Today, March 9, 1862: Civil War Battle of the Ironclads

For those of you who were actually taught American history in school, I have a question for you.

Was the Battle of the Ironclads during the Civil War between:

a) The USS Monitor and the USS Merrimack

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b) The USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia

Answer) Both

When I was in public school and taught American history, we were always taught a) the USS Monitor versus the USS Merrimack. You could say that was right but technically, it was wrong. In April 1861, Union forces scuttled and burned the USS Merrimack as they abandoned the Gosport Navy Yard in Virginia. The Confederates used the remains of the burned hull of the Merrimack to build their own ironclad ship and christened it the CSS Virginia. However, most historians continue to use its original name the USS Merrimack, keeping with the tradition of keeping the original name of a ship’s hull. Incidentally, the Gosport Navy Yard was renamed by the Confederacy in 1862 to its present day name, the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

Rebuilding the Merrimack almost didn’t happen. The Confederate plan was to place two layers of 2-inch-thick iron plates covering the entire outer casement of the ship. Due to the needs created by the war, iron was difficult to locate. They collected all of the scrap iron they could find but they were still very short of their goal. In near desperation, they began melting down iron tools and older smooth-bore cannons but they were still short of the 800 tons of iron necessary to fully cover the ship. In the end, the Confederates began pulling up hundreds of miles of railroad tracks until they finally outfitted the Merrimack with her new iron plating.

Not wanting to wait for the iron shields to be installed on the gun ports, nor had they tested the engines, the Merrimack steamed up the Elizabeth River. Captain Franklin Buchanan, was anxious and determined to wreak havoc on the nearby Union ships that were blockading the harbor.

On March 8, 1862, the Merrimack ventured towards the Union blockade. The first Union ship it encountered was the USS Cumberland. The Cumberland open fired on the Merrimack but their cannon balls bounced off the iron plating. Capt. Buchanan issued the order to ram the Cumberland and they did. Armed with an iron battering ram on the bow, the Cumberland was easily ripped open and immediately began to sink. The Merrimack tried to reverse engines to pull away from the sinking Union ship but they were stuck. As the Cumberland took on more water, it was feared that it would take the Merrimack with it, until finally the Confederate ironclad managed to break away. However, in doing so, the iron battering ram was pulled loose and sank.

Tasting his first victory, Franklin next sought out the USS Congress. After witnessing what happened to the Cumberland, the captain of the Congress intentionally ran the ship aground. The Congress managed to avoid being rammed, however, the Merrimack set 200 yards away and destroyed the Congress in a hail of cannon balls. Franklin emerged on the Merrimack’s deck under the protection of a white flag in hopes that the captain of the Congress would surrender. A shot rang out from the shore and Franklin was wounded. As the sunlight faded away, the Merrimack returned to her dock on the Elizabeth River where Franklin could receive the medical treatment he needed.

On March 9, 1862, Catesby Jones assumed command of the Merrimack and set sail down the river to attack more of the Union ships. What he didn’t know was that during the night, the Union ironclad USS Monitor had slipped in to join the Union ships at the area known as Hampton Road.

Jones saw the USS Minnesota and took aim on the wooden-hulled frigate. As the ships neared each other, they opened fire. It was then that Jones saw an odd low profile almost raft looking boat alongside the Minnesota. The Monitor steamed toward the Merrimack and the two ironclads began firing upon each other. Jones tried to ram the Monitor, but being smaller, faster and more maneuverable, the Monitor managed to avoid most of the ramming.

By nightfall, the battle was a draw. The Monitor headed to the safety of shallower water where the Merrimack could not follow. Fearing being caught by the receding tide and being low on ammunition, the Merrimack headed back to the navel yard.

A couple months later, Union troops advanced on the Norfolk Naval Shipyard where the Merrimack had been docked. The crew of the Confederate Merrimack blew up the ship rather than allow it to fall into the hands of the Union.

As 1862 drew to a close, the Monitor encountered bad weather off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and sank.

The Battle of the Ironclads, the first of its kind, ended. The battle may have been over but it changed the face of naval warfare for all time. Wooden hulled warships began to be replaced by ironclad and then just iron hulled ships.


Sources for the above include: Battle of the Ironclads; The Battle of the Ironclads; Battle of the Ironclads; Local Lit: The Battle of the Ironclads; 10 Facts about Hampton Roads; U.S.S. Monitor battles C.S.S. Virginia; Monitor vs. Merrimack, Battle of the Ironclads; The Battle of the Ironclads, 1862;


Dave Jolly

R.L. David Jolly holds a B.S. in Wildlife Biology and an M.S. in Biology – Population Genetics. He has worked in a number of fields, giving him a broad perspective on life, business, economics and politics. He is a very conservative Christian, husband, father and grandfather who cares deeply for his Savior, family and the future of our troubled nation.

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