Seeking to interdict Federal naval operations in Hampton
Roads, the ironclad CSS Virginia (ex-Merrimack)
left its berth at Norfolk and steamed out to attack the nearby Union
ships. Under the command of Flag Officer
Franklin Buchanan, the CSS Virginia
headed straight for the USS Cumberland
off Newport News.
Around 2pm on March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginia struck the Cumberland
with its 1,500lb iron ram, smashing a huge hole in its wooden hull. Despite the mortal blow delivered to the
Cumberland, the CSS Virginia, which had become entangled within the shredded
hull of its opponent, was also at risk of also being carried down. Fortunately for the Virginia, the ironclad
was able to dislodge itself from the frigate’s side, but in doing so the lethal
iron ram broke off and sank.
With one opponent vanquished, the Virginia turned its sights
on the nearby USS Congress. Seeking to
avoid the same fate that befell the Cumberland, the USS Congress purposely ran aground
on a nearby shoal. Unable to deliver a ram
attack, the CSS Virginia maneuvered to a point 200 yards away and pounded the
frigate with its powerful broadsides.
Unable to maneuver, the Congress was quickly wrecked by the Confederate
fire. At 4pm the USS Congress lowered
its flag and surrendered. Hoping to
accept the USS Congress’ formal surrender, Franklin Buchanan, who had come out
onto his ship’s deck under a white flag, was wounded by a musket ball fired from
shore. With daylight waning and its
captain needing medical attention, the Virginia broke off its attack and
returned to shore.
Despite the growing panic in Washington DC and within the
Federal fleet, a new and innovative ship had silently slipped into the Roads
during the night of March 8, 1862. The
USS Monitor, the radical invention of John Ericsson and commanded by Lt. John
L. Worden, prepared to defend the rest of the Federal fleet from the seemingly invincible
The next morning, Catesby Jones, now in command of the
Virginia, prepared the rebel ironclad for another assault. Steaming towards the USS Minnesota, the
Virginia began to take this new victim under fire. As the Virginia approached the Minnesota it
noticed a strange raft-like vessel by its side.
With the USS Monitor now bearing down on the Virginia, the Confederate
ironclad shifted its fire to this newcomer with the large rotating turret. The two ironclads then settled down to a
close range slug fest where both ships fired into each other with little
effect. The Virginia at one point in the
struggle sought to ram and capsize the smaller Monitor, but the nimbler Monitor
was able to largely avoid the ram-less Virginia.
After several hours of close combat the USS Monitor
disengaged and headed for the safety of shallower waters. Lt. Worden, who had been in the forward pilot
house on the Monitor, had been temporarily blinded when a shell from the
Virginia exploded near the viewing slit of the pilothouse. Despite its temporary advantage, the CSS
Virginia, short on ammunition and concerned over the lowering tide, broke off
the engagement and headed for the safety of Norfolk. The world’s first battle between steam-powered,
ironclad warships ended in a draw, but its impact on the future of naval
warfare would be profound.