Civil War - Monitor vs. Merrimack
The battle on March 9, 1862, between the USS Monitor and the
CSS Merrimack, officially the CSS Virginia, is one of the most
revolutionary naval battles in world history. Up until that point, all
battles had been waged between wooden ships. This was the first battle
in maritime history that two ironclad ships waged war.
The USS Merrimack was a Union frigate throughout most of its
existence, up until the Union Navy abandoned the Norfolk Naval Yard.
To prevent the Confederate Navy from using her against them, the Union
Navy scuttled her. The Confederates, however, raised the ship from the
shallow floor of the ocean and began making some major modifications.
Confederate engineers cut the hull down to the water line and built a
slanted top on it. Then, they bolted four layers of iron sheets, each
two inches thick, to the entire structure. Also added was a huge
battering ram to the bow of the ship to be used in ramming maneuvers.
The ship was then fitted with ten twelve-pound cannons. There were
four guns placed on the starboard and port sides, and one on the bow
and stern sides. Due to its massive nature the ship's draft was
enormous, it stretched twenty-two feet to the bottom. The ship was so
slow and long, that it required a turning radius of about one mile.
Likened to a "floating barn roof (DesJardien 2)" and not predicted to
float, the only individual willing to take command of the ship was
Captain Franklin Buchanan. After all the modifications were complete,
the ship was rechristened the CSS Virginia, but the original name
the CSS Merrimack is the preferred name.
The USS Monitor was the creation of Swedish-American engineer,
John Ericsson. The ship was considered small for a warship, only 172
feet long and 42 feet wide. Confederate sailors were baffled by the
ship. One was quoted describing her as ". . . a craft such as the eyes
of a seaman never looked upon before, an immense shingle floating on
the water with a giant cheese box rising from its center" (Ward 101).
The "cheese box" was a nine by twenty foot revolving turret with two
massive guns inside. "The USS Monitor used two of the eleven inch
Dahlgran guns . . ." (Lavy 2). These Dahlgran guns were massive rifled
cannons that were capable of firing a variety of shot. The armor of
this ship was a two inch thick layer of steel that shielded the ship.
The deck was so low to the water line, about one foot, that waves
frequently washed over the deck causing the ship to lose its balance
in the water. Due to the low profile, the entire crew was located
below the water line, so one armor piercing hit would kill the entire
crew. Like the CSS Merrimack, the USS Monitor was expected to sink, it
was referred to as "Ericsson's Folly" (DesJardien 2). The only
individual willing to take command of the ship was Lieutenant John
The battle at Hampton Roads was part of the Peninsula Campaign
that lasted from March to August of 1862. There was a total of five
ships engaged in the battle. From the US Navy, there were four ships,
the USS Congress, USS Minnesota, USS Cumberland, and the USS Monitor.
The CS Navy had one ship, the CSS Merrimack. On March 8, 1862, the CSS
Merrimack steamed into Hampton Roads. She proceeded to sink the USS
Cumberland and then ran the USS Congress aground. Captain Buchanan
then set his sights on the already handicapped USS Minnesota. The USS
Minnesota was run aground on one of the shores. Capt. Buchanan did not
know, but the USS Monitor was lying in wait, ordered to protect the
wounded USS Minnesota. Lt. Worden steamed out into the middle of the
bay to meet the CSS Merrimack. The USS Monitor fired first in a drawn
out battle that lasted about four and a half hours. "They fired shot,
shell, grape, canister, musket and rifle balls doing no damage to each
other" (Lavy 3).
After four and a half hours, the CSS Merrimack withdrew due to
falling tides. The USS Monitor did not make chase because of a crack
in the turret. The results of the battle were inconclusive, neither
side could claim victory. The estimated casualties resulting from the
battle were extensive. The Union lost about 409 sailors and the
Confederacy lost about 24 sailors. The battle was so impressive to
the leaders of both the Union and the Confederacy, that they
contracted their Naval yards to have more ironclad ships built.
Additions to the Confederate fleet included the CSS Tennessee, a 209
foot long blockade runner with four broadside cannons and pivoted
cannons at the bow and stern. Additions to the Union Navy included the
USS Carondelet. Armed with thirteen guns and stationed on the
Mississippi, she was a formidable opponent. Prior to the building of
the USS Monitor, the USS New Ironsides was built. "It was the
strongest ship ever built by the Northern Navy" (Lavy 4). Wooden ships
were now obsolete. Ironclad ships began to roll out of ship yards more
often than their wooden counterparts. "The invention of ironclads in
the Civil War set examples for the future of ship building in the
United States" (Lavy 5).
The ironclads were at an advantage over the wooden ships of
the two Navies because of their superior technology. Ironclads could
withstand hours of battering by artillery, and they could be used to
cut traffic lanes through mine fields. Their armor could resist the
blast from a mine considerably better than any wooden ship could. They
could also carry more powerful guns. Due to their increased stability
in the water these massive ships could easily endure the recoil of a
huge cannon. Another useful characteristic of the ironclads was their
ability to be used in ramming missions. The hull of the ship would not
be compromised by a hit associated with ramming a wooden vessel.
Because of Civil War technology, the United States has never
built another wooden battleship since the introduction of the
ironclads. Every armed conflict since then has seen more and more
improvements in the way ironclad ships were built. The introduction of
multiple massive turrets in the late 1800s improved the firepower
dramatically. Later renovations included improved power plants and
more devastating weapons. Perhaps the greatest renovation came in the
pre-World War I era with the introduction of the aircraft carrier.
Today, ironclad ships are so advanced that they are scarcely bigger
than the ironclads used in the Civil War, but they are hundreds if not
thousands times more powerful.
Although the wooden ship has proved extremely effective in
naval battles throughout history, the advent of the ironclad totally
revolutionized the way in which naval forces around the world approach
warfare. "From the moment the two ships opened fire that Sunday
morning, every other navy on earth was obsolete" (Ward 102).
DesJardien, Matt. "The Ironclads." www.shorelin.wednet.edu/Echo
Lake/Civil War/Matt D*Ironclads.html.
Lavy, Gabe. "A Comparison of the Role and Importance of the Northern
and Southern Navies to the Fighting of the Civil War."
"Monitor v. Merrimack," Microsoft Encarta 1996 Encyclopedia. Microsoft
Corp., Funk and Wagnalls Corp. 1993-95.
Ward, Geoffrey C. The Civil War: An Illustrated History. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990.
Word Count: 1232