NFB’s Decisive Battles Of The World: Hampton Roads

Heading back America side for a battle not decisive for its result but for the effect it had on naval warfare.

Name: The Battle of Hampton Roads, sometimes called “the Battle of the Monitor and Merrimac
The War: American Civil War
When: 8/9 March 1862
Where: The mouth of Hampton’s Road, a natural harbour, Virginia
Type: Naval
Forces/Commanders: One ironclad and five wooden frigates under Union Commodore John Marston against one ironclad, two wooden warships, two tenders and a gunboat under Confederate Captain Franklin Buchanan and Lieutenant Catesby ap Rodger Jones.


It will be remembered that the Virginia was a novelty in naval architecture, wholly unlike any ship that ever floated; that her heaviest guns were equal novelties in ordnance; that her motive power and obedience to her helm were untried, and her officers and crew strangers, comparatively, to the ship and to each other; and yet, under all these disadvantages, the dashing courage and consummate professional ability of Flag Officer Buchanan and his associates achieved the most remarkable victory which naval annals record.
-Stephen Mallory, Confederate Secretary of the Navy, claiming victory.

The naval action which took place on the 10th [9th] instant between the Monitor and the Merrimack at Hampton Roads, when your vessel…repelled her formidable antagonist, has excited general admiration and received the applause of the whole country.

The President directs me…to thank you and your command for the heroism you have displayed and the great service you have rendered.

The action of the 10th [9th], and the performance, power, and capabilities of the Monitor, must effect a radical change in naval warfare.
-Gideon Welles, Union Secretary of the Navy, claiming victory.

What Happened:

The Civil War was only a few weeks old when Union President Abraham Lincoln began what would be one of the key reasons for the Northern victory: the blockade of Confederate ports and harbours.

One of these was the port at Norfolk, Confederate Virginia’s second largest city and a major centre for its foreign trade. It’s port in the Hampton Roads roadstead, the meeting place of three rivers flowing into the sea, contained a Navy Yard that was the scene of a botched scuttling operation when the Confederates took control of it. The Union commander, unable to sail the nine ships there to safety, attempted to destroy them and the docks but only partially succeeded. Most of the docks and cannon were captured as well as the USS Merrimac, a frigate.

The victory was tempered by the knowledge that the holding of the port was useless: the Union quickly blockaded the entrance of the Bay with some of their best warships, augmented by their control of several key forts and batteries along the shoreline as well. The Confederacy was bottled up inside the roadstead unable to approach the Union fleet outside.

Stephen R. Mallory, the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, had a mind for armour. Armour clad ships had already seen use in an experimental fashion in several navies but had yet to be tested in any combat capacity.

Gathering designers, engineers and shipwrights, most notably John M. Brooke, John L. Porter and William P. Williamson, Mallory ordered the construction of an “ironclad” ship with which to offset the Union Navies staggering advantage in numbers.

Searching the length and breadth of the Confederacy, the men could find no factory capable of building an engine or frame to their specifications quickly, so the decision was taken to use that of the captured Merrimac with the designs adapted to its hull. The new ship took six months to complete, and when finished contained 14 gun ports around its sides, 10 guns of varying size and a vicious iron ram at her prow. Launched in February 1862, she was dubbed the CSS Virginia and crewed by 320 men.

Though her construction was largely overseen by a Lieutenant Catespy ap Rodger Jones, he was, to his disappointment, not made her Captain, the Confederate system of appointments being rigidly attached to seniority. Instead the honour went Franklin Buchanan, a well-regarded, aggressively minded commander with Jones as the ships Executive Officer, though Buchanan’s position was not actually that of Captain, but as overall commander of the Norfolk defences where the Virginia had been built.

The ram was added as a weapon to be used against an opposing ironclad, one that the Confederates had learned the Union was building. The Union Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, had assembled his own ironclad team, consisting of three naval officers: Joseph Smith, Hiram Paulding and Charles Henry Davis. After reviewing many designs, they threw their support (and financial backing of Congress) behind three designs. The first to be completed was the USS Monitor.

The Monitor was an odd design. Constructed by Swedish engineer John Ericcson in Brooklyn, the Monitor had only two guns, both of a large calibre, attached to a cyndrical rotating turret. More heavily armoured then its Confederate counterpart, it floated lower in the water, a deliberate design choice of its creator. Built in just 120 days, she was launched around the same time as the Virginia with a crew of 59. She was Captained by John L. Worden under the immediate command of Admiral Louis M Goldsborough, the leader of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

The following battle took place over two days, the 8th and 9th of March. On the morning of the 8th, the Virginia, accompanied by five other Confederate ships –the Beaufort, Raleigh, Patrick Henry, Jamestown and Teaser – sailed into Hampton Roads from Norfolk. In their way were five Union ships – the Cumberland, Congress, St Lawrence, Minnesota and Roanake, boats of varying size. Upon seeing the approach of the ironclad, the St Lawrence, Minnesota and Roanake all got underway to try and engage her but were quickly ran aground in the shallows, taking no further part in the battle.

The Virginia went straight for the sloop-of-war Cumberland, whose cannon were unable to penetrate its thick hull. While the rest of the Confederate forces were engaged against some minor Union ships, the Virginia commenced firing on the Cumberland, eventually ramming the frigate. The Cumberland sank, firing to the last, with 121 of its crew going with her to the deep. The Virginia nearly went with her too, its ram lodged in the Cumberland’s side. Disaster was only averted on the ironclad’s first engagement when the ram broke off.

Buchanan turned to Congress, the Union frigate already badly outnumbered by the Confederate force. Deliberately shallowing her, its Captain fought for an hour before surrendering to the overwhelming firepower of the Southern Navy. When a nearby Union battery commenced fire on the Virginia, she resumed pouring cannon balls on the Congress, setting her ablaze and destroying her, with 136 casualties incurred.

The Virginia was not having it all its own way. Some shots from the Cumberland and Congress had damaged her smokestack reducing her speed, two of its crew were dead and its Commanding Officer had been wounded by a rifle shot. With night, and tide, falling, the fleet broke off the engagement with the rest of the grounded Union ships and returned to port.

The following morning, the Virginia sailed out into the roadstead again, this time under the command of its Executive Office, Lieutenant Jones. But, she was not alone in the waterway.

News of the Confederate Ironclad’s attack had rapidly reached nearby Washington D.C. Fears that that Virginia could break the cordon of the bay and threaten Union cities prompted the order for the Monitor to leave port and make for Hampton Roads at best speed. It’s nominal orders were to protect the grounded Minnesota and it took position near the frigate upon its arrival.

There followed several hours of intense combat, the first real battle between armoured ships of war. Shells crashed into both ships but the armour held. The Monitor found itself, due to a design flaw, unable to fire forward, so had to keep constantly broadside of the Virginia. It was able to do so by being far more nimble, the Virginia needing a full 45 minutes to turn. Furthermore, the only parts of the Monitor above the waterline was its more heavily armoured top, which was nearly impervious to the Virginia’s fire, as its creator intended. Smoke soon engulfed the bay. The Minnesota helped as much as it could from its position, but the fight could not be decided by the frigate.

The Virginia lacked the armour piercing shot to seriously hurt the Monitor, while the Monitor lacked the charge for its guns to hurt the Virginia. The battle only came to an end when a lucky shot from the Virginia caused shrapnel to enter the pilot house of the Monitor blinding Captain Worden temporarily. He ordered the Monitor into the shoals. The Virginia did not pursue. With night falling fast and the tide lowering, Rodgers was obliged to call off the attack on the Minnesota and return to port, believing that he had beaten the Monitor.

The command of the Union ship passed to its Executive Officer Samuel Greene, who, after an inspection, ordered it back into battle, but the Virginia had withdrawn by the time it did. Bound to defend the Minnesota, the Virginia did not pursue. The battle was over. 393 casualties had been incurred, the vast majority of them on the Union side.

Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War

Little. Both sides claimed victory in the aftermath of the engagement. They both had a case: the Virginia had destroyed a few ships but the blockade of Norfolk continued unabated, with the Monitor on station to aid in the effort. The Union soon added several other armour fitted vessels to augment the force. Try as they might, the Confederates could not goad the Union into facing them in open battle.

Neither the Monitor or the Virginia would ever fight again. In may, Norfolk was captured by advancing Union forces. The Southern Navy was unable to sail the Virginia upriver so Lieutenant Jones was forced to scuttle her. The Monitor would only last until the end of the year, being caught in a storm off the coast of North Carolina and sunk on 31 December 1862.

Both sides would go on to construct further ironclads, the Union’s riverine models being especially notable. The Confederacy was unable to keep up, not having access to the raw materials needed to make them.

Tactical/Technological Innovations

Hampton Roads was the first Naval engagement between ironclad ships, thus beginning a new age of warfare on the sea. Ironclads needed a lot of work, but they had, in a stroke, made most of the worlds navies obsolete. Within a few years, they would be the dominant force on the waves. They would eventually become the Dreadnought and the battleships that defined warfare in the late 19th and early 20th century. This is the battles most decisive trend in that it marked a gigantic shift in naval warfare, the equal of Lepanto, Gravelines and Pearl Harbour. The industrial revolution had come to the seas military force.

But there were other trends that were important. The Unions revolving gun turret was revolutionary enough, though it had flaws.  Armour piercing shot would also soon become the requirement for naval combat.

In terms of command, the Confederacy had been shown up. The more competent choice to command the Virginia, Lieutenant Jones, was looked over in favour of the more senior Buchanan and was again after the battle. The Union’s more merit driven promotion system aided them.

Macro-Historical Importance

I suppose little, within the context of the American Civil War. If the Virginia had managed to breakout or destroy the Monitor it would have proved a potent threat to the Union, but the North had plenty of its own ironclads to match that threat. As stated, this battle’s decisiveness comes from its technological, not historical, impact.

In National Consciousness

The nearest landmark is the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel, one mile from the battlesite.

Parts of the Virginia are still displayed in nearby museums, with the town of Merrimac founded near where the Virginia was constructed (Merrimac being the original name for the Virginia hull).

The Monitor lay undisturbed on the Atlantic sea bed for 101 years, discovered by scientists in 1973, its location now a Marine sanctuary. Artefacts and components have been lifted and reside in the Mariners Museum off Hampton Roads today. The USS Monitor Centre in this museum contains a scale replica of the Union ship.

Numerous paintings and dioramas of the battle exists, evidence of its immense contemporary fascination.

It’s probably the smallest battle on my list in terms of numbers, but its importance to the history of warfare is undeniable.

For more of NFBs Decisive Battles, check out the index here.

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