Civil War Battle
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
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."
Lavy, Gabe. "A Comparison of the Role and Importance of the
Northern and Southern Navies to the Fighting of the Civil
"Monitor v. Merrimack," Microsoft Encarta 1996
Encyclopedia. Microsoft Corp., Funk and Wagnalls Corp.
Ward, Geoffrey C. The Civil War: An Illustrated History.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990.