The Battle of Hampton Roads: The Monitor Meets The Merrimack

March 9, 1862 (Sunday)

Washington was replete with panic as word of the previous day’s destruction reached its doorstep. The ravaging and ruin wrought by the ironclad CSS Virginia (once the USS Merrimack) at Hampton Roads was utterly astonishing. After nightfall, as the USS Congress smoldered, fixing its thick black smoke to the Hampton Roads horizon, and as several other ships were run aground, General Wool at Fortress Monroe reported the travesty to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.1

The note had to first travel to Baltimore before being telegraphed to Washington, leaving the citizens the entire night to be peacefully passed. But at 9:30am, the clacking of the wire reached Secretary Stanton in his office. With transcription in hand, he hurried to the White House and ruined Lincoln’s otherwise fine day with the news. Soon, Secretary of State Seward, Senator Orville Browning and General McClellan joined them.2

During the meetings, Stanton paced the floor “like a caged lion,” and made brash, yet somehow believable, predictions of the terror to come. The fleet would be destroyed; Fortress Monroe laid under siege; McClellan’s Richmond Campaign delayed; the supply vessels traveling the Atlantic sunk; Washington and even New York bombarded sending the government officials running.3 Stanton was frantic, running from room to room, looking out windows towards the Potomac, seemingly to see if the Virginia was steaming up the river.

After a quick meeting with the Washington Naval Yard Commander, John Dahlgren, belief between the various Cabinet members was split. Some, like Stanton, believed Washington would soon be shelled, while others, like Welles and Dahlgren, didn’t believe that the Virginia could even make it up the shallow Potomac. The President seemed to remain calm, but was still visibly affected by Stanton’s emotional panic.4

While Welles and Stanton debated the entropy that would most assuredly come, in Hampton Roads, the CSS Virginia reappeared. To meet her was the USS Monitor, a smaller ironclad built specifically to best the Virginia.

The Rebel ironclad, followed by several other ships, steamed out into Hampton Roads, hoping to destroy the USS Minnesota, which had run aground the previous day. Though stranded, the Minnesota was not helpless. When the Virginia drew to within a mile of her, she opened upon the craft, but did little damage. Some shells hit the Minnesota and a nearby steamer was blown up by Rebel artillery. A signal was sent to the Monitor that the Virginia was upon them.5

In a garish display of bravado, the Virginia steamed towards the Monitor, eclipsing the Minnesota as she pulled along side the small Union ironclad. Both seemed to be saving their ammunition to make their shots count at close range.6

The Monitor fired first, her shot hitting the Virginia at the waterline to no effect whatsoever. The Union ship stopped its engines and drifted alongside her opponent, a few yards in separation, as both fired as rapidly as they could into each other. In these initial volleys, the swiveling turret of the Monitor had been struck twice. There was some apprehension that, if struck, the turret would be frozen, its guns pointed in one direction only. Luckily for her, this was not the case.7

Round after round bounced off the sides of the Virginia as the Rebels fired entire broadsides “with no more effect… than so many pebblestones thrown by a child.” The Monitor was smaller and faster than the Virginia. She sat very low in the water, with little more than her turret above the surface, which caused most of the Confederate shots to fly overhead.8

Realizing the Virginia‘s armor to be too strong, the Monitor steamed as close as possible across her stern, hoping to disable her propeller. Though she couldn’t have missed her target by more than two feet, this plan also failed. The ships circled each other, turning and firing, turning and firing again. Once, the Rebel ship, finding that the Monitor was perpendicular to her, steamed as quickly as she could, hoping to ram the small Federal craft. Being lighter and quicker, however, the Monitor was able to escape with minimal damage.

Before noon, the ammunition in the Monitor‘s turret was running low and she moved away from the Virginia to more safely replenish the supply from below. When the Rebel ironclad pulled to within ten yards, she fired again. This time, a shell struck the pilot house, where Captain John Worden was positioned. He was looking out a porthole as the shell hit close by. Though it caused the ship little damage, the force splintered the iron beam, sending metal into the Captain’s eyes, blinding and stunning him.

The blast peeled back the roof of the pilot house, causing Worden to believe that it was seriously damaged. He ordered his ship to sheer off and found his second in command. With the Captain safe in his quarters, the Monitor returned to the battle, only to find the Virginia pulling away.9

The Rebel ship was low on ammunition and, because of the receding tide, could get no closer to the grounded Minnesota so as to reduce her. It was clear that the Monitor, which had been hit at least twenty-three times, was not going away. It was decided to move her back to Sewell’s Point, where she had spent the previous night, under the protection of the Rebel batteries. The Monitor continued on her course, alongside the Minnesota.

Though both sides claimed a victory (and for both, it was understandable), in reality, neither ship won the day. The Virginia was, however, neutralized and the Union fleet at Hampton Roads made relatively safe again. The blockade of Norfolk remained in place.10

In Washington, panic had turned to pandemonium until 9pm, when Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles received the news he had been waiting for. Gustavus Fox, the Assistant Naval Secretary, was at Fortress Monroe and wired Welles that evening.

The Virginia had retired. “The Monitor is uninjured and ready at any moment to repel another attack.”11

Fortress Monroe would not be besieged; the Union fleet was now safe; McClellan’s campaign would continue to move (slowly) ahead; there would be no shelling of New York or Washington. Though the battle was a draw, it listed hard towards the side of the Union.

  1. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p4-5. []
  2. Thunder at Hampton Roads by A.A. Hoehling. []
  3. Abraham Lincoln: A History, Vol. 5 by John George Nicolay and John Hay. Gideon Welles, who was also there, tells a similar account. []
  4. Diary of Gideon Welles, Vol. 1 by Gideon Welles, 1911. []
  5. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p11; 46. []
  6. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p11. []
  7. Report of Captain John L. Worden, 1868 as printed in Tyler’s Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine, Volume 3 edited by Lyon Gardiner Tyler, 1922. Worden was injured during the battle and didn’t submit a report until 1868. For some reason, this report is only mentioned in the ORN. It was widely reprinted after the war. []
  8. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p11. []
  9. Report of Captain John L. Worden, 1868. []
  10. Thunder at Hampton Roads by A.A. Hoehling. []
  11. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p6. []
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2 thoughts on “The Battle of Hampton Roads: The Monitor Meets The Merrimack

  1. Fully realizing the impossibility of including everything, I would like to add two significant details of the famous duel. First, since Franklin Buchanan had been shot in the leg the day before, Executive Officer Catesby ap Roger Jones took command of the Virginia the day of the battle. Second, about two hours into the battle, the Virginia ran aground in the shallow water of Hampton Roads. The Monitor realized this, and manuevered to a position where only the weaker guns of the Confederate vessel would bear, and proceeded to pound away. Knowing that repeated blows in the same area would eventually break through their armor, Jones called for desperate measures. The safety valves on the boilers were tied down, and turpentine was thrown into the fires to get all possible steam through the engines. The needles on the pressure gages climbed past the danger mark, but after a few moments which must have been heart-stopping, the extra speed to the propellers pulled the Virginia free.

    1. Thanks so much for adding this. I really wish I could write in more detail sometimes, but that’s why we have books and readers who leave much-appreciated comments.

      Thank you!


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