HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF NORFOLK,
Norfolk, Va., March 10, 1862
General S. COOPER,
Adjutant and Inspector General.
SIR: I telegraphed yesterday to the Secretary of War the fact of the naval engagement on the 8th and 9th instant. As the battle was fought by the Navy, Flag-Officer Forrest will no doubt report to the Navy Department the result of the engagement.
The batteries at Sewell’s Point opened fire on the steamers Minnesota and Roanoke, which attempted on the 8th to pass to Newport News to the assistance of the frigates attacked by the Virginia. The Minnesota ran aground before reaching there. The Roanoke was struck several times, and for some cause turned around and went back to Old Point.
The two sailing vessels (Cumberland and Congress) were destroyed–the first sunk and the other burned by the Virginia–and on the 9th the Minnesota, still aground, would probably have been destroyed but for the iron-clad battery of the enemy called, I think, the Monitor. The Virginia and this battery were in actual contact, without inflicting serious injury on either.
At 2 p.m. on yesterday, the 9th, all our vessels came up to the navy-yard for repairs. The Virginia, I understand, has gone into dock for repairs, which will be made at once. This action shows the power and endurance of iron-clad vessels; cannon-shot do not harm them, and they can pass batteries or destroy large ships. A vessel like the Virginia or the Monitor, with her two guns, can pass any of our batteries with impunity. The only means of stopping them is by vessels of the same kind. The Virginia, being the most powerful, can stop the Monitor; but a more powerful one would run her down or ashore. As the enemy can build such boats faster than we, they could, when so prepared, overcome any place accessible by water. How these powerful machines are to be stopped is a problem I cannot solve. At present, in the Virginia, we have the advantage; but we cannot tell how long this may last.
I remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
The ship’s story goes back to 1861. Once upon a time, she was the USS Merrimack, and, in the first year of the war, the U.S. Navy abandoned that frigate, burning her to the waterline in Norfolk Navy Yard. When the Confederates took possession of Norfolk, they discovered the wreck and rescued the ship, discovering that most of her steam mechanisms were intact and workable.
Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory ordered the USS Merrimack converted to an ironclad vessel and rechristened the CSS Virginia. The ship was relaunched, covered iron, boasting 14 guns, and with a slow speed (it would take 45 minutes to turn the ship in a circle.)
On March 8, 1862, the ironclad decided to test her strength against the blockading Union navy near Norfolk and Hampton Roads, Virginia. She managed to sink the USS Cumberland (an all-wood vessel), forced the USS Congress to surrender, and drove the USS Minnesota onto a sandbar. However, the Virginia didn’t make it through the day without damages; on-shore batteries had loosened some of the iron plating and her captain – Commodore Franklin Buchanan – was injured.
Still, it had been a successful trial, and the Virginia’s crew expected to finish off the blockading vessels on the following day.
She arrived as the flames from the now-burning USS Congress lit the scene, towed from New York to stop the Confederate iron “monster.” Constructed in New York and designed to present a small target to enemy cannon-fire, the vessel received mocking and skepticism. Steam-powered with a gun-turret sitting like a “cheesebox” on a flat surface with the hull submerged, the USS Monitor could easily seem like a foolish venture to many. It was so un-traditional, unconventional.
The Monitor actually wasn’t finished when she arrived at Hampton Roads; however, word spread quickly about the destruction of the CSS Virginia and the U.S. Navy decided to do something before the Rebel ship destroyed the blockading fleet around Norfolk and headed for Washington D.C. or New York.
On the morning of March 9, 1862 – after a difficult voyage to Hampton Roads – Lieutenant John Lorimer Worden and his crew prepared to engage the CSS Virginia. What followed would change the history of naval warfare…
About four hours. That’s all it took. The two ironclad vessels – CSS Virginia and USS Monitor – dueled at close range, maneuvering in a circular pattern. The Monitor was more agile than its opponent, but the turret began malfunctioning. Both ships managed to bump into each other five times during the conflict.
In the end, both damaged vessels eventually pulled back – each thinking the other withdrew first. The battle concluded in a draw and tactical stalemate, though the Union had the strategic victory.
In about four short hours, the history of naval warfare changed. The future was displayed. Metal-plated ships, partially submerged, dueling at Hampton Roads in 1862 smoothed the waters for the fleets of later decades…and for the submarine technology that would rock the world in coming wars.
P.S. Looking for more information on this conflict? Check out the resources on Civil War Trust – click here.
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