Battle of Hampton Roads

Battle of Hampton Roads


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The Battle of Hampton Roads, also known as the Battle of the ironclads, occurred on March 9, 1862 between the U.S.S. Monitor and the Merrimack (C.S.S. Virginia) during the American Civil War (1861-65) and was history’s first naval battle between ironclad warships.It was part of a Confederate effort to break the Union blockade of Southern ports, including Norfolk and Richmond, Virginia, that had been imposed at the start of the war. Though the battle itself was inconclusive, it began a new era in naval warfare.

U.S.S. Merrimack Rechristened the C.S.S. Virginia

The C.S.S. Virginia was originally the U.S.S. Merrimack, a 40-gun frigate launched in 1855. The Merrimack served in the Caribbean and was the flagship of the Pacific fleet in the late 1850s. In early 1860, the ship was decommissioned for extensive repairs at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia. The vessel was still there when the Civil War began in April 1861, and Union sailors sank the ship as the yard was evacuated. Six weeks later, a salvage company raised the ship and the Confederates began rebuilding it.

The Confederates covered the ship in heavy armor plating above the waterline and outfitted it with powerful guns. Rechristened the Virginia upon its launch in February 1862, it was a formidable vessel. It’s commander, Franklin Buchanan, was the only full admiral in the Confederate Navy during the Civil War.

On March 8, 1862, it cruised down the Elizabeth River and sunk the U.S.S. Cumberland before running aground the U.S.S. Congress and setting her on fire off Hampton Roads in southeastern Virginia.

Battle of Hampton Roads: March 9, 1862

The next day, the U.S.S. Monitor steamed into the Chesapeake Bay to protect the rest of the Union’s wooden fleet, including the U.S.S. Minnesota. The Monitor had set sail only three days earlier from Brooklyn under the command of Lieutenant John L. Worden. Designed by Swedish engineer John Ericsson, the vessel had an unusually low profile, rising from the water only 18 inches. The flat iron deck had a 20-foot cylindrical turret rising from the middle of the ship; the turret housed two 11-inch Dahlgren guns. The Monitor had a draft of less than 11 feet so it could operate in the shallow harbors and rivers of the South. It was commissioned on February 25, 1862, and arrived at Chesapeake Bay just in time to engage the Virginia. At dawn on March 9, Worden told the Minnesota’s captain, “I will stand by you to the last if I can help you.”

The battle between the Virginia and the Monitor began on the morning of March 9 and continued for four hours. The ships circled one another, jockeying for position as they fired their guns. However, the cannon balls simply deflected off the iron ships. In the early afternoon, the Virginia pulled back to Norfolk. Neither ship was seriously damaged, but the Monitor effectively ended the short reign of terror that the Confederate ironclad had brought to the Union fleet.

The Monitor and the Merrimack: Final Days

Both ships met ignominious ends. When the Yankees invaded the James Peninsula two months after the Battle of Hampton Roads, the retreating Confederates scuttled the Virginia. The Monitor went down in bad weather off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, at the end of the year. In 1973, the wreck of the Monitor was discovered at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Many artifacts from the vessel have since been recovered and are on display at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

Though they had short lives, the naval battle between the two ironclads ushered in a new era in naval warfare. By the end of the Civil War, the Confederacy and Union launched over 70 ironclads, signaling the end of wooden warships.

READ MORE: When Ironclads Clashed: How Hampton Roads Changed Naval Warfare Forever


Battle of Hampton Roads - HISTORY

The Battle of Hampton Roads, which took place in March, 1862 in Virginia, was a naval engagement during the American Civil War. Although it did not produce a conclusive result, the battle is considered historically important, since it was the first time that ironclad warships had met in battle. It was also highly significant in influencing other navies – principally those of Britain and France – to cease construction of wooden ships and move toward all-ironclad fleets.

Background

In the spring of 1861, shortly after the outbreak of the war, President Lincoln ordered a blockade of the ports of those states which had announced their secession from the Union. By the end of April, the blockade had been extended to the anchorage at Hampton Roads in Virginia, a roadstead just short of Chesapeake Bay. This was of great military importance, since it marked the confluence of the Nansemond and Elizabeth Rivers with the James River, and since Confederate forces controlled the southern side of the river thanks to their base at Norfolk and the Portsmouth navy yard.

The Confederacy had placed two batteries at Craney Island and Sewell’s Point, in order to defend the navy yard. Fort Monroe, however, and therefore the nearer part of Virginia Peninsula, remained in Union hands. Once the blockade began to be enforced, the Confederate forces were almost completely prevented from moving between Richmond and Norfork and the ocean. The blockade was reinforced by powerful Union ships, carefully positioned out of range of the Confederate batteries but under the protection of those of the Union. This state of affairs persisted for almost a year.

The Ironclads

Although ironclad warships had already been built by France and Britain, the United States Navy was unconvinced of the worth of armored ships. The Confederacy was therefore the first to start work on an ironclad. Because of the need to work fast, the ship was not built from scratch – which would have taken nearly a year – but instead built up from the ruined hull of the sunken USS Merrimack. The prow of the ship was fitted with an iron ram, while it was armed with ten guns. Two-inch thick armor plates were added, an increase from the original one-inch specification. Named CSS Virginia, the ship was finally commissioned in February 1862.

Meanwhile, news had reached the Union command that the Confederacy intended to build an ironclad ship. This caused considerable concern, and Congress authorized the building of the Union’s own ironclad, USS Monitor. The most notable feature of this ship was that it had just two large-caliber guns, mounted in a large, cylindrical turret which could rotate thanks to power from a steam engine. This greatly reduced the manpower needed to operate the ship’s armaments. The entire turret was coated with eight-inch thick iron plates. Even though the Confederacy had a head start, USS Monitor was commissioned only a few days after the CSS Virginia.

The Battle

The battle lasted two days, with Franklin Buchanan commanding Virginia and John L. Worden captain of Monitor – although neither man was officially in overall command. Early on March 8, Buchanan sent Virginia into Hampton Roads with the intention of mounting an immediate attack. The ship was joined en route by five more ships. Meanwhile, the Union also had five ships in the roadstead, accompanied by some support vessels. Several other ships were moored near Fort Monroe one of these was the Roanoke, which – along with two other ships – ran aground as the USS Virginia approached. Two of the three were put out of the battle the third, the frigate Minnesota, returned to action later.

After an unimportant early skirmish, Virginia attacked USS Cumberland, ramming the ship and holing her below the waterline. The ship sank quickly, with the loss of more than 120 lives. Despite this success, however, Virginia herself was fortunate not to go down too, since the ship’s ram had become lodged in the hull of the Cumberland. Virginia then advanced on USS Congress, whose captain ordered her to ground in shallow water, to prevent a repeat of the Cumberland’s fate. However, after an hour, the position of the USS Congress was hopeless, and Smith surrendered. An assault by Union shore guns enraged Buchanan, who decided to fire upon the USS Congress with red-hot cannon balls. The ship caught fire, burning fiercely until she exploded that night as the flames reached her store of gunpowder.

Virginia herself had suffered some damage by now, making the already slow ship even more sluggish, while Buchanan had been wounded when a rifle shot hit his thigh. The James River Squadron, meanwhile, was attacking the Minnesota, and Virginia now joined the assault – but her deep draft made it impossible to get close, and the attack was called off as night fell. Instead, Virginia returned to waters controlled by the Confederacy, intending to return the following morning. At this point, the Union forces had lost 400 men and two ships, with three more aground the Confederacy had suffered two deaths and retained all its ships.

Second Phase

This was the worst defeat suffered by the U.S. Navy until World War II. Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, warned that Virginia might even manage to launch shells at the White House, though he was reassured that this would not happen, since the ship was too large for the Potomac river. Nevertheless, Monitor was moved as quickly as possible to Hampton Roads in order both to protect Union ships and to stop Monitor from threatening its cities. Captain Worden was ordered to protect the Minnesota, and took up station nearby. At daybreak on March 9, Virginia arrived and attacked Monitor.

Monitor’s unusual design startled the Confederate commanders, who initially took the ship to be simply a boiler being towed down the river for repairs. Once the real nature of the ship became clear, however, a lengthy battle began, lasting many hours. Virginia opened with a shot toward Monitor this missed and hit Minnesota, prompting that ship to fire a broadside in response. Because both ironclad ships were stronger in their defense than they were offensively, and were without ammunition capable of fully piercing the opposing ship’s armor plating, neither side could make a decisive breakthrough.

After some hours, the battle was ended by a freak occurrence: a wayward shell from Virginia hit Monitor’s pilot house, exploding. The debris temporarily blinded Worden, which forced Monitor to draw back until Lieutenant Samuel Dana Greene, the executive officer, could take over command. Although Monitor then returned to the fray, Virginia’s crew was under the impression that she had fully withdrawn. Because of this, coupled with the fact that Virginia herself had suffered considerable damage, Jones decided to take her back to Norfolk. Monitor returned to the scene to find her opponent moving away, and Greene in turn misinterpreted the move as a retreat.

Aftermath

Virginia spent several weeks in dry dock undergoing repairs. Meanwhile, the Union blockade had been reinforced, with several new ironclads taking part. A standoff took place, in which the captains of the CSS Virginia and USS Monitor both declined to engage the other ship in combat. On May 9, Major General Benjamin Huger of the Confederacy took the decision to abandon Norfolk as now being of minimal strategic importance. Since Virginia was too large to move upriver, she was deliberately sunk by her own side to avoid allowing her to be captured. Monitor’s fate was different: in December, having been sent to North Carolina, she sank in a storm.

Overall, the battle was a draw. The Union had lost considerably more men and ships, but the vital blockade had remained intact. On a global scale, the battle of the ironclads drew the attention of many other navies. Russia, Britain, and France, in particular, rushed to build ironclads, many of which were heavily influenced in their designs by that of USS Monitor. Rams were also incorporated into a number of such ships, although this innovation was something of a dead-end, as by 1900 naval guns were sufficiently powerful as to make close encounters between ships nearly impossible.


10 Facts: Hampton Roads

Wikimedia Commons

It was here at Hampton Roads that the true power of ironclad warships would be discovered. And it was here that the revolutionary USS Monitor, with its armored rotating turret would first enter combat. We hope that these ten interesting facts will help expand your knowledge and appreciation of this important Civil War naval battle.

Library of Congress

Fact #1: The CSS Virginia and USS Monitor were not the first ironclad warships, but they were the first ironclads to battle against one another

The Virginia and the Monitor were not the first ironclad warships. In November 1859, the French navy had launched La Glorie, the first ironclad battleship. The Royal Navy, in response to the new French warship, had launched HMS Warrior, an iron-hulled frigate, in October of 1861.

Even in the American Civil War, the Virginia and Monitor were not the first ironclads. To support Union naval operations on the rivers in the western theater, ironclad river gunboats (City Class gunboats) had been built, launched, and deployed by January 1862. These gunboats played an important role in the battles for Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in February of 1862.

Fact #2: The Confederacy had great difficulty in sourcing the iron plating needed for the Virginia

In October of 1861 it was determined that the Virginia (the converted ex-USS Merrimack) would require two layers of two inch iron armor plate covering its entire casement. Requiring upwards of 800 tons of iron, there simply was not that much iron available. To make up for this painful shortage, the Confederacy was reduced to scavenging old scrap iron, melting down old smoothbore cannon and iron tools, and even ripping up hundreds of miles of railroad track. The delays in obtaining and shaping these iron plates gave the Union more time to construct their counters to the growing menace of the Virginia.

Fact #3: The first “trial run” of the Virginia was its combat debut against the US Navy at Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862

On the morning of March 8, 1862, the Virginia made steam and moved slowly out into the Elizabeth River for its inaugural voyage. The Virginia's engines had not been fully tested and the armored shields for its broadside gun ports had not been installed, but these "minor details" did not greatly concern the ship's new captain, Franklin Buchanan. Buchanan, who had been selected by Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory for his aggressive tendencies, was determined to make the Virginia's first voyage an attack on the nearby Union navy.

Fact #4: The March 8, 1862 battle that pitted the Virginia against wooden US Naval vessels was the worst defeat in the history of the United States Navy until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

While much attention has been focused on the near bloodless duel between the Monitor and Virginia on March 9, 1862, the action between the Virginia and the US Navy on the preceding day was a far bloodier affair. The Virginia’s attack on the USS Cumberland killed 121 out of 376 onboard and the subsequent attack on the USS Congress killed 27% of its crew – 120 out of 434. The CSS Virginia, on the other hand, suffered just two killed and a dozen wounded in its fight with the Union navy.

Over the two day battle, the Federal navy suffered 261 killed and 108 wounded in its struggle with the Virginia – more killed and wounded than any other sea battle in American history at that time. And March 8, 1862 would remain the bloodiest day in American naval history until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese navy struck the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

This comparison of the CSS Virginia and USS Monitor (in the foreground) shows the significant size differential between these two famous combatants. Where the Virginia was built on the hull of the Merrimack, the USS Monitor was built from the keel up. © James Gurney (jamesgurney.com) James Gurney

Fact #5: Despite carrying twelve large caliber guns, one of the Virginia’s most lethal weapons was a simple 1,500lb iron ram projecting from its bow

Despite the many technological innovations that were on display during the Battle of Hampton Roads, one of the most lethal weapons employed was a large, 1,500lb iron ram attached to the bow of the Virginia. This simple weapon, altogether similar to what one would have found on a Roman Trireme or Ottoman Galley, devastated the USS Cumberland. The Virginia steamed straight for the Cumberland and punched through its starboard bow with its mighty ram. Ironically, the mortal blow delivered by the Virginia’s ram almost led to its own destruction. With its ram stuck fast inside the Cumberland, the Virginia risked be carried under by the sinking Federal ship. After some effort the Virginia was able to separate and back away, but is lethal ram had broken free.

During its battle with the USS Monitor the next day, the Virginia sought to employ its ram, not knowing that this weapon now lay at the bottom of Hampton Roads.

Photograph of Captain Franklin Buchanan, USN by Matthew Brady circa 1855-1861. Naval History and Heritage Command

Fact #6: The Virginia’s commander, Franklin Buchanan, was seriously wounded by musket ball on March 8 and did not participate in the Virginia’s famous March 9 duel with the USS Monitor

Per the well-established norms formed during the Age of Sail, it was customary for a defeated ship and its captain to formally surrender to their victorious counterparts. After viewing a white flag above the stricken USS Congress, Franklin Buchanan ordered that the Congress be taken as a prize. Unfortunately for the Confederates, Union soldiers on shore nearby knew or cared little for naval tradition and fired upon the exposed officers and men. Franklin Buchanan, who had gone on deck to supervise this surrender, was struck in the upper thigh by a bullet and was hastily taken back into the interior of the Virginia. Removed to shore that evening, Buchanan turned over command of the Virginia to his executive officer, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones who would command the famous ironclad during its fight with the Monitor the next day.

Buchanan, who would recover from his wound, captained the CSS Tennessee in its battle with Rear Admiral David Farragut’s squadron in the Battle of Mobile Bay. During that battle, Buchanan would suffer a broken leg and would surrender with his ship on August 5, 1864.

Fact #7: Sensing that their shells could do little damage, even at close range, the Virginia ceased firing at the Monitor during the battle

Two hours of close-range naval gunfire finally convinced the Confederates of the futility of wasting shell and powder on the Monitor. Lieutenant John Eggleston onboard the Virginia, when asked why his gun crews had stopped firing at the Monitor, stated that “[a]fter two hours of incessant firing I find that I can do her [the Monitor] about as much damage by snapping my thumbs at her every two minutes and a half.”

The Virginia's armor penetrating capabilities were further reduced by its carrying only explosive shells, rather than solid shot. At one point in the battle, crew members aboard the Virginia resorted to attempting to fire muskets into the open gun ports of the Monitor.

Fact #8: If the Monitor had used larger gunpowder charges in its 11-inch guns, it's likely that it would have holed and sunk the Virginia

The Monitor had been hurried down to Hampton Roads shortly after its launch and little time had been set aside for testing this new, radical weapon system. Despite being designed to carry two 12-inch Dahlgren naval guns, the Monitor launched with two smaller 11-inch Dahlgrens within its armored, rotating turret. To prevent any catastrophic gun bursting within the confined turret, each of the 11-inch guns was restricted to using 15-lb gunpowder charges. Even with this lower gunpowder charge, the 165lb solid shot projectiles did much to dent and disfigure the armor plating on the Virginia. Later tests conducted after the battle showed that if the Monitor had used 25lb or 30lb gunpowder charges that its 11-inch guns would have punctured the Virginia’s hull with relative ease at close ranges.

USS Monitor battling the CSS Virginia at close range in the Battle of Hampton Roads Library of Congress

Fact #9: Ironically, as the Virginia fired more of its onboard ordnance, the ship became more vulnerable to attack

Unlike the Monitor, whose belt of armor descended well below its waterline, the Virginia’s iron plating extended barely to its waterline when fully loaded. With each broadside, the Virginia would expend 350lbs of ordnance. And after two hours of firing upon the Monitor and other nearby ships, the Virginia had lightened its load by 5 tons. Ironically, as the ship became lighter it also became more vulnerable. As the ship lightened, its unarmored sides, below the iron casemate, were visible above water and could have been more easily punctured.

Lt. John L. Worden, captain of the USS Monitor Naval Historical Center

Fact #10 Franklin Buchanan and John L. Worden both became superintendents of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland

John L. Worden, promoted to rear admiral after the war, was the commandant of the United States Naval Academy between 1869 and 1874. A drill field at the Academy is named for Worden.

Prior to the Civil War, Franklin Buchanan was the first superintendent of the Unites States Naval Academy (1845 - 1847). The stately Buchanan House, current residence of Academy superintendents, is named after this famous Confederate admiral.


This Civil War Battle Changed Naval Warfare Forever

To say that the Battle of Hampton Roads changed naval history is an understatement.

Key Point: Almost overnight, every wooden ship of the line of every naval power in the world became obsolete.

The subsequent careers of the Monitor and Merrimack were not as dramatic as their first clashes. The two ironclads never met in combat again after their infamous battle on March 9, 1862. They remained on station roughly where they were when their classic battle ended. The Monitor continued to protect the blockading squadron, and the Merrimack guarded the entrance to the James River, leading to the Confederate capital of Richmond, and Elizabeth River at Norfolk.

Neither side seemed willing to risk its most powerful ship. Merrimack made a sortie into the Roads in early April, and with her consorts captured three Federal vessels lying unguarded, then beat a hasty retreat when Monitor appeared to challenge her. She made two more appearances in the Roads, but did not remain to give battle. Monitor also would probe toward the mouth of the James on occasion, but likewise was not looking for a fight.

No Place to Call Home:

When Norfolk fell to Union forces on May 10, the Merrimack had no place to call home. It was suggested that she might ascend the James and help in the defense of Richmond, but once again, her pilots refused to try. Shoal water between the mouth of the river and the Confederate capital would prevent such a move. Her new commander, Josiah Tatnall, saw no course left open to him but to destroy his vessel lest she be captured. He ran her ashore on Craney Island, disembarked the crew, and set her afire fore and aft. She burned for nearly an hour before she blew up as the flames reached her magazines. It was said that no part of her remained of sufficient size to give anyone an idea of the details of her construction.

With Merrimack gone, Federals tried taking Monitor up the James to attack Richmond. She made it up as far as Drewery’s Bluff where a sharp turn in the river and a steep bank nearly 200 feet high brought her in range of Fort Darling, a hastily constructed battery. Monitor, and her wooden consorts Galenaand Naugatuck, could not elevate their guns enough to trade shots with the Confederates, and the wooden vessels began to take a beating from the Rebel guns. The sailors also discovered that the river ahead had been blocked by pilings, sunken vessels, and other barriers. The Federal fleet withdrew with their noses bloodied.

Changing Naval History Forever:

By now, the Peninsular campaign was under way, and the Monitor was used to protect McClellan’s right flank along the York River. She remained there until the end of the year, when she was ordered to Beaufort, S.C. On December 31, 1862, she foundered in a storm off Cape Hatteras and went down about six miles offshore. Sixteen of her crew went with her but 47 were saved by the heroic efforts of her escorts.

To say that the Battle of Hampton Roads changed naval history is an understatement. Almost overnight, every wooden ship of the line of every naval power in the world was obsolete. It settled once and for all the wood-vs.-iron debate, just as the battleship-vs.-carrier debate would be settled 80 years later when the Japanese sank powerful U.S. and British battleships in December 1941.

Today, the Monitor wreck is a protected sanctuary. It is unlikely that her hull will ever be raised as it is considered too fragile after more than 130 years under water. But her anchor has been brought to the surface, and just recently her innovative steam engines. There are plans to raise her turret.

You can read more about the efforts to preserve the Monitor and her parts at the following websites:

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network in 2018.


Battle of Hampton brought Revolution to the South

HAMPTON — In most histories exploring the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the April 19, 1775, battles at Lexington and Concord get all the attention.

But in Virginia and the South during the conflict's early stages, all eyes focused on the landmark clash that erupted six months later at the Oct. 26-27 Battle of Hampton, which will be recreated by nearly 100 re-enactors on the downtown waterfront and streets this weekend.

Most colonists blamed Virginia Gov. Lord Dunmore, who had fled from a belligerent Williamsburg to a Royal Navy ship in June, then began raiding and plundering in Hampton Roads. And driving their widening rift with the British crown was not just their growing fear of invasion but also outrage over Dunmore's threats, then actual offers of asylum to slaves who took up arms in his struggle to subdue their masters.

No case fueled this alarm more than that of runaway Hampton slave Joseph Harris, the property of prominent Elizabeth City County resident Henry King, and what happened after Harris found refuge with Dunmore aboard the HMS Fowey in July 1775.

Two months later — after Harris piloted a boat that grounded during a hurricane — Hampton residents looted and burned the craft, prompting Capt. Matthew Squires to demand the return of the king's property.

But the colonists demanded that Harris and other black crewmen be returned to their owners first, setting the stage for the first clash of the Revolution in the South.

"There wouldn't have been a Battle of Hampton without Joseph Harris," says Woody Holton, author of "Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia," which was published by the College of William and Mary's Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.

"As far as people in Hampton were concerned, it was not them but Dunmore who was the rebel. They were simply defending their way of life."

English threats

The colonists' fears reached back to late 1774, when reports from England began describing proposals to stir up a slave insurrection as a means of suppressing America's growing opposition to British rule.

According to a House of Burgesses accusation aimed at Dunmore and published in the Virginia Gazette a few months later, the royal government was contemplating "a Scheme, the most diabolical," to "offer Freedom to our Slaves, and turn them against their Masters."

So widely did the reports spread in Virginia that some slaves — hoping to win their freedom — ran off to Williamsburg and offered their services to the crown at Dunmore's doorstep.

And when evidence of four different slave conspiracies surfaced in Norfolk, Williamsburg, and Prince Edward and Chesterfield counties in late April, many white Virginians feared they were facing not scattered outbreaks but a coordinated attack, Holton says.

Even before that, Dunmore fed the colonists' anxiety by threatening what many saw as a nightmare.

But instead of suppressing anti-British sentiment, he sparked still greater alarm — and then snuffed out his former popularity on April 21 by seizing the Williamsburg gun powder stores that Virginians saw as their main defense against rebellious slaves as well as other foes.

One day later, Dunmore stoked their fears still more by threatening "to declare Freedom to the Slaves, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to Ashes" if he was met with force.

"Slave insurrection was always their greatest fear and — instead of helping them defend themselves — the governor had positioned himself on the other side," Holton said.

"That made the nightmare even worse."

In Williamsburg, town leaders reacted by doubling the nightly slave patrol.

More than 600 members of various county military companies converged on Fredericksburg and prepared to march south, driven by the specter of the British attacks in Massachusetts as well as fears of a slave rebellion.

"The monstrous absurdity that the Governor can deprive the people of the necessary means of defense at a time when the colony is actually threatened with an insurrection of their slaves … has worked up the passions of the people there to a frenzy," a South Carolina newspaper reported.

Still, several months passed with no armed confrontation, though by September 1775 — when Harris and his Royal Navy boat ran aground off Hampton — the Virginia Gazette had published numerous advertisements describing fugitive slaves who had run off to join the British.

At least nine and probably many more were serving aboard the Royal Navy squadron that appeared off the mouth of Hampton River on the morning of Oct. 26, then threatened to burn the town for looting and torching Harris' stranded vessel, Holton said.

Anchoring a large schooner and sloop at the river's entrance, the British moved toward the town wharf with a small flotilla of long boats and tenders armed with cannon, swivel guns and muskets.

Who fired first is unclear, writes Northern Virginia historian and re-enactor Mike Cecere in his 2014 book, "A Universal Appearance of War: The Revolutionary War in Virginia, 1775-1781."

But after an hour of trying to navigate through the wall of submerged vessels that had been sunken to protect the landing, the British retreated.

"Those hulks are still there," Hampton City Historian J. Michael Cobb says, "and they slowed the British down so much they became perfect targets for the men firing from the shore.

"They had hunting rifles. They were deadly accurate. And they dropped one British sailor after another."

Deadly response

Though stung by the unexpected resistance, the Royal Navy men and their fugitive slave allies regrouped and prepared to launch a second attack the following morning.

But just as the British had worked under cover of darkness and a driving rain to plot a passage through the sunken obstructions, the Hampton militia and members of the 2nd Virginia Regiment under Capt. George Nicholas had bolstered their breastworks protecting the town wharf, Cecere reports.

By 7 a.m, a column of reinforcements including an additional company of riflemen arrived after an overnight march from Williamsburg, too.

Their commander — Col. William Woodford of the 2nd — had just sat down to breakfast at the home of a local militia officer when six British tenders pushed past the last obstacle and began firing their guns, forcing people along the waterfront to abandon their houses.

Still, the combined counterfire from the Virginia musket and rifle companies defending both sides of the wharf and main street into town soon blunted the advance, not only driving the tenders back but — according to period newspaper accounts — scattering many of the British sailors who were attempting to provide supporting cannon fire from the schooner.

Just over a hour passed when the fierce engagement ended, with the Royal Navy suffering numerous dead and wounded, including several fugitive blacks, as well as at least one boat and more than a half-dozen men captured.

Less than two weeks later, Dunmore made good on his threats, signing a proclamation that rewarded the slaves who joined his forces with freedom. But by then many white Virginians were so angered by his attack on Hampton that they'd cut their ties to the crown and thrown in their lot with the rebellion.

"In those two different actions, … officers and soldiers of the regular, minute and militia acted with a spirit becoming freemen and Americans," the Virginia Gazette boasted in its Nov. 2 report on the battle.


By NHHC

Ramming of the U.S.S. Cumberland by the Merrimac (C.S.S. Virginia), Hampton Roads, March 8, 1862
Alexander Charles Stuart – 1880

By Naval History and Heritage Command

On Mar. 8, 1862, in the southern part of Virginia where the Elizabeth and Nansemond Rivers meet the James River to empty into the Chesapeake Bay, in the region known as Hampton Roads, the first battle between ironclad warships occurred. Most of us remember the famous duel, which ended in a stalemate, between the two iron-clad, steam ships, USS Monitor, and CSS Virginia, which had been a decommissioned U.S. Navy ship called Merrimack.

Often forgotten are the other ships that were there, USS Cumberland, USS Congress and USS Minnesota. Before Virginia met her match in Monitor, she wreaked havoc on those ships destroying Congress and Cumberland, then pummeling Minnesota. But according to Historian Gordon Calhoun of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, the crew of Cumberland has earned the admiration of many. Their bravery echoes through the ages because despite impossible odds they never surrendered. Cumberland never struck her colors.

A year earlier on April 19, 1861, President Lincoln ordered the blockade of all ports in the seceded states, a group Virginia joined when it left the union on April 27. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles gave the order to scuttle all federal ships and 3,000 guns that could be used by separatist states. Nine ships were burned. The USS Cumberland had just arrived at the Navy Yard from her overseas duty station off the coast of Mexico. Her company was given the impossible task of carrying out the scuttling order. After doing what they could, the steam sloop USS Pawnee and the tug USS Yankee towed the ship up the Elizabeth River to safety.

Model of CSS Virginia by Alexander Lynch, 1939

Union Sailors were only able to burn Merrimack to the waterline on April 20, 1861. Her hull and steam engine were still intact. Merrimack would end up becoming the only ship with an intact engine for the Confederacy in the Chesapeake Bay area. Even the dry dock was barely destroyed. Confederate forces easily restored it to retrofit Merrimack into the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia. Her engine and hull were refurbished with a significant addition: her prow, the forward most position of the bow above the waterline, was augmented with an iron ram. As Calhoun put it, the Confederacy had gone “back to the Roman Empire” reverting to old naval warfare by ramming opponents. She was also fitted with six, nine-inch Dahlgren guns and four six- to seven-inch Brooke rifles, which could pierce up to eight inches of armor plating. Virginia’s armor plating was two layers of 2-inch thick plates and surrounded her 14 gun ports. Within six months of Lincoln’s blockade and Welles’ order to scuttle her as the USS Merrimack, CSS Virginia was ready and commissioned Feb. 17, 1862.

CSS Virginia by Clary Ray

On March 8,1862, Virginia made her assault on the sloop of war, Cumberland, which had been in commission for twenty years. She had been the flagship of the African Squadron stalking slave ships off of the African coast. Back then, Cumberland boasted 50 guns when she was a frigate, but in 1857, she was converted into a sloop-of-war which required removing her top deck and all guns from her spar deck. When asked if this adversely affected Cumberland’s ability, Calhoun said, “Not really. It definitely extended her life.” Cumberland was able to accommodate more versatile guns — she had 22 with 12 on her broad side as opposed to Virginia’s three. He added that Cumberland’s only fault was that she was an oak-wood-hulled sailing ship that depended on the wind, and on March 8, a calm day, she went “zero knots.”

Between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m., Virginia rammed Cumberland’s starboard bow. This was nearly also Virginia’s undoing. By ramming Cumberland, she wedged and trapped herself in Cumberland’s thick oak hull. In fact, Virginia nearly sank with Cumberland, but broke free as Cumberland listed. By 3:30,Congress had surrendered. But not Cumberland. She would not surrender. Even though she had taken on water up to the main hatchway, her officers and crew continued fighting. According to her acting commanding officer, Lieutenant George Morris, “It is impossible for me to individualize alike officers and men all behaved in the most gallant manner,”and “showed the most perfect coolness….” Even the Confederate flag officer aboard Virginia was impressed and noted once Cumberland “commenced sinking, gallantly fighting her guns as long as they were above water. She went down with her colors flying.”

CSS Virginia Rams USS Cumberland

According to the account made by Capt. Marston aboard the screw frigate USS Roanoke, on March 8,1862, sometime after 1 p.m., Virginia “…was soon discovered passing out by Sewell’s Point, standing up toward Newport News,” and “…went up and immediately attacked the Congress and Cumberland, but particularly the latter ship,once she returned Virginia’s fire.”Cumberland’s nine and ten-inch Dahlgren guns, which at the time were popular and versatile, didn’t even phase Virginia.Also, the tide was against her. She could only use a few of her guns at a bad angle to attack Virginia.

Between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m., Virginia rammed Cumberland’s starboard bow. This was nearly also Virginia’s undoing. By ramming Cumberland, she wedged and trapped herself in Cumberland’s thick oak hull. In fact, Virginia nearly sank with Cumberland, but broke free as Cumberland listed. By 3:30,Congress had surrendered. But not Cumberland. She would not surrender. Even though she had taken on water up to the main hatchway, her officers and crew continued fighting. According to her acting commanding officer, Lieutenant George Morris, “It is impossible for me to individualize alike officers and men all behaved in the most gallant manner,”and “showed the most perfect coolness….” Even the Confederate flag officer aboard Virginia was impressed and noted once Cumberland “commenced sinking, gallantly fighting her guns as long as they were above water. She went down with her colors flying.”

The battle had an immense impact on the U.S. Navy. According to Calhoun, the day Cumberland and Congress were destroyed, March 8, 1862, was recognized as a “disaster for the Navy,” having lost two major ships and more than 200 sailors. It was a “pivotal” moment in naval history as it was the last time the Navy would depend on sail ships in combat. In fact, the Navy immediately recalled all sail ships and, with few exceptions, used only ships equipped steam-powered engines. Navy Yards immediately began to fit ships with steam-powered engines that “did not need the wind or the tides to depend on”.

Cumberland’s 120 officers and crew went down in the James River still fighting,refusing to surrender or strike their colors. Cumberland also damaged two of Virginia’s guns. Congress would later give accolades to Cumberland noting she did more damage to Virginia than Monitor did.

The next day CSS Virginia would attempt the same tactic — to ram and run over Monitor which arrived in the area on March 9, 1862. According to Monitor’s chief engineer, “She tried to run us down and sink us, as she did the Cumberland yesterday, but she got the worst of it. Her bow passed over our deck and our sharp upper edged side cut through the light iron shoe upon her stem and well into her oak.”

He added, “She will not try that again.”

Crewmen on deck of USS Monitor, July 1862

Cumberland’s wreck is currently a Federally-protected site and is monitored during occasional visits by joint expeditions sponsored by NOAA’s Monitor Marine Sanctuary office, the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Underwater Archeology branch, and the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. Artifacts from Cumberland can be seen at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk, Va., one of NHHC’s nine official museums. More information on the history of Cumberland, artifacts from the ship, and the men who served on the vessel can be found at:

USS Monitor Versus CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) and the Battle for Hampton Roads, 8-9 March 1862:
Selected Original Documents can be found at:

For more information on the Battle at Hampton Roads, visit the following links:


4 Answers 4

The Merrimack was renamed the Virginia only after many months of work on the ship. Having called the ship the Merrimack for so long even after it was in Confederate hands, the shipyard workers and crew continued using that name even after the ship's name was officially changed, something I learned at the Monitor Center at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News last year. The Wikipedia page on the Virginia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CSS_Virginia) says, "After raising, restoration, and outfitting as an ironclad warship [my note: that is, after about 10 months], the Confederacy bestowed on her the name Virginia … the names Virginia and Merrimack were used interchangeably by both sides." My opinion as a writer and editor is that the alliteration of the two names Monitor and Merrimack both starting with an M probably also contributed to people referring to the battle that way.

There is a bit of a theme with American Civil War battles where they tend to have two names a northern name and a southern one. You will notice that the North liked to name battles after nearby bodies of water, while the South tended to be partial to nearby place names. For example, the Bull Run battles were known in the South as Manassas, and Antietam (named after a nearby creek) was called Sharpsburg in the South.

One other thing you may note from the above discourse is that when there are different names, it is generally the North's name that won out. Probably the simplest explanation for that without going into a lot of gory details is that the North won the war, so they got to write the history books.

That is why I believe the name "Merrimack" tends to be used (note that Wikipedia currently has "Virginia" in parentheses afterwards). From the North's point of view, the Merrimack was a US Navy ship, effectively stolen and modified by rebels.

Merrimack was still in ordinary during the crisis preceding Lincoln's inauguration. Soon after becoming Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles took action to prepare the frigate for sea, planning to move her to Philadelphia. The day before the firing on Fort Sumter, Welles directed that "great vigilance be exercised in guarding and protecting" Norfolk Navy Yard and her ships. On the afternoon of 17 April, the day Virginia seceded, Engineer in Chief B. F. Isherwood managed to get the frigate's engines lit off but the previous night secessionists had sunk light boats in the channel between Cranes Island and Sewell's Point, blocking Merrimack. On the 20 April, before evacuating the Navy Yard, the U.S. Navy burned Merrimack to the waterline and sank her to preclude capture.

So as far as northerners were concerned, the ship was the Merrimack.

As to why it isn't known by a location name ("Battle of Hampton Roads"), that's likely just popular culture for you. The duel between those two specific ships is far more interesting to people than the location it happened to eventually occur at.

It probably doesn't hurt that from the North's perspective the duel ended in a technical win for them (the Confederate ship was the one that retired from the scene). If you look at the entire action, including all ships involved, the Confederates did considerably better.


Battle of Hampton Roads, 8-9 March 1862

The Battle of Hampton Roads is the most famous naval encounter of the American Civil War, and one of the most significant battles in the history of naval warfare. This despite the most important fighting only involving one ship on each side!

What makes this small scale battle so important is that it saw the first fight between two ironclad warships. Neither U.S.S. Monitor nor the C.S.S. Virginia can claim to have been the first ironclad warship, although both ships were significantly different from earlier designs. The first ironclad warships of modern times were produced by the French. These ships were ironclad gun batteries, based on barges, and needed to be towed into place by other ships. They were first used during the Crimean War, where they demonstrated the value of their iron armour during the bombardment of Kinburn. Their success convinced both the British and the French to start working on ocean-going ironclad warships. The French won this naval race, launching the Gloire in 1859. The British followed in 1860 with H.M.S. Warrior, a much bigger ship that even made the Gloire obsolete! However, both of these ships were otherwise typical ships of their time, powered by both steam and wind power, and with their guns arranged to deliver broadsides.

Compared to these ships, both the Virginia and the Monitor were revolutionary designs. At the outbreak of the civil war it was obvious that the south was never going to be able to match the north in conventional warships, and so the Confederates concentrated their ship building efforts on producing an ironclad &lsquosecret weapon&rsquo capable of sweeping the U.S. Navy&rsquos wooden ships from the seas.

The Confederate effort had been greatly aided by the North&rsquos unnecessarily rapid evacuation of the Norfolk naval base. There the Confederates found the U.S.S. Merrimac, a steam powered frigate that had been sunk but not destroyed by the retreating Federals. The C.S.S. Virginia would be built around the hull of the Merrimac and using her engines. The Merrimac was raised from the bottom, her top decks removed, and a new armoured structure built on top to house her guns, arranged in broadside. She relied entirely on her steam engines for power.

The U.S.S. Monitor was even more revolutionary. She too was an entirely steam driven ship, but there the similarities to early warships end. She was one of three designs of ironclad build in the north in response to news coming out of the south about the Virginia. She was much smaller than the Virginia(172 feet long compared to 264 feet for the Virginia, and only a quarter of the weight). She was designed to sail with her deck only a couple of feet above the water. All of her firepower would come from two eleven-inch guns contained in a rotating turret.

Despite a much later start, the Monitor was launched on 30 January 1862, two weeks before the Virginia. On 6 March the U.S.S. Monitor left New York to begin her trip to the James River, where a small Union fleet at Hampton Roads was guarding the river and nervously waiting for the Virginiato emerge from Norfolk.

That fleet contained five ships, but of them three (the St. Lawrence, Congress and Cumberland) were obsolete sailing ships. Of the two modern steam frigates, the Roanoke had a broken propeller shaft, effectively leaving her immobilised. That left the U.S.S. Minnesota as the only functioning Union steamship at Hampton Roads.

On 8 March the C.S.S. Virginia finally emerged from Norfolk, and launched an attack that made wooden warships obsolete in a single stroke. First she rammed the 24 gun Cumberland, sinking the Federal ship, but at the cost of the Virginia&rsquos ram, which broke off. Next she turned on the 50 gun Congress. After a fierce bombardment the Congress exploded. However, the Virginiawas now revealed to have some serious flaws. The most significant on 8 March was that she had a very deep draught, which meant that she could not enter the same shallow water as the remaining Union ships. Her next target, the Minnesota actually ran aground on her way towards the fighting. With darkness approaching, the captain of the Virginia decided to leave her until the next morning, and retired into Norfolk.

News of the first days fighting at Hampton Roads soon reached Washington, where it caused a panic in Lincoln&rsquos cabinet. Secretary of War Stanton was convinced that the Virginia would soon appear in front of Washington, and begin bombarding the city. Secretary of the Navy Welles was able to calm the atmosphere somewhat by announcing the arrival of the Monitor at Hampton Roads, but she was an entirely untested ship. Only the events of the next day would tell if she was a success or a failure.

On 9 March the C.S.S. Virginia sailed back out to Hampton Roads, unaware that the U.S.S. Monitor had arrived. The stage was set for the first fight between ironclad warships. Over the next two hours the two ironclads pounded away at each other, and soon discovered that they could hardly hurt each other. The Monitor was much more manoeuvrable, making it hard for the Virginia to hit her, but her turret was very hard to aim, reducing the quality of her gunnery. Few of their shots hit the same part of the Virginia reducing their impact. None hit near the waterline, where the Virginia was quite vulnerable. After the battle ninety seven dents were found in the Virginia&rsquos armour, twenty of them from the Monitor&rsquos guns. Six of these shots had broken her outer armour, but none the inner. The Monitor also suffered little serious damage. The Virginia&rsquos guns only chance of doing damage to her turret would have been a shot through the turret&rsquos portholes. One shot did do some damage to her pilot-house, temporarily taking her out of the fight. At one point the Virginiaran aground, but was able to get loose before the Monitor could take advantage.

Eventually, after two hours of constant action the two ships drew apart. The Virginia&rsquos engines were beginning to fail, and it was becoming increasingly clear that neither ship would be able to do much damage to the other. After the battle some on the Confederate side suggested that if their ram had been intact, then they would have been able to sink the Monitor, but the Union ship&rsquos vastly superior manoeuvrability makes that seem somewhat unlikely. The first battle between ironclads was a tactical draw.

Strategically it was a Union victory. The Monitor had proved that she could fight off the Virginia, immediately reducing the threat she posed. Union operations in the James River could continue, as could the planned expedition to the Peninsula. In some respects the battle had a greater impact in Britain. The Times considered the battle to have reduced the size of the Royal Navy from 149 first class warships to just her two ironclads. This was something of an exaggeration. The Monitor was almost totally un-seaworthy. She could cope in a river estuary, but had nearly sunk on her first sea journey, and would soon be lost at sea in heavy weather. The Virginia was so slow and un-manoeuvrable that she could only pose a serious threat in the confined spaces of an estuary. Nevertheless, the lesson of Hampton Roads was clear &ndash the wooden warship was now virtually obsolete.


Battle of Hampton Roads

The next day, when the Virginia headed out to finish its work, she found that she was facing the U.S.S. Monitor, a Union ironclad which had been built to answer the threat posed by the Virginia and which had just arrived at Hampton Roads. For four hours the two ships fought a fierce battle, but neither's ordnance could penetrate the other's iron protection. In the confusion, and after an exhausting and violent battle lasting hours, the ships disengaged, each believing it had won the day. The battle was essentially a draw, though as the Union was able to maintain its blockade, they had the better claim to "victory." The biggest result, however, was that this battle signaled a fundamental change in naval warfare. The days of the wooden navel ship was numbered and from thence both navies began to put their resources into armored ships.


J. Hamilton. "The Engagement between the 'Monitor' and 'Merrimac.'" From Samuel M. Schmucker's The History of the Civil War in the United States. . Revised and completed by Dr. L. P. Brockett. Philadelphia: Jones Bros. & Co. and Chicago: Zeigler, McCurdy & Co, 1865, 4 x 6 1/4. Engraving.

In 1863, even before the Civil War ended, historian Samuel Mosheim Schmucker (1823-1863) produced A History of the Civil War: with a preliminary views of its causes, and biographical sketches of its heroes . It contained a series of terrific engravings of scenes from the Civil War mezzotinted by John Sartain and his son Samuel. This unusual image of the battle between the Monitor and Virginia is a good example of their work. NA


"First Naval combat between Iron Vessels." From The Great Rebellion. Connecticut: Hurlburt, Williams, & Co., 1862. 4 1/2 x 7. Engraving. NA


Alonzo Chappel. "Naval Conflict in Hampton Roads--Action Between Monitor and Merrimac." From Battles of the United States by Sea and Land. New York: Johnson, Fry & Co., ca. 1865. 5 x 8. Steel engraving. $85


W. Momberger. "Naval Combat between the Monitor & Merrimac. Hampton Roads, March 9th 1862." From John S.C. Abbott's The History of the Civil War in America. New York: Henry Bill, 1866. 4 1/2 x 7 1/2. Engraving. NA

Prints from Harper's Weekly


The terrific combat between the two iron-clad ships caused a sensation in both North and South, so it is not surprising that within two weeks Harper's Weekly had an issue with a story about the battle and a number of images. Even before the battle, news of the threat posed by the 'Merrimac' had reach the North, so an image of the ship was included as early as February 15th.

    "The Iron-Clad Frigate 'Merrimac,' Sloop of War 'Germantown," Off Craney Island." From Harper's Weekly. New York, February 15, 1862. 4 3/4 x 9. Wood engraving. $25


Hampton Roads, Battle of

Hampton Roads, Battle of (1862).Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory believed ironclads could break the Civil War blockade by the Union navy. On 11 July 1861, he ordered the conversion of the captured USS Merrimack into the ironclad CSS Virginia. His Federal counterpart, Gideon Welles, on 4 October 1861 directed John Ericsson to build the ironclad USS Monitor. Although the Europeans had started to build iron ships, the battle between these two vessels on 9 March 1862 in Hampton Roads, Virginia, near Norfolk, was the world's first combat between armored warships.

The two vessels incorporated the latest naval advances: steam‐powered, screw‐propelled, and ironclad‐hull. The Virginia (Merrimack) carried ten major guns (four in each broadside, one bow and one stern gun) and an iron ram. The low‐silhouetted Monitor resembled a 𠇌heesebox on a raft” with its rotating centerline gun‐turret, housing two 11‐inch guns.

On 8 March 1862, the Virginia sortied against the Union navy's blockade. It sank the USS Cumberland with its ram, burned the Congress with incendiary shells, but it disengaged when it could not approach the grounded Minnesota. The next day, Lt. Catesby ap Rogers Jones succeeded the wounded captain in command of the Virginia and found the waiting Monitor, which had just arrived with Lt. John L. Worden in command.

For four hours the two ironclads pounded each other at close range (at times only 15 yards apart). The larger Virginia tried without success to ram the Monitor and to board. Neither ship could sink the other, nor pierce the armor plate, but the Virginia, taking on water from hull damage, withdrew. Although the engagement between the two ships was inconclusive, the withdrawal of the Virginia for substantial repairs left the blockade in place and was proclaimed a victory by the Union. The �ttles of the ironclads” presaged an eventual revolution in naval warfare. When the Confederates abandoned Norfolk in May, they destroyed the Virginia the Monitor foundered off the Carolina capes later in 1862.
[See also Civil War: Military and Diplomatic Course Confederate Navy Union Navy U.S. Navy: 1783�.]

James P. Baxter III , The Introduction of the Ironclad Warship , 1933
Robert W. Daly , How the Merrimac Won , 1957
William C. Davis , Duel Between the First Ironclads , 1975.


Watch the video: Battle of the Hampton Roads - The Fury of Iron and Steam