Civil War Battle of the 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 Worden.
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.