequence.
The day after the Boston Daily Advertiser ran that plea, the Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, Massachusetts) printed an article in its March 4, 1862, issue that gave some very specific information about the Monitor:
The Ericsson iron plated floating battery at Green Point has been armed with two 11-inch columbiads, which have been furnished with 400 wrought iron shot, each ball costing $47, and weighing 184 pounds. These balls were made by forging square blocks of iron at the novelty works, then turning them at the lathe. The cost of the 400 amounts to $18,000, and their total weight is 73,000 pounds. Cast iron shot are liable to break in pieces when fired against thick iron plates. These wrought iron shot are for smashing through the sides of such secession floating batteries as the Merrimac at Norfolk, and Hollin’s Turtle at New Orleans.
If a Confederate spy wanted to know how the Monitor’s preparations were going, useful information could be found in this article, printed by the Wisconsin Daily Patriot (Madison, Wisconsin) on March 4, 1862:
Our Greatest Monster Getting Ready for the Sea
The New York Journal of Commerce of Saturday says:
The Ericsson battery, known to the naval register as the “Monitor,” is now receiving her stores at the navy yard. Her sole armament, consisting of two columbiads of the largest pattern, has been placed in the revolving turret. Shot, shell, and ammunition have been put on board, and all the preparations are so far complete that the “Monitor” is expected to start on her hostile mission today. It is not impossible, however, that she will be delayed two or three days longer. She will probably proceed to sea without a consort or tender, and will at the earliest possible moment, be put to the test required in the contract; before the strongest rebel fortification which can be got at. The first warning which the rebels will receive of the exact destination of this terrible “Monitor” will be in the shape of an iron globe weighing about 180 lbs. The command of the battery has been given to Lieutenant Worden, U.S.N., and she will be manned by experienced gunners and seamen.
On March 6, the Monitor left New York Harbor assisted by a tugboat. Its destination: Hampton Roads off the coast of Virginia, where the Merrimac and a rendezvous with history awaited.
Hampton Roads is a shallow, eight-mile-long channel where three Virginia rivers, the Elizabeth, Nansemond, and James converge before emptying into Chesapeake Bay. The U.S. Navy had a heavy concentration of ships enforcing the blockade in this area, cutting off Virginia’s two largest cities, Richmond and Norfolk, from international trade. The Union occupied the north shore, with the mighty Fortress Monroe, the occupied town of Newport News, and many shore batteries providing a heavy concentration of artillery. The Confederates occupied the south shore, with Norfolk and the Gosport Navy Yard, fortifying the area with their own shore batteries.
On the morning of March 8, 1862, the Merrimac steamed down the Elizabeth River on its test run. The ship was so heavy it had a draft of 22 feet and had to stay in the deepest part of the channel. It also was sluggish, difficult to steer, and painfully slow, with a top speed of barely five knots. The ship was not entirely finished, and workmen swarmed across its decks putting on the finishing touches, with the crew eager to fire the ship’s ten guns for the first time. It had a crew of 30 officers and 300 sailors, with Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan in charge.
As the Merrimac reached the mouth of the river, Franklin looked across Hampton Roads and saw five Federal wooden frigates with a combined might of 204 guns. The 24-gun Cumberland and the 50-gun Congress were off Newport News, while further east the 50-gun St. Lawrence, the 40-gun Minnesota, and the 40-gun Roanoke were off Fortress Monroe. Undaunted, Franklin decided the Merrimac’s test run would be the real thing. He disembarked the workmen at Craney Island, told his crew to man battle stations and, accompanied by five small wooden ships, slowly steamed toward the enemy.
The first to encounter the Merrimac was the small Union gunboat Zouave. The Federal seamen were astonished at what they saw. Several later recalled it looked as though a large barn was floating down the river with only its roof poking above the water. All the gun hatches were closed and no cannon protruded from its smooth, sloping sides. When the strange vessel got close enough for them to make out the Confederate flag, they realized it must be the rumored ironclad Merrimac and fired six shots from their single gun. The shots simply bounced off the Merrimac’s sloping sides and the ironclad chugged slowly along, completely ignoring the Zouave. The Merrimac had larger prey in its sights.
Thus began the first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads, an engagement that definitively proved the age of wooden warships was over. From noon until sunset the Merrimac sank the Cumberland, set the Congress on fire, and had the Minnesota, St. Lawrence, and Roanoke grounded and helpless when darkness and an ebbing tide stopped the slaughter. None of the fleet’s guns, nor the batteries on shore, could seriously damage the Merrimac. Though it was hit 98 times, the Union shells, in the clever words of the correspondent from the following report, had “no more effect on her than peas from a popgun.”
This report, containing an eyewitness account of the battle’s first day, was printed by the Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, Massachusetts) on March 10, 1862:
Important from Fortress Monroe
March 8.—The dullness of Old Point was startled at 10 o’clock today with the announcement that a mysterious vessel, supposed to be the Merrimac, looking like a submerged house with the roof only above the water, was moving down from Norfolk by the channel in front of Sewall’s Point batteries. Signal guns were fired by the Cumberland and Congress to notify the Minnesota, St. Lawrence and Roanoke of approaching danger, and all was excitement in and about Fortress Monroe.
There was nothing protruding above the water but the flagstaff flying the rebel flag, and a short smokestack. She moved along slowly, and turning into the channel leading to Newport News, steamed direct for the frigates Cumberland and Congress, lying at the mouth of James river. As soon as she came within range of the Cumberland the latter opened on her with her heavy guns, but the balls struck and glanced off, having no more effect on her than peas from a popgun. Her ports were all closed, and she moved on in silence, but with a full head of steam.
In the meantime, as the Merrimac was approaching our two frigates on one side, the [Confederate] steamers Yorktown and Jamestown came down James river, and engaged our frigates on the other side. The batteries at Newport News also opened on the Jamestown and Yorktown, and did all in their power to assist the Cumberland and Congress, which, being sailing vessels, were at the mercy of the approaching steamers.
The Merrimac kept steadily on her course, and slowly approached the Cumberland, when she and the Congress, at a distance of one hundred yards, rained full broadsides on the iron-clad monster. The shot took no effect, glancing upwards and flying off, having the only effect to check her progress for the moment. After receiving the first broadside of the two frigates she ran into the Cumberland, striking her about midships and literally laying open her sides. She then drew off, fired a broadside into the disabled ship, and again dashed against her with her iron-clad prow, and knocking in her side, left her to sink while she engaged the Congress, which lay about a quarter of a mile distant.
The Congress in the meantime kept up a sharp engagement with the Yorktown and Jamestown, and, having no regular crew on board of her, and, seeing the hopelessness of resisting the iron-clad steamer, at once struck her colors. Her crew had been discharged several days since, and three companies of the Naval Brigade had been put on board temporarily, until she could be relieved by the St. Lawrence, which was to have gone up on Monday to take her position as one of the blockading vessels of James river. On the Congress striking her colors, the Jamestown approached and took from on board her all her officers as prisoners, but allowed the crew to escape in boats. The vessel, being thus cleared, was fired by the rebels.
What actually happened to the Congress was different from what the correspondent above described. It is true the ship lowered its flag and surrendered, and the Merrimac stopped shooting while two of the Confederate gunboats approached to unload the captured ship’s crew. This cessation of hostilities and evacuation of the surrendered ship’s crew were time-honored naval traditions whenever an enemy ship lowered its flag. However, the shore batteries suddenly resumed their fire. When a subordinate officer objected to this break in tradition, the commanding officer snarled that he had not surrendered to anyone and ordered his men to keep firing. A shell struck the Patrick Henry, killing four of its own sailors and some of the wounded Union seamen it was evacuating. Angered, Flag Officer Buchanan stepped onto the Merrimac’s deck with a rifle and began shooting at the shore batteries. A Union sharpshooter’s bullet ripped into the left thigh of Buchanan, severely wounding him. Buchanan was carried below and, enraged, ordered his men to heat up cannonballs until they were red hot, the incendiary shot setting the Congress ablaze. It is said that one of the terrible aspects of the Civil War is that it pitted brother against brother, and that was true in this case. Buchanan’s brother, who had remained loyal to the Union, was one of the enemy officers about to be evacuated from the Congress’s deck when the shore batteries betrayed the temporary truce. Instead of rescuing his brother, Buchanan’s hot shots exposed him to a gruesome, fiery death. His brother, J. McKean Buchanan, did manage to escape, but many sailors on the Congress did not.
With a low tide and increasing darkness, the Merrimac headed over to the Confederate side of Hampton Roads and anchored off Sewell’s Point. The crew was jubilant. They had destroyed two large Federal warships and would finish off three more in the morning light. Along with losing two ships the Union had suffered almost 300 killed and wounded. The Merrimac had only suffered two killed and 17 wounded—who were sent ashore for medical care, including Flag Officer Buchanan, with Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones assuming command of the ship. Despite the barrage of enemy fire it had taken, the Merrimac’s main damage was a riddled smokestack, two disabled guns, and a few armored plates loosened. The men were too excited to sleep, but around 1:00 a.m. the fire on the Congress reached its magazine and the ship exploded with a deafening roar, after which the Merrimac’s crew settled down for a few hours of sleep before resuming the carnage in the morning light.
The Merrimac’s seamen were not the only ones jarred by the huge explosion of the Congress. Ericsson’s strange-looking little ironclad had slipped into Hampton Roads that night guided by the fire blazing on the Congress, and was anchored when that ship blew. The grounded frigate Minnesota was certain to be the Merrimac’s first target in the morning as it was closest, and Lieutenant John Worden and his crew of 57 were told to use the Monitor to protect the Minnesota at all costs.
News of the complete Confederate victory in the Merrimac’s first day of fighting electrified the Southern press. This article was printed by the Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia) on March 10, 1862:
The Merrimac a Complete Success.
Federal Vessels Sunk and Run Ashore!
Richmond, March. 8.—Reliable intelligence has been received here in official quarters, which states that the iron clad steamer Merrimac, now known by the name of Virginia, engaged, today, the Federal frigate Cumberland, and sunk her; and drove the Federal frigate Congress on shore.
The Federal gunboats made an attack on Sewell’s Point today, without effect.
Our mosquito fleet is performing wonderfully well.
This article was printed by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on the front page of its March 10, 1862, issue:
Grand Naval Victory
Richmond, 8th.—A grand naval battle came off this afternoon, near Newport News, resulting in a glorious victory to the Confederates. The great marine iron battery, Virginia, formerly the steamer Merrimac, left the Navy Yard at 11 ½ this morning, accompanied by three gunboats, and proceeded to Newport News. At a quarter to two o’clock, two Federal frigates, supposed to be the Congress and Cumberland, commenced to fire upon the Virginia. The latter, when in close quarters, opened fire with her powerful rifled guns, upon the frigates.
At a quarter past two the battle raged with terrific violence, and at a quarter of three, one of the frigates careened and sank. It is supposed that there was a great loss of life. The other blockading frigate being badly disabled, set sail and ran well ashore at Newport News, to prevent her sinking.
…There is great excitement in the city. A great number of people on shore. The welkin is ringing with the shouts of the multitude. At fifteen minutes past nine the engagement was renewed. A huge fire was seen in the direction of Newport News, supposed to be the frigate Congress set on fire by the Confederates. Deep thunder continues. The Merrimac is causing terrible and fierce destruction in Hampton Roads.
The next day, the Macon Daily Telegraph had this to say:
A Perfect Success
The achievements of the marine battering ram and gunboat Virginia, the old resurrected U.S. steam frigate Merrimac, which we chronicled in our last and continue today, are unequalled in maritime history—at least, we can recall nothing like it. She has dashed among the Federal craft like a porpoise in a shoal of herrings, scattering, sinking, burning and destroying everything within her reach. Three of the best vessels in the U.S. Navy have been destroyed—two of them larger than herself, and she has demonstrated in a few hours’ experiment, that the old fashioned wooden craft are perfectly worthless for defence against an iron shot-proof vessel—especially one armed with a snout, and adapted to the uses of a battering ram.
This Northern report, acknowledging the destruction the Merrimac caused on March 8, ends on a hopeful note by announcing the arrival of the Monitor. It was printed by the Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) on March 10, 1862:
Naval Disaster in Hampton Roads
We learn that on Saturday last the Confederate iron-plated steamer Merrimac came out of her harbor and attacked two vessels of our blockading squadron in Hampton Roads. The Cumberland sloop-of-war, twenty-four guns, (sailing ship), commanded by Capt. Marston, was run down by the heavy armored steamer and sunk. The frigate Congress, carrying fifty guns, (sailing ship), was next run down and captured. The United States steamer Minnesota, in endeavoring to go to the relief of her companions, got aground. The Merrimac, without doing further damage, returned to her harbor at Portsmouth.
This work of destruction was effected, as we learn, in the afternoon of Saturday last, about three o’clock. Several hours later the United States iron-plated steamer Monitor, commanded by Lieut. Worden, arrived in Hampton Roads, where it is to be hoped that her presence will at least prevent a repetition of such disasters.
At dawn on March 9, the Merrimac steamed straight toward the Minnesota to finish off the huge, grounded Union frigate. Suddenly, the Monitor darted out from behind the Minnesota to protect the helpless ship. Now it was the Confederate sailors’ turn to be astonished. At first, they thought one of the Minnesota’s boilers had been lowered onto a raft to be hauled ashore for repairs. Then that “boiler” opened fire, and they realized they had an ironclad adversary to fight.
For four hours, from 8:00 a.m. until noon, the two determined opponents staged history’s first clash of ironclad warships. They circled around and around, blasting away their guns and even trying to ram one another, but neither ship could hurt the other. Not expecting to fight another ironclad, the Merrimac only carried shells rather than armor-piercing shot. The Monitor had plenty of wrought-iron shot, but had been instructed to only use 15-lb. charges of powder for fear of bursting its own guns. (When he heard of this later Ericsson was furious, insisting his guns could have used 30-lb. powder charges and severely damaged the Merrimac. Subsequent tests proved he was right.) The fight was loud and deafening, the powerful concussions of the blasts causing blood to flow from some sailors’ ears and noses. At noon, the exhausted crews broke off the engagement and the Merrimac slowly steamed back south.
Both sides claimed victory (the Merrimac for its triumph on the first day, the Monitor for successfully defending the Minnesota on the second day and driving its opponent away). The Federal casualties were 261 killed, 108 wounded, two ships sunk and one damaged. The Confederates suffered 7 killed, 17 wounded, and the Merrimac received some damage, though nothing too serious. The Battle of Hampton Roads was really a draw; the Union suffered more losses, the Confederacy failed to break the blockade, and both ironclads proved their might. Though neither side won, they both accomplished something monumental: the era of armored warships had arrived.
After the staggering losses of the first day’s fighting, the Northern press was relieved and cheered by the Monitor’s arrival and stout defense of the Minnesota. This article was printed by the Boston Daily Advertiser (Boston, Massachusetts) on the front page of its March 10, 1862, issue:
While we were deceiving ourselves with the idea that the rebel steamer Merrimac was a failure, she has come out of her lair, run down our sloop-of-war Cumberland, captured and destroyed the sailing frigate Congress, and driven the steam frigate Minnesota aground. This was on Saturday.
Yesterday, however, the tables were turned. The Ericsson iron-clad battery “Monitor” arrived at Hampton Roads on Saturday night, and yesterday morning went up to the protection of the Minnesota. On the approach of the Merrimac, supported as on Saturday by two other steamers, she was engaged by the Monitor in a desperate close contest, which lasted four hours, and at its close the Merrimac was driven back to Norfolk.
The particulars of this affair are furnished by telegraph. The arrival of the Monitor on Saturday night was truly providential; and it is a fortunate coincidence that the telegraph was yesterday completed to Fortress Monroe, so that the news of Sunday’s victory comes to mitigate the mortification over Saturday’s disaster.
The Monitor, our first iron-clad steamer, is a floating steam battery, carrying two columbiads of the largest pattern, (180 pound balls), in a revolving turret. She was built by Ericsson, the well-known engineer, and was not to be accepted by Government until she had proved herself successful. She has done so now. Her keel was laid Oct. 25. She was under the command of Lieut. John L. Worden, who was made a prisoner at Pensacola at the beginning of the rebellion, and was only recently exchanged.
With the history of the Merrimac, our readers are familiar. Originally one of our first-class steam frigates, of 40 guns and 3200 tons, built at Charlestown in 1855, she fell into the hands of the rebels at the abandonment of the Norfolk Navy Yard, and has been made over into the engine of torment which has now raised so much confusion. The destroyed sloop Cumberland, 24 guns, 1726 tons, was originally a frigate, and was built at Charlestown in 1842. The frigate Congress, also destroyed, 50 guns, 1867 tons, was built at Portsmouth in 1841. The Minnesota is a first-class steam frigate, of the same pattern as the original Merrimac, and built about the same time. She is under the command of Capt. G. J. Van Brunt, a gallant officer, who would have been glad to have had the opportunity to board the Merrimac, which the latter was careful not to give. The Minnesota was got afloat yesterday.
This article was printed by the Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) on March 10, 1862:
Conflict between the Iron Steamers
The Merrimac Retires
Fortress Monroe, March 9—6:45 P.M.
Hon. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy.
The Monitor (Ericsson iron-clad boat) arrived at 10 P.M. last night, and went immediately to the protection of the Minnesota, lying aground just below Newport News.
At 7 A.M. today the Merrimac, accompanied by two wooden steamers and several tugs, stood out toward the Minnesota and opened fire. The Monitor met them at once and opened fire, when all the enemy’s vessels retired except the Merrimac.
These two iron-clad vessels fought, part of the time touching each other, from 8 o’clock this morning till noon, when the Merrimac retired, whether injured or not it is impossible to say.
Lieut. J. L. Worden, who commanded the Monitor, handled her with great skill, assisted by Chief Engineer Stimers. Lieut. Worden was injured by the cement from the pilot-house being driven into his eyes, but I trust not seriously.
The Minnesota kept up a continuous fire, and is somewhat injured. She was moved considerably today, and will probably be off tonight.
The Monitor is uninjured, and ready at any moment to repel another attack.
—G. V. Fox, Assistant Secretary.
This article was printed by the New York Daily Herald (New York, New York) on March 10, 1862:
The Latest War News
The exciting intelligence which reached us yesterday from Newport News in a special dispatch…was received with mingled feelings. The order in which the reports reached us naturally produced a temporary uneasiness, which was, however, in some measure removed when the upshot of the brilliant engagement of the iron battery Monitor was made known in the latest dispatches…the redeeming hour arrived about midnight [Saturday], when the Ericsson steam-battery Monitor made her appearance, and, under the command of Lieut. J. L. Worden, engaged the three Rebel boats Merrimac, Yorktown, and Jamestown, which were directing their joint fire against the grounded Union frigate Minnesota. The Monitor and her brave commander, on the commencement of the fight on Sunday, shortly compelled the two smaller Rebel boats to withdraw, and then engaged the iron-clad Merrimac, single-handed. The two plated vessels literally closed, part of the time actually touching each other, in which desperate position they fought from 8 o’clock in the morning till noon. At that hour the Merrimac was forced to retire, and—as a later dispatch informs us—in a disabled condition, under the towage of the Jamestown and Yorktown. With this comes the pleasant additional tidings that the Monitor, after her desperate encounter, remains uninjured, and ready to renew the work as soon as the exigency arises, or the order is given. The safety of the Minnesota is also reported, although she has been partially injured.
Accompanying that story, the New York Daily Herald ran this article as well:
Had the telegraph line to Fortress Monroe not been completed yesterday afternoon, the whole country would today be depressed by the weight of a great disaster, and here in New York we should be expecting soon to see a terrible engine of destruction against which we might have found ourselves entirely powerless. For if the 9-inch shot and shell of our frigates rebounded from the Merrimac “like so many peas from a pop-gun,” as we are told, could we reasonably expect that any guns which are mounted in our forts would have prevented her entrance into our harbor, when the city would have been entirely at the mercy of her 100-pound Armstrong guns. It was by a most wonderful coincidence, to say nothing more of it, the telegraph was finished during the last two hours of working time in the day, and to that fact we owe it that the city is not now panic-stricken, but rejoicing rather over a great victory of American genius as well as American arms. But if the completion of the telegraph line, to which we owe our knowledge of our safety, may be called a coincidence, we certainly must call the arrival of the Monitor at Fortress Monroe, to which we owe our safety itself, something providential.
The Southern press, not surprisingly, judged the Battle of Hampton Roads a Confederate victory. This article was printed by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on March 13, 1862:
Some detention occurred on board the Virginia on Sunday morning, we learn, or she would have commenced the engagement much earlier than 8½ o’clock; at which time she, together with the Patrick Henry, Jamestown and our other gunboats, opened fire on the Minnesota, which still lies hard and fast aground. The tide being at the ebb, the Virginia did not take the channel where the Minnesota lay, probably for fear of grounding, but getting within a good range of her, she opened fire with terrible effect, completely riddling her, and rendering constant exertion at the pump necessary to prevent her from filling.
Early in the morning the Ericsson Battery, now called the Monitor, was discovered off Newport News Point, she having gone up there during the night. A sharp encounter soon took place between her and the Virginia, during which time they were frequently not more than 30 or 40 yards apart. Unfortunately, the Virginia ran aground, and the Ericsson using her advantage, poured shot after shot into her, but without doing any serious damage. In a short while, however, the Virginia succeeded in getting off, and putting on a full head of steam, ran her bow into the Ericsson, doing, as it is thought, great damage.
We are rejoiced to say that not withstanding the firing was much heavier than on Saturday, there were no casualties on either of our vessels—not a man being in the least injured by shots from the enemy or otherwise.
Several of the enemy’s gunboats being within range, they were favored with a shell or two from the Virginia, with telling effect, and in every case disabling or sinking them. One of these laying alongside the Minnesota, had a shell thrown aboard of her which on bursting, tore her asunder, and sent her to the bottom.
Having completely riddled the Minnesota, and disabled the St. Lawrence and Monitor, besides as stated above, destroying several of the enemy’s gunboats—in a word having accomplished all that they designed and having no more material to work upon, our noble vessels left the scene of their triumphs and returned to the yard, where they await another opportunity of displaying their prowess.
The enemy’s loss, killed and wounded, during the two days battle is exceedingly large, and estimated from six to twelve hundred. The scene around the Congress is represented as being heart sickening. The officers of the Beaufort, who ran alongside of her on Saturday night and boarded her for the purpose of removing the wounded aboard of her, and who were brutally fired upon by the enemy, while engaged in this work of mercy to their own kith and kin, represented the deck of the vessel as being literally covered with the dead and dying. One of them assures us that as he went from fore to aft, his shoes were well nigh buried in blood, and brains. Arms, legs, and heads were found scattered in every direction, while here and there in the agonies of death, would be found poor deluded wretches, with their breasts torn completely out.
…The report that the Congress was fired by the Federals to prevent her falling into our hands, is without a shadow of truth. She was fired by hot shot from the Virginia, for firing into our boats while she had a flag of truce at the time flying, after she had struck her colors and surrendered to us.
Among the prisoners taken off the Congress was the slave Sam, the property of ____ Drummond, Esq., of this city, who escaped to the enemy sometime in October last. He is now safe, having reached his home sooner, and under different circumstances, than he anticipated.
On the arrival of the Virginia at the Yard her men were mustered and addressed by the commanding officer in terms of praise for their noble bearing during the engagement. They responded with hearty cheers and expressed a desire to again re-enact the scenes through which they had just passed whenever opportunity presented.
The injury sustained by the Patrick Henry was not as great as at first supposed—being so trifling that a few hours’ repairs were sufficient to place her in readiness for action.
The officers of the Virginia are represented as having acted with the utmost courage and bravery during the contest. It is related of Captain Buchanan that during the thickest of the fight he remained on the deck of the Virginia, and that he discharged musket after musket at the enemy as they were handed up to him. It was while thus exposed that he received the wound of which mention is made above.
It is said that all of the batteries on Newport News were silenced except one and that our shot and shell were thrown with such unerring aim and precision among the enemy that great numbers of them were killed and wounded.
While the North celebrated the Monitor’s arrival and tried to claim a victory, it was not easy to forget the loss of lives and ships caused by the Merrimac on the first day’s fighting. This lament was printed by the Daily Commercial Register (Sandusky, Ohio) on March 11, 1862:
Where Does the Laugh Come In?
The more we know of the affair with the rebel steamer Merrimac and the rebel gunboats, the more we fail to discover where the laugh and cheer comes in on our side. A hundred killed, wounded and missing on the frigate Cumberland and that vessel sunk. A hundred more lost on the Congress and the vessel blown up and destroyed. Several gunboats seriously handled, the Minnesota barely saved, besides other effects of the rough work performed by the Merrimac and her petty consorts. We confess that we are at a loss where and when to cheer. True, the Monitor closed up the affair most creditably and we have no doubt about her and counsel any number of cheers for her. But then all the damage remains, all the loss has to be endured. On the whole we conclude the rebels did a most brilliant thing, and that our whole naval force in that vicinity was barely saved from destruction by the timely presence of the Monitor. It was just, and but just a miss, of accomplishing all that the most ardent rebel could have hoped to accomplish. It is to be hoped the Merrimac will not have the opportunity to play another trick of the same kind. A few more of that sort and our whole navy of the old style, would be scarcely worth a fig.
This stern article was printed by the Boston Daily Advertiser (Boston, Massachusetts) on March 11, 1862:
The telegraph with about its average sagacity informs the public, that “naval men” at Fortress Monroe “are generally of the opinion that, considering everything, the rebels had the worst of it” in the combat of Saturday and Sunday. Such will not be the general opinion, however, either here or in Europe. It is no small thing to have destroyed a fifty-gun frigate and a heavy sloop-of-war at the first dash, to have kept steam and sailing frigates and gunboats at bay, and to have successfully defied land batteries, at the first attempt. The rebels might well be content to draw off the Merrimac with a hole in her side, after a success which was so startling and portentous, as to call high officers of State and an expert in engineering from their beds at an untimely hour, to consider the neglected subject of harbor defence. Even in the mere matter of the immediate result, there seems to be a heavy balance in favor of the rebels, in spite of the opportune arrival of the Monitor, which like the rich uncle from India in the fifth act of a drama, came in to rescue the good and unfortunate and to foil the machinations of the bad. In short we must frankly say that we see no reason why the rebels should not write this occurrence pretty high on their list of successes.
But there is something more than this. The United States could have afforded the loss of several other antiquated wooden ships, had the rebels failed of their present gain in reputation and spirits. Under the pressure of heavy reverses, they have been praying for some aggressive movement by their leaders, for some stroke to relieve the thick gloom of the moment. They now have what they asked for. The blow struck on Saturday was precisely one of those bold enterprises which, when successful, has an inspiring effect upon the mass, equal to that of a victory in a pitched battle. Abroad, also, it will break the force of recent disasters, and although in its actual consequences it in no way changes the position of the contest, it still will serve to draw away attention from matters of infinitely more importance, and will throw an air of hope and strength around a sinking cause. In short, in moral effect the event is precisely what the rebels needed.
…The importance of these inquiries is not lessened by the fact that just at the crisis, when the Minnesota and St. Lawrence were likely to follow the Cumberland, the Monitor, the product of private enterprise, came in to turn the scale. Her arrival was a providential occurrence, not to have been hoped for, and in no way relieves the deep stain left by what had previously occurred. Nor is the sting of our losses diminished, when it is remembered how much confidence has of late been felt in the ability of the navy to recover its old fame, and clear itself of the effects of years of inactivity and atrophy.
This Northern editorial asks “Who is to blame?” and points an accusing finger directly at the Navy Department. It was printed by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on March 11, 1862:
The Dead Wood of the Navy and the Navy Department
“The long expected Rebel steamer Merrimac has at length made her appearance.” This is the initial sentence of the Associated Press dispatch announcing the disastrous raid of the Merrimac on Saturday last. The formidable Rebel was “long expected,” and yet not the slightest competent preparation seems to have been made to resist her approach. On the contrary, two wooden vessels, and sailing vessels at that, were left wholly at her mercy, one of them, it is reported, without a crew. When everything should have been in readiness for a sudden and fierce onslaught by a mail-clad steamer, and all such dead wood as sailing vessels should have been cleared out of the way, we find, instead, a state of unreadiness and blind confidence of safety, and the unfortunate Congress and Cumberland so situated as to invite their sad fate. As far as we have intelligence, the sacrifice of brave men on these two vessels is almost or quite as great and equally deplorable as at Ball’s Bluff, which the scene at Hampton Roads calls lamentably to mind.
Who is to blame? That is the angry question that on Sunday night and Monday rose instinctively to every lip. While no one was sufficiently informed to answer the question, the old distrust of the management of the Navy Department was actively revived.
It was argued that, with such ample notice, as the entire public of the North has had of the completion of so formidable an engine of naval warfare as the Merrimac, there should have been full preparation by the Department to meet her, and to keep all helpless sailing vessels beyond her reach. And it was again argued that there was no reason to expect much foresight from a Department shown to be blundering and improvident by the Van Wyck report. The strong desire for a change in that Department, so freely expressed some months ago, has thus become as active as ever. To nothing but the opportune arrival of the Monitor are we indebted for escape from the loss of the entire fleet. Who is to blame?
This event is, however, not without its valuable lessons. It is demonstrated that the day of war vessels propelled by sails is at an end. Wherever they are in service on the coast, they exist only by a sort of sufferance. The moment one of these rude railroad-iron-clad steamers, which the Rebels have had the enterprise to build, can escape the sleepy blockade, all such old time lumber will be sacrificed like the Congress and the Cumberland. These latter are as helpless in such case as an infant in the grasp of a giant. The little John Smith, which plies between Chestnut street wharf and the Island, would be of more service, or, at least, have better chance of escape.
There is one other point. The Monitor, which retrieved the fortunes of the day in Hampton Roads, and upheld the honor of the old flag by beating off the powerful Merrimac, was built in one hundred days [actually, 118 –ed.] from the date of the contract. Congress has been nearly that long in session, so that if that body had gone promptly to work in the construction of a mail-clad fleet in the first weeks of the session, as it should have done, we would by this time be almost ready to station one at every point of danger. But the bill appropriating the money for this purpose lingered for weeks in the Senate, because Senators were reluctant to entrust the expenditure of the millions involved to the hands which had already so lamentably blundered the purchases for the navy. Why should such a state of affairs be permitted to continue? This is not a time for want of harmony or lack of confidence, or the absence of hearty cooperation between the several branches of the Government. There should be a clearing out, at once, of the dead-wood of the navy and the Navy Department.
After having made naval military history, the two ironclads received an ignominious end: not only did they never fight each other again, neither ship engaged in another battle. The Merrimac spent almost a month in dry dock repairing some of it armor damaged by the Monitor, then the two ships spent another month steaming on the periphery of Hampton Roads warily eyeing each other but avoiding confrontation. When the Union army under General George B. McClellan began its Peninsula Campaign in May 1862, the Confederates abandoned Norfolk and pulled back toward Richmond. The Merrimac was trapped: not seaworthy enough to steam into the open Atlantic, and too heavy to head up the shallow James River. Not willing to allow its prized ship to fall into Union hands, the crew of the Merrimac scuttled their ship on May 11. At the end of the year, while being towed down the coast toward Beaufort, North Carolina, the Monitor was swamped by heavy seas and sank on Dec. 30, taking 16 sailors down with it; the U.S.S. Rhode Island rescued the rest of the crew. Thus, neither of the two famous ironclads survived long enough to reach the anniversary of its launching. However, they made history together—as expressed in this editorial, printed by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on March 12, 1862:
It has now been made clear to all the world that the day of the old lumbering frigates has passed by. The fierce struggle in Hampton Roads on Saturday, and the terrible duel of the Merrimac and the Monitor on Sunday, have taught a practical lesson which no maritime power can afford to overlook. It was not merely the struggle of Loyalists and Rebels; it was a conflict of the old with the new and the new has won the day. It will stand out in bold relief in the history of naval warfare as one of the signal battles of the world.
Click here for more articles about the American Civil War.