Monitor vs. Merrimac

Many great military conflicts come to mind when the Civil War is mentioned, like the Battle of Gettysburg, or perhaps Sherman’s March to the Sea.  Much recognition is given to how influential many land battles were, and how conflicts like the Battle of Gettysburg turned tides in this war.  However, one particular battle of the seas was not only influential but arguably one of the most important battles of the American Civil War.  Pushed by necessity, this battle was the product of the development of the most advanced naval technology in the world, a feat accomplished in little over a hundred days. 

At the start of the Civil War, the agricultural Confederates recognized that they were outmanned, outgunned, and out-supplied by the more industrialized Union States.  However, they had a plan.  The Confederates overestimated their own power as the largest cotton-producing area in the world.  Using this title, they decided to rely on assistance from European countries, like France and Britain.  This appeared to be an excellent plan, because not only did the Europeans rely on Confederate cotton to stimulate their textile industries, but they also had much incentive to help the South defeat the Union.  Ever since the United States gained independence from Britain, European nations had been plotting different ways to split up the new nation in order to weaken it.  Now that the US had split itself in two, all the Europeans had to do was to endorse the more appealing side and if that side won, the nation’s growth would be stumped and split, once more placing the Europeans at the top of the world.  However, there were also flaws in this plan.  First of all, the Confederates were not the only people to provide cotton.  In fact, Europeans could just as easily import good quality cotton from the nearby regions of northern Africa and the Middle East.  Secondly, there was always the possibility that the Europeans would support the wrong side.  If they did, and their investments were wasted, not only would their own economy be weakened, but they would probably be publicly shamed for making the rash decision of entering the conflict, and not even succeeding in picking the winning side.  In addition to these European uncertainties, the Confederacy itself was suffering from recent developments.  As the Civil War began, Union President Abraham Lincoln had demanded that the southern states be surrounded at the sea by a naval blockade (DeKay, 62).  This blockade would prevent the Confederates from shipping anything from their ports, therefore making the possibility of garnering European support by trade nearly impossible.  However, the South would not be so easily deterred.

Upon hearing of the new developments of this Union Blockade, Confederate Secretary of Navy, Stephen R. Mallory, quickly decided, in May of 1861, that the south must develop a strong navy of ironclad fleets.  At this time, the Union Navy consisted only of fleets of old wooden frigates, men-of-war, and steamers (DeKay, 47).  Although the Union fleet was much larger than the Confederacy’s group of small riverboats, Mallory decided that he would compensate for the smaller navy by building a small and strong fleet of ironclad ships, which would be used to break the Union blockade, allowing the south to open trade with the Europeans.

After the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 13, 1861, and captured the fort, many southern states proceeded to secede from the Union.  When the state of Virginia voted to secede on April 17, 1861, Union officials decided that it was unsafe to let the Confederates take the valuable Gosport Navy Yard, located in Portsmouth, Virginia.  This naval yard housed many ships, including the world-class steamer, USS Merrimac, in addition to several men of war.  Not only did this naval yard contained important ships, but it also stored a large number of naval guns, including many Dahlgren guns, the most accurate and powerful navy cannons developed in the nation.  As a result of the imminent danger of this powerful stash landing into Confederate hands, the Gosport Navy Yard was to be destroyed (DeKay, 37).  Although the destruction of the port was never fully accomplished, due to causes unknown to even modern historians, the guns were thrown into the water, and the ships scuttled and burned, albeit only half successfully (DeKay, 47).  It was only a few days afterward when the Virginia militia arrived at the naval yard, and began attempts to retrieve guns and move the ships.  By June 23, 1861, the half scuttled hull of the USS Merrimac was raised and by July 11, Mallory had decided that the Merrimac would be converted into an “ironclad” (DeKay, 56).  This was only partially true.  The Merrimac would be fitted with a slanting roof made of two feet thick walls of wood.  The roof would be covered with four inches of iron (White, 3).  However, the Confederates were delayed due to the fact that they had almost no resources, especially in regards to the iron required for the ship (Still, 178).  With only one functional rolling mill in the south, Tredegar Works, located in Richmond, Virginia, the southern engineers had a terrible time attempting to get the iron they needed.  Not only did they fail to procure a good supply of iron to roll into sheets, but they also suffered with attempts to transport the iron after it was rolled.  The Confederates had to resort to scavenging metal from wherever they could.  They tore up railroads and dug up trolley lines, and even used a load of the scrap metal scavenged from the partly burnt Gosport Yard (DeKay, 105-107).  Through much effort, the south was able to begin the slow construction of its first half-“ironclad”.

Meanwhile, the Union states had learned of the southern interest in ironclads through spies.  As a countermeasure, the Union Secretary of State, Gideon Welles, decided that the construction of an ironclad would be mandatory.  He had an associate of his, the rich and charismatic politician Cornelius Bushnell, push a bill through Congress asking for funds to build an ironclad.  Through further use of spies and even air-balloons in 1861, the Union gathered further intelligence that the Confederates were underway, albeit slowly, in the restoring of the USS Merrimac (DeKay, 80-86).  As a result, the Congress, although still recovering and reorganizing from the sudden secession of so many southern states, was incredibly eager to pass the bill, granting funds of $1.5 million to the building of ironclads (Dekay, 69-70).  Next, Bushnell set upon the task of finding a decent design of this ironclad.  An advertisement was set forth to encourage various designs with a prize to the best one, but the winning ship didn’t come from a prize-seeking amateur; it was the brainchild of Austrian-born engineer John Ericsson.  Having had his ideas shunned by the British in earlier years, Ericsson moved to New York and landed himself a job as an engineer.  Upon visiting Ericsson’s apartment, Bushnell stumbled unexpectedly upon the brilliant designer of the Union’s first ironclad, the Monitor, a truly revolutionary design, more bizarre than the restructured Merrimac.  Ericsson’s incredible design differed from that of the southern vessel not only because it was made entirely out of iron, whereas the Merrimac was to only be sheathed with iron, but it also incorporated many revolutionary naval improvements, including a screw propeller, and revolving turret of Ericsson’s own design.  Having witnessed Ericsson’s genius, Bushnell excitedly reported his findings to Welles, who quickly arrived at President Lincoln’s door, asking for permission to begin construction.  By August 3, 1861, Lincoln had provided his approval, and construction of the Monitor soon began (Dekay, 69-75).

The Monitor’s process of construction was not nearly filled with as much trouble as that of the Merrimac.  However, there was one great stipulation put against Ericsson, who was distrusted by the US Navy.  He had to finish the ironclad within a hundred days of the fourth of October.  If this was not accomplished, Ericsson was to pay the navy of all funds supplied to him and to surrender his project as a failure (DeKay, 86-103).  However, the navy would end up giving Ericsson an extension on this time limit.  Nevertheless, this put enormous pressure on Ericsson and the other engineers of the Monitor, who were not only building a vessel unheard of before this Civil War, but they weren’t even sure their work would be worth it.  Nonetheless, building commenced, with Ericsson serving as the head engineer.  The turret of the ship would be made of nine inches thick iron, and the hull, of iron four inches thick (Worden, 18-30).  While this feat would have been flat out impossible had the south tried it, this was entire not the case in the northern construction.  With the imperious Ericsson’s impatient nagging and demands, the Monitor was launched in January of 1862; a mere 119 days after construction began.  Then began the laborious process of fitting on Ericsson’s all-powerful turret, and the two great Dahlgren guns, which would be installed in the turret (DeKay, 110). 

Anxiety was growing on both sides, particularly in the North, about the respective enemy’s ironclad.  While the north attempted, unsuccessfully, to hide the construction of its ship from the south, the south made none of the same effort, preferring to make it known to all that they were building an ironclad.  By the start of March 1862, both the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia were complete, and the race for Hampton Roads began.  The CSS Virginia had only to travel downriver and into the harbor, where a number of Union blockade ships were residing.  Meanwhile, the Union ironclad had to traverse down the eastern coast, a treacherous journey for a ship that had had so little testing and proof of success (Worden, 15-36).

When the USS Monitor finally arrived in Hampton Roads in the evening of March 8, 1862, the crew was met by carnage and death.  Earlier that day, the CSS Virginia had entered the harbor, where a number of ships were located, including two frigates, the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress, and several smaller steamers, including the USS Minnesota.  The harbor was also guarded by the Union Fort Monroe (DeKay,150- 180).  As the day wore on, the Virginia wreaked havoc aboard these ships, ramming and sinking the USS Cumberland, and bombarding and burning the USS Congress, before retiring to Sewell’s Point for the night.  All the while, resistance by these Union ships brought no success.  However, this story was to change now that the Monitor had arrived.

On the morning of March 9, 1862, the CSS Virginia crawled out of Sewell’s point, setting upon a deadly mission.  This morning, the famous southern ironclad was to destroy the steamer USS Minnesota, ridding Hampton Roads of any significant Union presence.  However, the Captain of the ship, Commodore Franklin Buchanan, was met by a strange site.  Steaming towards the Virginia was what appeared to be a “cheese-box on a raft”.  Although given this somewhat degrading name, Buchanan recognized the unusual vessel as the USS Monitor, the “secret” Union ironclad.  What he didn’t expect was a duel to the draw.  The two ironclads circled each other, the phony convert and the small brainchild.  All at once, the vessels began firing upon each other, obscuring the scene in smoke.  After dueling for four hours, both ships were battered and bruised, having been struck scores of times by each other’s iron shot.  The battle ended when the captain of the Monitor, John Worden, was wounded by a ball exploding into the pilothouse.  Although the Monitor retreated to the nearby Fort Monroe, and the Merrimac rejoiced the victory as it retired once more to Sewell’s Point, the victory that day was for the Union (White, 1-8). 

The Battle of Hampton Roads was the choicest moment for the Confederacy to prove to the Europeans that they could win the war against all odds.  In fact, only days before battle, French men-of-war arrived at Hampton Roads and toured the Merrimac.  They stayed and watched the battle from afar, admiring the ironclad of each side.  Although they witnessed the retreat of the Monitor after the fight, they concluded that there was no clear winner, although the two fighting parties each claimed themselves to be the victorious (White, 28-30).  This may seem to but a small conflict, but in the layout of the entire war, this battle was one of the most influential.  Most importantly, this battle proved that the Union’s blockading strategy would work, especially now that they could back it up with powerful new ironclads.  Branching from this was the fact that the French had witnessed the battle.  Upon returning to Europe, news of this battle quickly spread, especially the fact that there was no clear winner.  It was obvious to both the French and the British that supporting either side would be a mistake.  After all, if they couldn’t defeat each other in such a small and insignificant skirmish, what could they do to defeat each other on the battlefield?  This battle, then, eliminated all possibility of European intervention in the war, which was especially damaging to the Confederacy, which was relying on European assistance.  Lastly, but no less importantly, this battle proved the ironclad to be an able fighting vessel, which led to widespread ironclad use by the Union navy to both back up the Union blockade as well as the takeover of various rivers and cities, most notably during the Mississippi River Campaign in 1862, and the conquering of New Orleans in 1864 (Still, 178-212).  These uses of river-ironclads in tandem with land forces led to the division of the western and southern Confederacy, dividing the war into more fronts, spreading out and weakening the South, playing and ultimate role in the Union victory.

In conclusion, although many important Civil War conflicts took place on land, between armies of most massive numbers, the Battle of Hampton Roads, though only a small battle of the seas, probably played one of the greatest roles in the war by discouraging European intervention, dividing and weakening the south, and ensuring Union victory.

This may change your view about and make you more aware of the Civil War. Although the Civil War is most known for its significantly larger battles, those with more bloodshed. However, the Battle of Hampton Roads was a battle with a casualty count of only 1 man. It was not a large battle, but it was significant in many ways, not only ensuring Union victory during the war, but also proving the success of the ironclad ship.

The topic of the advent of ironclad ship-making was the topic of my History Fair topic this year, and I would like thank Cody Library for providing much needed books to be able to place second at my school and allowing my team and I to move on to Area, and hopefully to State. I have decided to contribute just a bit of my research on a portion of the topic, specific to the Battle of Hampton Roads and its significance in the Civil War. As said earlier, this may change your awareness of the many significant happenings, and hopefully, it will encourage you to do a little bit of your own research and allow you to be more knowledgeable of history that pertains not only to America, but really, to the entire world.

2 Responses to “Monitor vs. Merrimac”

  1. Great blog next time please tell who found the css virginia.

  2. I love reading about the battle of hampton roads but this is my favorite thing to read about the battle.

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