The Battle of Hampton Roads
At mid-day on 8 March 1862, CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack, and persistently mid-identified by that name or as "Merrimac") steamed down the Elizabeth River from Norfolk and entered Hampton Roads. It was the newly converted ironclad's trial trip, a short voyage that would deeply influence naval opinion at home and abroad.
Anchored on the opposite side of Hampton Roads were five major Union warships: the frigate Congress and large sloop of war Cumberland off Newport News, and the frigates St. Lawrence, Minnesota and Roanoke a few miles to the east, off Fortress Monroe. All were powerful conventional wooden men o'war. Minnesota and Roanoke, of the same type as the pre-war Merrimack, had auxiliary steam propulsion, but the other three were propelled by sails alone, and thus were at the mercy of wind conditions and the availability of tugs. As Virginia crossed the Roads, looking (as one witness described her) "like the roof of a very big barn belching forth smoke as from a chimney on fire", the Union ships called their crews to quarters and prepared for action. Turning west, the Confederate ironclad shrugged off steady fire from ships and shore batteries as she steamed past the Congress. Firing her heavy cannon into both ships, she pushed her ram into Cumberland's starboard side. The stricken ship began to sink, though her gun crews kept up a heavy fire as she went down. In the words of one of Cumberland's enemies, "No ship was ever fought more gallantly."
Virginia backed clear, tearing off most of her iron ram, and slowly turned toward the Congress, which had gone aground while trying to get underway. Confederate gunners put several raking shells into the frigate's hull, and maintained a relentless fire as they came alongside. After an hour's battle, in which Congress' crew suffered heavy casualties, she raised the white flag of surrender. As the Confederates began to take off her crew, several men on both sides were hit by gunfire from ashore, among them the Virginia's Commanding Officer, Captain Franklin Buchanan, who ordered Congress set afire with hot shot. She blazed into the night, exploding as the fire reached her powder magazines about two hours after midnight.
Virginia had meanwhile made a brief demonstration in the direction of the big steam frigate Minnesota, which had also gone aground. However, with the day's light about to fade, the ironclad turned back toward the southern side of Hampton Roads and anchored. Though two of her guns had their muzzles shot off and most external fittings were swept away or rendered useless, she had dramatically demonstrated the horrible vulnerability of unarmored wooden warships when confronted with a hostile ironclad, and was still battleworthy. Her casualties, less than two-dozen, were removed and command passed from the injured Buchanan to Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones, who would take Virginia out the next day to deal with the Minnesota.
At dawn on 9 March 1862, CSS Virginia prepared for renewed combat. The previous day, she had utterly defeated two big Federal warships, Congress and Cumberland, destroying both and killing more than 240 of their crewmen. Today, she expected to inflict a similar fate on the grounded steam frigate Minnesota and other enemy ships, probably freeing the lower Chesapeake Bay region of Union seapower and the land forces it supported. Virginia would thus contribute importantly to the Confederacy's military, and perhaps diplomatic, fortunes.
However, as they surveyed the opposite side of Hampton Roads, where the Minnesota and other potential victims awaited their fate, the Confederates realized that things were not going to be so simple. There, looking small and low near the lofty frigate, was a vessel that could only be USS Monitor, the Union Navy's own ironclad, which had arrived the previous evening after a perilous voyage from New York. Though her crew was exhausted and their ship untested, the Monitor was also preparing for action.
Undeterred, Virginia steamed out into Hampton Roads. Monitor positioned herself to protect the immobile Minnesota, and a general battle began. Both ships hammered away at each other with heavy cannon, and tried to run down and hopefully disable the other, but their iron-armored sides prevented vital damage. Virginia's smokestack was shot away, further reducing her already modest mobility, and Monitor's technological teething troubles hindered the effectiveness of her two eleven-inch guns, the Navy's most powerful weapons. Ammunition supply problems required her to temporarily pull away into shallower water, where the deep-drafted Virginia could not follow, but she always covered the Minnesota.
Soon after noon, Virginia gunners concentrated their fire on Monitor's pilothouse, a small iron blockhouse near her bow. A shell hit there blinded Lieutenant John L. Worden, the Union ship's Commanding Officer, forcing another withdrawal until he could be relieved at the conn. By the time she was ready to return to the fight, Virginia had turned away toward Norfolk.
The first battle between ironclad warships had ended in stalemate, a situation that lasted until Virginia's self-destruction two months later. However, the outcome of combat between armored equals, compared with the previous day's terrible mis-match, symbolized the triumph of industrial age warfare. The value of existing ships of the line and frigates was heavily discounted in popular and professional opinion. Ironclad construction programs, already underway in America and Europe, accelerated. The resulting armored warship competition would continue into the 1940s, some eight decades in the future.