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151 years ago on March 9, 1862 a battle was waged between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. It remains one of the most revolutionary naval battles in world history. Up until that point all sea and river combats had been waged between wooden ships. This was the first battle in maritime history that two ironclad ships waged war.
The USS Merrimack was a Union frigate throughout most of its existence, until the Union Navy abandoned the Norfolk Naval Yard. To prevent the Confederate Navy from using her against them, the Union Navy scuttled her. The Confederates however raised the ship from the shallow floor of the ocean and began making some major modifications. Confederate engineers cut the hull down to the water line and built a slanted top on it. Then they bolted four layers of iron sheets, each two inches thick, to the entire structure. Also added was a huge battering ram to the bow of the ship to be used in ramming maneuvers. The ship was then fitted with ten twelve-pound cannons. There were four guns placed on the starboard and port sides, and one on the bow and stern sides. Due to its massive size and weight the ship's draft was enormous; it stretched twenty-two feet to the bottom. The ship was so slow and long, that it required a turning radius of about one mile. Likened to a "floating barn roof" and not predicted to float, the only individual willing to take command of the ship was Captain Franklin Buchanan. After all the modifications were complete, the ship was rechristened the CSS Virginia.
The USS Monitor was the creation of Swedish-American engineer, John Ericsson. The ship was considered small for a warship, only 172 feet long and 42 feet wide. Confederate sailors were baffled by the ship. One was quoted describing her as "a craft such as the eyes of a seaman never looked upon before, an immense shingle floating on the water with a giant cheese box rising from its center". That "cheese box" was a nine by twenty foot revolving turret with two massive guns inside. "The USS Monitor used two of the eleven inch Dahlgren guns. These Dahlgren guns were massive rifled cannons that were capable of firing a variety of shot. The armor of this ship was a two inch thick layer of steel that shielded the ship. The deck was so low to the water line, about one foot, that waves frequently washed over the deck causing the ship to lose its balance in the water. Due to the low profile, the entire crew was located below the water line, so one armor piercing hit would kill the entire crew. Like the CSS Virginia, the USS Monitor was expected to sink; it was referred to as "Ericsson's Folly". The only individual willing to take command of the ship was Lieutenant John Worden.
The battle at Hampton Roads was part of the Peninsula Campaign that lasted from March to August of 1862. There were a total of five ships engaged in the battle. From the US Navy, there were four ships, the USS Congress, USS Minnesota, USS Cumberland, and the USS Monitor. The CS Navy had one ship, the CSS Virginia. On March 8th the CSS Virginia 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 Virginia was now revealed to have some serious flaws. The most significant 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 Gideon 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 March 9th the CSS Virginia sailed back out to Hampton Roads, unaware that the USS 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 maneuverable, 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 somewhat vulnerable. After the battle ninety seven dents were found in the Virginia’s armor, twenty of them from the Monitor’s guns. Six of these shots had broken her outer armor, 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 Virginia ran 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 they would have been able to sink the Monitor, but the Union ship’s vastly superior maneuverability makes that seem somewhat unlikely. The first battle between ironclads was a tactical draw.
The results of the battle were inconclusive, neither side could claim victory. The estimated casualties resulting from the battle were extensive. The Union lost about 409 sailors and the Confederacy lost about 24. The battle was so impressive to the leaders of both the Union and the Confederacy, that they contracted their naval yards to have more ironclad ships built. Additions to the Confederate fleet included the CSS Tennessee, a 209 foot long blockade runner with four broadside cannons and pivoted cannons at the bow and stern. Additions to the Union Navy included the USS Carondelet. Armed with thirteen guns and stationed on the Mississippi, she was a formidable opponent. Prior to the building of the USS Monitor, the USS New Ironsides was built. "It was the strongest ship ever built by the Northern Navy". Wooden ships were now obsolete. Ironclad ships began to roll out of ship yards more often than their wooden counterparts. "The invention of ironclads in the Civil War set examples for the future of ship building in the United States".
The ironclads were at an advantage over the wooden ships of the two Navies because of their superior technology. Ironclads could withstand hours of battering by artillery, and they could be used to cut traffic lanes through mine fields. Their armor could resist the blast from a mine considerably better than any wooden ship could. They could also carry more powerful guns. Due to their increased stability in the water these massive ships could easily endure the recoil of huge cannons. Another useful characteristic of the ironclads was their ability to be used in ramming missions. The hull of the ship would not be compromised by a hit associated with ramming a wooden vessel.
Because of Civil War technology, the United States has never built another wooden battleship since the introduction of the ironclads. Every armed conflict since then has seen more and more improvements in the way ironclad ships were built. The introduction of multiple massive turrets in the late 1800s improved the firepower dramatically. Later renovations included improved power plants and more devastating weapons. Perhaps the greatest renovation came in the pre-World War I era with the introduction of the aircraft carrier. Today, ironclad ships are so advanced that they are scarcely bigger than the ironclads used in the Civil War, but they are hundreds if not thousands times more powerful.
Although the wooden ship has proved extremely effective in naval battles throughout history, the advent of the ironclad totally revolutionized the way in which naval forces around the world approach warfare. "From the moment the two ships opened fire that Sunday morning, every other navy on earth was obsolete"