Battle of Hampton Roads, 8-9 March 1862

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 ‘secret weapon’ capable of sweeping the U.S. Navy’s wooden ships from the seas.

The Confederate effort had been greatly aided by the North’s 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’s 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’s 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’s armour, twenty of them from the Monitor’s guns. Six of these shots had broken her outer armour, but none the inner. The Monitor also suffered little serious damage. The Virginia’s guns only chance of doing damage to her turret would have been a shot through the turret’s 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’s 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’s 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 – the wooden warship was now virtually obsolete.

World Military History Blog

When the American Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, southern state militias took over federal armories and forts on their territory.
A week into the war, Virginia militia closed in on the Navy Yard at Gosport (today’s Portsmouth) on the southside of the Hampton Roads waterway. Union forces at the Navy Yard hastily destroyed their depots and set fire to the ships in drydock. They evacuated the Yard on April 20.

Building the CSS Virginia

Confederate forces entered the next day. Among the wreckage they found the frigate USS Merrimack. It was damaged, but not beyond repair.
They reconfigured the wooden frigate into an ironclad warship. The top decks were removed and replaced with an iron-covered casemate structure with ten guns. the freeboard was also covered with iron plates. An iron ram was installed at the prow.
The ship was commissioned as the CSS Virginia in February 1862. Captain Franklin Buchanan was appointed her commander.

The USS Monitor

Meanwhile the Union built its own ironclad vessel in New York. The USS Monitor was a unique design with a very low freeboard and a revolving iron turret mounting two 11-inch guns. The ship, built specifically as a response to the Confederate ironclad project, was launched on January 30, 1862.
On March 6 the Monitor departed New York in tow. Her destination: The confluence of the James River and Elizabeth River into Chesapeake Bay, known collectively as Hampton Roads, Virginia. Confederate held Norfolk sat on the southern side of Hampton Roads. The Union held cities of Hampton and Newport News were on the northern side.

The Battle of Hampton Roads

On March 9, 1862, the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) fought in the first battle between two ironclad warships.

On April 17, 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union. Three days later, the United States Navy evacuated the navy yard near Norfolk, Virginia. The Union left so quickly, they abandoned equipment and did not destroy the structures as well as they intended to. The Confederate Navy immediately moved in and found gunpowder, construction materials, a dry dock, and over 1,000 heavy guns. The Federal troops had scuttled and sunk ships, including the USS Merrimack. The hull and engines were salvaged and rebuilt as the Confederacy’s first ironclad. On February 17, 1862, the newly commissioned ship was renamed the CSS Virginia, though it is commonly referred to as the Merrimack.

U.S. #628 – John Ericsson designed part of the USS Monitor, including the revolving gun turret.

The Northern Navy was building an iron-plated steamship of its own. Swedish inventor John Ericsson designed a ship that would ride very low in the water. It was described as “a cheese box on a raft.” Unlike ships of its time, guns were not stationed along the sides, but two guns were housed in a round, rotating turret. This made it possible to fire at opposing ships from any direction, rather than only from the side. The USS Monitor was completed on January 30, 1862.

On the morning of March 8, 1862, the Merrimack steamed up the Elizabeth River to break the Union blockade of Hampton Roads. As it entered the “Roads,” or estuary, its first target was the Union sailing ship Cumberland. The wooden craft was no match for the ironclad. The Cumberland’s shells bounced off the iron plating. The Merrimack steamed right into the side of the Cumberland with its ram and the wooden boat sunk almost immediately.

The next ship under attack was the Union’s Congress. When the commander realized he was practically defenseless, he surrendered to the captain of the Merrimack. The USS Minnesota ran aground in water too shallow for the ironclad to reach, and darkness fell before much damage was done to the Union ship. The Merrimack returned to the naval yard for minor repairs. The commander planned to return in the morning to finish off the remainder of the Union fleet.

In the North, the Monitor was on its way to the Virginia coast. It arrived in the Chesapeake Bay on the evening of March 8 and traveled up the bay to Hampton Roads. Lieutenant John Worden was given orders to protect the grounded Minnesota.

Item #81563 – Commemorative cover marking the 123rd anniversary of the battle.

When the Merrimack arrived the next morning to destroy the Union ships, it was met by the odd-looking Union ironclad. After hours of fighting, neither ship gained a clear victory. The shells that were so effective against wooden ships could not penetrate the thick metal armor. The Monitor withdrew temporarily when a shell fragment struck the pilothouse. The crew of the Merrimack thought the enemy was retreating, so they headed back to their harbor for much-needed repairs. When the Monitor returned, the opposing ship was gone, so the Union sailors assumed they had won the battle.

In the months following the battle, the Union blockade was strengthened by additional ironclads, and the North held on to Hampton Roads. This gave them continued access to the James River and the Confederate capital. Later in the year, the Confederates destroyed the Merrimack themselves when they realized the North had blocked their escape route.

Ironclads were used extensively in Civil War battles on the Mississippi and James Rivers, but the low profile of the Monitor proved a disadvantage on the open waters. While being towed to Beaufort, North Carolina, to help with the blockade there, it took on water and sank.

Both sides claimed victory in the “Battle of the Ironclads.” The governments praised the captains and crews for their bravery. News of the effectiveness of the iron-armored steamships traveled quickly to Europe. Production began immediately in England and France, and ironclads made wooden warships obsolete. The ships that took part in the Battle of Hampton Roads changed the face of naval warfare throughout the world.

The USS Monitor

Lt. John Worden commandeered the USS Monitor to deflect any offensive the Merrimack, now renamed CSS Virginia, directed toward them. Since the CSS Virginia already totally disabled the USS Cumberland, prospects of winning did not look good for the Union. However, the battle fields evened out by the lack of solid shot on the CSS Virginia and the addition of a cylindrical turret on the USS Monitor.

Without the advent of underestimating the forces of the foe on both sides, the outcome of the battle may have been decisive rather than inconclusive.

Unlike Anything That Ever Floated: The Monitor and Virginia and the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862

&ldquoIronclad against ironclad, we maneuvered about the bay here and went at each other with mutual fierceness,&rdquo reported Chief Engineer Alban Stimers following that momentous engagement between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (ex USS Merrimack) in Hampton Roads, Sunday, March 9, 1862.

The day before, the Rebel ram had obliterated two powerful Union warships and was poised to destroy more. That night, the revolutionary&mdashnot to say bizarre&mdashMonitor slipped into harbor after hurrying down from New York through fierce gales that almost sank her. These metal monstrosities dueled in the morning, pounding away for hours with little damage to either. Who won is still debated.

One Vermont reporter could hardly find words for Monitor: &ldquoIt is in fact unlike anything that ever floated on Neptune&rsquos bosom.&rdquo The little vessel became an icon of American industrial ingenuity and strength. She redefined the relationship between men and machines in war. But beforehand, many feared she would not float. Captain John L. Worden: &ldquoHere was an unknown, untried vessel&hellipan iron coffin-like ship of which the gloomiest predictions were made.&rdquo

The CSS Virginia was a paradigm of Confederate strategy and execution&mdashthe brainchild of innovative, dedicated, and courageous men, but the victim of hurried design, untested technology, poor planning and coordination, and a dearth of critical resources. Nevertheless, she obsolesced the entire U.S Navy, threatened the strategically vital blockade, and disrupted General McClellan&rsquos plans to take Richmond.

From flaming, bloody decks of sinking ships, to the dim confines of the first rotating armored turret, to the smoky depths of a Rebel gundeck&mdashwith shells screaming, clanging, booming, and splashing all around&mdashto the office of a worried president with his cabinet peering down the Potomac for a Rebel monster, this dramatic story unfolds through the accounts of men who lived it in Unlike Anything That Ever Floated: The Monitor and Virginia and the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862 by Dwight Sturtevant Hughes.

"This resides in the top rank of ECW series volumes." - Civil War Books and Authors


From Savas Beatie for the award winning Emerging Civil War series.

Hughes’s blow-by-blow account…can be considered among the finest short-form narrative treatments of those events. (Civil War Books and Authors)

5-Star Reviews:

  • Puts the first Ironclad confrontation under a microscope.
  • Brings this oft-told story alive with the skill of an experienced spinner of sea-yarns.
  • Copious first-hand accounts supported by 153 carefully selected images.
  • The whole gives substance and flair to an exciting tale of American ingenuity.
  • Captured in written word a documentary that compares most favorably to the video works of Ken Burns.
  • Brings the reader into the thick of the action.
  • An amazing amount of information.
  • Much more thorough than I expected from a popular history.
  • Not just a narrative of a battle but an extensive look at this era.
  • Deserves a place on the bookshelf of any student of naval, Civil War, or American history.

Sources and Citations Note: The Emerging Civil War public history series does not publish footnotes or bibliographies. Sources and citations for this book are available for reference here: Unlike Sources & Citations (.docx) or Unlike Sources & Citations (.pdf).

“Riverine Warfare”
Online Essential Civil War Curriculum of The Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech.

“History offers few examples other than the American Civil War and the conflict in Vietnam, of extensive military operations on inland waterways requiring specialized classes of war vessels commanded and manned by naval personnel. The contest for the Mississippi River and its tributaries—the spine of America—was one of the longest and most challenging campaigns of the Civil War encompassing a 700-mile wet corridor from Mound City, Illinois, to the Gulf of Mexico.”

The Executive Director termed the essay “excellent material on riverine warfare.” The academic reviewer commented: “It’s a very nicely written and well organized piece, and I especially liked the coverage of the challenges confronting the freshwater operations, as well as the early construction of gunboats.”

Dwight is working on a new Emerging Civil War Series volume on this topic.

A Confederate Biography: The Cruise of the CSS Shenandoah

Naval Institute Press, 2015

A gripping first-hand account of Shenandoah’s voyage…a fascinating and engaging read, and highly recommended. (Warship 2018: Naval Books of the Year)

The greatest strength of this volume is in the storytelling…. reminiscent of the standard set by John Keegan. (Taylor & Francis Online Journal)

The Shenandoah’s story has been presented in print several times before but never better than in this Naval Institute publication. (The Journal of America’s Military Past)

The USS Monitor

Lt. John Worden commandeered the USS Monitor to deflect any offensive the Merrimack, now renamed CSS Virginia, directed toward them. Since the CSS Virginia already totally disabled the USS Cumberland, prospects of winning did not look good for the Union. However, the battle fields evened out by the lack of solid shot on the CSS Virginia and the addition of a cylindrical turret on the USS Monitor.

Without the advent of underestimating the forces of the foe on both sides, the outcome of the battle may have been decisive rather than inconclusive.

Birth of the ironclads

When steam propulsion began to be applied to warships, naval constructors renewed their interest in armor for their vessels. Experiments had been tried with armor during the Crimean War, just prior to the American Civil War, [16] and the British and French navies had each built armored ships and were planning to build others. In 1860, the French Navy commissioned La Gloire, the world's first ocean-going ironclad warship. Great Britain followed a year later with HMS Warrior. [17] [18] The use of armor remained controversial, however, and the United States Navy was generally reluctant to embrace the new technology. [19]

CSS Virginia

When the Civil War broke out, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory was an early enthusiast for the advantages of armor. As he looked upon it, the Confederacy could not match the industrial North in numbers of ships at sea, so they would have to compete by building vessels that would be individually superior to those of the Union. The edge would be provided by armor. [20] Mallory gathered about himself a group of men who were able to put his vision into practice, among them John M. Brooke, John L. Porter, and William P. Williamson. [21]

When Mallory's men searched the South for factories that could build engines to drive the heavy ships that he wanted, they found no place to do it immediately. At the best facility, the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, building engines from scratch would take at least a year. Upon learning this, Williamson suggested taking the engines from the hulk of Merrimack, recently raised from the bed of the Elizabeth River. [22] His colleagues promptly accepted his suggestion and expanded it, proposing that the design of their projected ironclad be adapted to the hull. Porter produced the revised plans, which were submitted to Mallory for approval. On July 11, 1861, the new design was accepted, and work began almost immediately. [23] The burned-out hull was towed into the graving dock that the Union Navy had failed to destroy. During the subsequent conversion process, the plans were further modified to incorporate an iron ram fitted to the prow. Her offense in addition to the ram consisted of 10 guns: six 9 in (230 mm) smooth-bore Dahlgrens, two 6.4 in (160 mm) and two 7 in (180 mm) Brooke rifles. [24] Trials showed that these rifles firing solid shot would pierce up to eight inches of armor plating. The Tredegar Iron works could produce both solid shot and shell, and since it was believed that Virginia would face only wooden ships, she was given only the shell. [25] Had solid shot been used against the Monitor, the result of the battle might have been different. The armor plating, originally meant to be 1 in (25 mm) thick, was replaced by double plates, each 2 in (51 mm) thick, backed by 24 in (61 cm) of iron and pine. The armor was pierced for 14 gunports: four on each broadside, three forward, and three aft. [26] The revisions, together with the usual problems associated with the transportation system of the South, resulted in delays that pushed out the launch date until February 3, 1862, and she was not commissioned until February 17, bearing the name CSS Virginia. [27]

USS Monitor

Intelligence that the Confederates were working to develop an ironclad caused consternation for the Union, but Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles waited for Congress to meet to request permission to consider building armored vessels Congress gave this permission on August 3, 1861. Welles appointed a commission, which came to be known as the Ironclad Board, of three senior naval officers to choose among the designs that were submitted for consideration. The three men were Captains Joseph Smith [28] and Hiram Paulding, and Commander Charles Henry Davis. [29] The board considered seventeen designs, and chose to support three. First of the three to be completed, even though she was by far the most radical in design, was Swedish engineer and inventor John Ericsson's USS Monitor. [30]

Ericsson's Monitor, which was built at Ericsson's yard on the East River in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, incorporated new and striking design features, the most significant of which were her armor and armament. Instead of the large numbers of guns of rather small bore that had characterized warships in the past, Ericsson opted for only two guns of large caliber he wanted to use 15 in (380 mm) guns, but had to settle for 11 in (280 mm) Dahlgren guns when the larger size were unavailable. [31] These were mounted in a cylindrical turret, 20 ft (6.1 m) in diameter, 9 ft (2.7 m) high, covered with iron 8 in (200 mm) thick. The whole rotated on a central spindle, and was moved by a steam engine that could be controlled by one man. Ericsson was afraid that using the full 30 pounds of black powder to fire the huge cannon would raise the risk of an explosion in the turret. He demanded that a charge of 15 pounds be used to lessen this possibility. As with Virginia, it was found that the full charge would pierce armor plate, a finding that would have affected the outcome of the battle. [32] A serious flaw in the design was the pilot house from which the ship would be conned, a small structure forward of the turret on the main deck. Its presence meant that the guns could not fire directly forward, and it was isolated from other activities on the ship. Despite the late start and the novelty of construction, Monitor was actually completed a few days before her counterpart Virginia, but Virginia was activated first. [33]

Battle of Hampton Roads, 8-9 March 1862 - History

Like many other Monitor-Merrimac/Virginia books that came before it, Unlike Anything That Ever Floated highlights the challenges each side faced in addressing the new realities of mid-century naval warfare. Both navies had only a very short period of time (months instead of years) to come up with a working ironclad design that met the needs of modern firepower and armored protection, and Hughes's recounting of the hurried construction of both ships contrasts their solutions. Also presented in some detail in the book are lively accounts of the epic March 9, 1862 Monitor vs. Virginia clash and the preceding day's Hampton Roads battle where the Virginia dealt the Union Navy a heavy blow by sinking two of its wooden capital ships and threatening another damaged and grounded foe with the same treatment.

Both warships, neither of which was truly seaworthy, employed new and untested naval designs and technologies, and many of the most significant of those features are addressed in the book, as are the strengths and weaknesses (some predicted and others unanticipated) of the vessels when it came to dealing or absorbing damage. A very helpful adjunct to the text discussion is J.M. Caiella's set of angled cutaways, vessel profiles, and cross-section diagrams. Many of those drawings usefully provide readers with a detailed visual representation of key design elements (ex. the Monitor's revolving turret mechanism and belt-driven air ventilation system).

Hughes's blow-by-blow account of the March 8-9 fighting at Hampton Roads can be considered among the finest short-form narrative treatments of those events. There are no notes or bibliography provided to indicate the full extent of the author's research, but a great multitude of participant accounts and other quoted eyewitness writings are seamlessly incorporated into the text. The result is a highly engaging record of the two days of battle interpreted primarily through the eyes of those who were there.

For how long and to what degree the Virginia delayed Union movement up the Peninsula in early 1862 will always be a source of debate, but determining who "won" the Battle of Hampton Roads also has a long and contested history. Hughes prefers to present both arguments and leave it to the reader to decide if any grand pronouncements regarding victory or defeat are in order. While everyone acknowledges that the March 9 nautical boxing match between Monitor and Virginia was a tactical draw, Confederate partisans at the time claimed overall success by pointing to the destruction of Congress and Cumberland, the vast disparity in casualties [Union 261K/108W vs. Confederate 7K/17W], and Virginia's self-destruction being the result of strategic considerations unrelated to its performance. On the other hand, Union advocates correctly note that the Monitor succeeded in its initial mission of saving the Minnesota from destruction, and its actions secured the Union Navy's continued vital presence at Hampton Roads.

Both ships demonstrated serious problems during their brief careers, but Hughes is persuasive in emphasizing instead how impressive it is that both ironclads fought and maneuvered as well as they did given that neither ship design had the opportunity to be fully tested before being committed to action. Some interesting what-ifs are also raised. That the Monitor used short charges (a direct consequence of having no time for extensive firing trials) is commonly cited, and Virginia had its own firepower issue in that it had no supply of solid shot with which to engage Monitor. Monitor crew claims that they could have pierced Virginia's armor with full propellant charges seems to have had at least some justification given the depth of plate denting and underlying wood framing damage that occurred with half-charges. On the other side, given a bit more time the Confederates might have had the opportunity to cast the armor-piercing shot that were being conceptualized. One wonders how the battle might have turned out differently had it occurred only a few months later.

Appendix section essays, a common feature of the series, address a range of topics. The first offers an 8-stop driving tour of Hampton Roads highlighted by visits to museums as well as interpreted park and historical overlook sites. This is followed by a brief overview history of Civil War ironclad operations. The third and final appendix highlights the large-scale and ongoing artifact preservation efforts of the USS Monitor Center located at the Mariners' Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia.

In terms of the quality of its writing and extent of its informational content, Unlike Anything That Ever Floated resides in the top rank of ECW series volumes. Though release of an 1862 New Orleans Campaign volume did follow closely in its tracks, the book will hopefully be the first of many more when it comes to naval representation in the series. Hughes, with the help of other contributors, also places both ships in their proper world history context in regard to the development (before, during, and after the American Civil War) of armored warships.

The Battle of Hampton Roads Timeline

Captain Thomas Kevill and 31 members of the United Artillery (Co. E, 41st Virginia Volunteer Infantry) muster on board the CSS Virginia, filling the ironclad’s roster.

11:00 AM

Monitor taken under tow by USS Seth Low in New York en route to Hampton Roads, Virginia.

4:00 PM

Monitor and Seth Low join gunboats USS Currituck and USS Sachem. Just as the Monitor steams out of communication range, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles changes the Monitor‘s orders and directs the ironclad to steam to Washington, D.C. Orders are transmitted from New York to Hampton Roads where they await the Monitor‘s arrival.

CSS Virginia is ready for sea trials. A heavy gale keeps the ironclad at Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Major General Bankhead Magruder advises Captain Franklin Buchanan that the Army of the Peninsula will not cooperate with the Virginia‘s planned attack on Newport News Point.

Gales strike USS Monitor along New Jersey coast nearly sinking the ironclad.

General Joseph Eggleston Johnston completes the withdrawal of his Confederate army from Manassas to Fredericksburg.

8:00 AM

Major General George Brinton McClellan meets with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss operations of the Army of the Potomac.

10:00 AM

The Virginia‘s casemate is coated with a thick layer of “ship’s grease” to help deflect shot.

10:30 AM

McClellan holds a “council of war” with his generals and the majority agrees to strike against the Confederate capital at Richmond by way of the Chesapeake Bay.

11:00 AM

Buchanan hoists his flag officer’s red pennant over the Virginia and orders the ironclad to cast off. Workmen dash off the ship without completing many minor details.

12:30 PM

The Virginia‘s trial run down the Elizabeth River proves that the ironclad is as unmanageable as a “water-logged” log. The slow warship runs so close to the river bottom that a towline from the CSS Beaufort is needed to help the ironclad round a bend in the river.

1:30 PM

The CSS Virginia drops its towline from the Beaufort and enters Hampton Roads at high tide.

2:20 PM

Virginia and her consorts, CSS Beaufort and CSS Raleigh, exchange fire with Union forces at Newport News Point.

2:55 PM

Virginia and the 52-gun sailing frigate USS Congress trade salvos. The shot bounces off the ironclad like “pebble stones.” Hot shot and shell ignited fire on the hapless Union frigate and the Congress appears critically damaged.

3:00 PM

USS Monitor, towed by the USS Seth Low, passes Cape Henry and enters the Chesapeake Bay.

3:05 PM

The Virginia breaks through the anti-torpedo obstructions surrounding the Cumberland and rams the sloop in its starboard quarter. The Cumberland immediately begins to sink, trapping the Virginia‘s ram within her.

3:06 PM

The Virginia‘s ram breaks off and the two ships continue to fire at each other for the next 30 minutes.

3:10 PM

USS Minnesota runs aground off Salter’s Creek.

3:35 PM

Lieutenant George Upham Morris orders his men to abandon ship as the Cumberland sinks.

3:40 PM

The Virginia, because of its deep draft and poor steering, is forced to go up the James River to turn around. While executing this maneuver the ironclad destroys three Union transports anchored along a wharf.

4:10 PM

The Virginia steams to within 200 yards of the stranded Congress and then shells the helpless frigate.

4:20 PM

Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, acting commander of the Congress, is struck and killed by a shell fragment. Command of the Congress is entrusted to Lieutenant Austin Pendergrast.

4:40 PM

5:00 PM

As Confederate gunboats Raleigh and Beaufort board the Congress to complete the frigate’s surrender and destruction, rifle and cannon fire from Camp Butler forces the Confederates away from the frigate. Lieutenant Robert Dabney Minor is critically wounded when trying to row one of the Virginia‘s cutters to the Congress.

5:20 PM

Buchanan, engaged by the Union’s actions under a flag of truce, is severely wounded while standing atop the Virginia. He orders his crew to plug hot shot into the Congress “until she glows.” Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones assumes command of the Virginia.

5:45 PM

The Congress is destroyed by hot shot and shell. The Federal frigate is burning from “stem to stern.”

6:00 PM

Jones steers the ironclad back into Hampton Roads to strike at the grounded Union frigates. Shot from the Virginia damages the USS Minnesota and USS St. Lawrence.

8:00 PM

Darkness and the receding tide compel Jones to take the Virginia back to Sewell’s Point. As the burning Congress sends an eerie glow across Hampton Roads, Jones vows to destroy the Federal fleet the next day.

9:00 PM

USS Monitor enters Hampton Roads. Lieutenant Worden meets with Captain John Marston, of the USS Roanoke and acting commander of Union naval forces in Hampton Roads. Marston revokes orders to send the Monitor to Washington, D.C., and orders the ironclad to defend the USS Minnesota.

10:00 PM

Lieutenant John L. Worden writes his wife, “The Merrimac has caused sad work amongst our vessels. She can’t hurt us.”

11:00 PM

USS Monitor anchors next to the Minnesota.

2:00 AM

Captain Van Brunt attempts to float the USS Minnesota at high tide, but the frigate will not move.

5:30 AM

The crew of the Virginia “began the day with two jiggers of whiskey and a hearty breakfast.”

6:00 AM

The Virginia slips her moorings at Sewell’s point, but cannot enter Hampton Roads due to heavy fog.

8:00 AM

The Virginia is finally able to enter Hampton Roads.

8:30 AM

Virginia fires the first shot of the day. Lieutenant Hunter Davidson fires the stern 7-inch Brooke rifle at the USS Minnesota at a range of 1,000 yards. The Monitor moves to intercept the Virginia.

8:35 AM

The Monitor and Virginia begin circling each other, testing their opponent’s armor.

10:05 AM

Monitor breaks off action and steams into a shoal (Hampton Flats) to reload ammunition.

10:10 AM

Lieutenant Jones has already realized that the Virginia has the wrong ammunition with which to fight the Monitor. He heads his ironclad toward the Minnesota.

10:15 AM

The Virginia begins shelling the Minnesota but, leaking at its bow due to the loss of its ram the day before, it runs aground.

10:30 AM

The Monitor begins shelling the Virginia, testing “every chink in [her] armor.”

11:15 AM

The Virginia frees itself from the shoal and makes preparations to ram the Monitor.

11:45 AM

The Monitor eludes ramming, but is hit with a glancing blow. This maneuver takes the Monitor away from action. The Virginia moves again toward the Minnesota. The Minnesota and Dragon are shelled. The Dragon, the tow assigned to the Minnesota, is severely damaged.

12:10 PM

The Monitor attempts to ram the Virginia. A steering malfunction causes the Monitor to miss the fantail of the Virginia. As the Monitor passes the stern of the Virginia, the Monitor‘s pilothouse is struck by a shell from the 7-inch Brooke rifle commanded by Lieutenant John Taylor Wood. Lieutenant Worden is wounded and the Monitor breaks off action temporarily.

12:30 PM

The Virginia retires to the Elizabeth River as the tide will not allow the huge ironclad to strike the Minnesota again. Lieutenant Samuel Dana Greene assumes command of the Monitor and brings the Union ironclad back into action but does not pursue the Virginia.

Contact Info

The Mariners’ Museum and Park
100 Museum Dr, Newport News, VA 23606

Museum (757) 596-2222
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After Hours Security (757) 254-2144


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:

Watch the video: The Monitor and the Merrimack - Battle of Ironclads - Civil War - You Are There (January 2022).