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.