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21 Readings About the Great Battles of the Civil War #5-- iRONCLADS AT HAMPTON ROADS




John Mercer Brooke




John L. Porter,

John Ericcson


       On the afternoon of March 8, 1862, five vessels of the United States Navy lay at anchor in Hampton Roads. Suddenly a queer object came across the water toward the United States vessel Cumberland from the Confederate stronghold in Norfolk, Va. It was a reconstructed United States ship, the Merrimack (renamed the Virginia). The vessel had been sunk when the Norfolk navy yard was abandoned at the beginning of the war. The Confederates had raised the vessel, cut off the sides, and covered what was left with iron plates. This was one of the earliest practical applications of armor to a warship.

U.S.S. Merrimack, scuttled by U.S. Navy and converted to Ironclad by the Confederate Navy


The U.S.S. Merrimack converted to ironclad, and renamed the C.S.S. Virginia

        The strange object steered straight for the Cumberland. It was met by heavy fire, but, when it reached the Cumberland, its iron beak cut through the side of the wooden vessel "as a knife goes through cheese." The Merrimack next set fire to the Congress with red-hot shot from its guns. Then the vessel steamed away to prepare for its next victory.

        By the next morning, however, the situation was entirely changed. When the Merrimack started toward the Minnesota, preparing to dispose of it as quickly as the two victims of the previous day, there suddenly appeared in the ironclad's path an odd object, about one fourth the Merrimack's size and resembling a "cheese-box on a raft." This was the famous Monitor, a Union ironclad designed by John Ericsson, a Swedish engineer.

       The fight between the two ships began at once and lasted for nearly four hours. The Monitor was more easily handled than the Merrimack, but its shots could not do much harm to the other's iron sides. On the other hand, the Monitor's single revolving turret offered a hopeless target for its opponent. Thousands of people stood on the shore and breathlessly watched the combat. The distance between the vessels varied from half a mile to a few yards. The Monitor's commander was wounded, and the Merrimack, badly damaged, steamed back to Norfolk.

       This fight between the Merrimack and Monitor was one of the most important naval battles ever fought, for it made all the old navies useless. All countries had to discard their wooden vessels and to begin building ironclads. During the Civil War the Union was able to build more iron ships faster than the Confederacy could.

From Wikepedia at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Hampton_Roads

Battle of Hampton Roads

Part of the American Civil War
The Monitor and Merrimac.jpg
Chromolithograph depicting the Battle of Hampton Roads
Date March 8, 1862 March 9, 1862
Location Off Sewell's Point (modern-day Norfolk), near the mouth of Hampton Roads, Virginia
Result Inconclusive

Tactical Confederate Victory

Strategic Union Victory
United States (Union) Confederate States
Commanders and leaders
Louis M. Goldsborough (not present)
John Marston (senior officer present)
Franklin Buchanan
Catesby ap Roger Jones
1 Ironclad
5 Wooden Frigates
1 Ironclad
2 Wooden Warships
1 Gunboat
2 Tenders
Casualties and losses
261 killed
108 wounded
1 frigate sunk
1 sloop-of-war sunk
1 frigate damaged
78 killed
17 wounded
1 ironclad damaged

United States Steamer Minnesota, C.S.S. Merrimac (Virginia) and the U.S.S. Monitor
March 10, 1862

Lieutenant Greene about the saving of the U.S.S. Minnesota

In his official report Lieutenant S. Dana Greene says:

       At 8:45 we opened on the Merrimac, and continued the action until 11:30 A. M., when Captain Worden was injured in the eyes, by the explosion of a shell from the Merrimac upon the outside of the eye-hole in the pilot-house exactly opposite his eye. Captain Worden then sent for me and told me to take charge of the vessel. We continued the action until 12:15 P. M., when the Merrimac retreated to Sewall's Point, and we went to the Minnesota, and remained by her until she was afloat.

Let us now see how my statements are sustained by the commanding officer of the Minnesota, the vessel which Lieutenant Greene claims to have saved.

Captain Van Brunt certainly ought to know to whom he was indebted for the salvation of his ship, and I give his report in full.

G. J. VAN BRUNT, Captain, U. S. Navy,
Commanding Frigate Minnesota

Report on the Battle of Hampton Roads, and the protection provided for his ship by the U.S.S. Monitor

       Sir--On Saturday the 8th instant, at 12:45 P. M., three small steamers, in appearance. Were discovered rounding Sewall's Point, and as soon as they came into full broadside view, I was convinced that one was the iron-plated steam-battery Merrimac, from the large size of her smoke-pipe. They were heading for Newport News, and I, in obedience to a signal from the senior officer present, Captain J. Marston, immediately called all hands, slipped my cables, and got under way for that point to engage her. While rapidly passing Sewall's Point the rebels there opened fire upon us from a rifle battery, one shot from which going through and crippling my main-mast. I returned the fire from my broadside guns and forecastle pivot. We ran without farther difficulty within about one and a half miles of Newport News, and there, unfortunately, grounded. The tide was running ebb, and although in the channel there was not sufficient water for this ship, which draws twenty-three feet, I knew that the bottom was soft and lumpy and endeavored to force the ship over, but I found it impossible to do so. At this time it was reported to me that the Merrimac had passed the frigate Congress and ran into the sloop-of-war Cumberland, and in fifteen minutes after I saw the latter going down by the head. The Merrimac then hauled off, taking a position, and about 2:30 P. M. engaging the Congress, throwing shot and shell into her with terrific effect, while the shot from the Congress glanced from her iron-plated sloping sides without doing any apparent damage. At 3:30 P. M. the Congress was compelled to haul down her colors. Of the extent of her loss and injury you will be informed from the official report.

       At 4 P. M. the Merrimac, Jamestown, and Patrick Henry bore down upon my vessel. Very fortunately the iron battery drew too much water to come within a mile of us. She took a position on my starboard bow, but did not fire with accuracy, and only one shot passed through the ship's bow. The other two steamers took their position on my port bow and stern, and their fire did most damage in killing. And wounding men, inasmuch as they fired with rifled guns; but with the heavy gun that I could bring to bear upon them, I drove them off, one of them apparently in a crippled condition. I fired upon the Merrimac with my pivot ten-inch gun without apparent effect, and at 7 P. M. she too hauled off, and all three vessels steamed toward Norfolk. The tremendous firing of my broadside guns had crowded me further upon the mud bank, into which the ship seemed to have made for herself a cradle. From 10 P. M., when the tide commenced to run flood, until 4 A. M., I had all hands at work with steam-tugs and hawsers endeavoring to haul the ship off the bank, but without avail; and as the tide had then fallen considerably I suspended further operations at that time. At 2 A. M. the iron battery Monitor, Commander John L. Worden, which had arrived the previous evening at Hampton Roads, came alongside and reported for duty, and then all on board felt that we had a friend that would stand by us in our hour of trial. At 6 A. M. the enemy again appeared, coming down from Craney Island, and I beat to quarters, but they ran past my ship and were heading for Fortress Monroe, and the retreat was beaten to allow my men to get something to eat. The Merrimac ran down near to the Rip Raps, and then turned into the channel through which I had come. Again all hands were called to quarters, and when she approached within a mile of us I opened upon her with my stern guns and made signal to the Monitor to attack the enemy. She immediately ran down in my wake right within range of the Merrimac, completely covering my ship as far as was possible with her diminutive dimensions, and much to my astonishment laid herself right alongside of the Merrimac, and the contrast was that of a pigmy to a giant. Gun after gun was fired by the Monitor, which was returned with whole broadsides by the rebel with no more effect apparently than so many pebble stones thrown by a child. After a while they commenced maneuvering, and we could see the little battery point her bow for the rebels with the intention, as I thought, of sending a shot through her bow porthole; then she would shoot by her and rake her through the stern. In the meantime the rebels were pouring in broadside after broadside, but almost all her shot flew over the little submerged propeller, and when they struck the bomb-proof tower the shot glanced off without producing any effect, clearly establishing the fact that wooden vessels can not contend with iron-clad ones; for never before was any thing like it dreamed of by the greatest enthusiast in maritime warfare. The Merrimac, finding she could make nothing off the Monitor, turned her attention once more to me.

       In the morning she had put an eleven-inch shot under my counter near the water line; and now on her second approach I opened upon her with all my broadside guns and ten-inch pivot--a broadside which would have blown out of water any timber-built ship in the world. She returned my fire with her rifled bow-gun with a shell which passed through the chief engineer's state-room, through the engineers' mess-room amidships, and burst in the boatswain's room, tearing four rooms all into one in its passage, and exploding two charges of powder, which set the ship on fire, but it was promptly extinguished by a party headed by my first lieutenant. Her second shell went through the boiler of the tug-boat Dragon, exploding it and causing some consternation on board my ship for the moment until the matter was explained. This time I had concentrated upon her an incessant fire from my gun-deck, spar-deck, and forecastle pivot-guns, and was informed by my marine officer, who was stationed on the poop, that at least fifty solid shot struck her on her slanting side without producing any apparent effect. By the time she had fired her third shell the little Monitor had come down upon her, placing herself between us and compelled her to change her position, in doing which she grounded, and again I poured into her all the guns which could be brought to bear upon her. As soon as she got off she stood down the bay, the little battery chasing her with all speed, when suddenly the Merrimac turned around and run full speed into her antagonist. For a moment I was anxious, but instantly I saw a shot plunge into the iron roof of the Merrimac which surely must have damaged her.

       For some time after this the rebels concentrated their whole battery upon the tower and pilot-house of the Monitor, and soon after the latter stood down for Fortress Monroe, and we thought it probable she had exhausted her supply of ammunition, or sustained some injury. Soon after the Merrimac and the other two steamers headed for my ship, and I then felt to the fullest extent my condition. I was hard and immovably aground, and they could take position under my stern and rake me. I had expended most of my solid shot, my ship was (was) badly crippled, and my officers and men were worn out with fatigue, but even in this extreme dilemma I determined never to give up the ship to the rebels, and, after consulting with my offices, I ordered every preparation be made to destroy the ship after all hope was gone of saving her.

       On ascending the poop deck I observed that the enemy's vessels had changed their course, and were heading for Craney Island. I then determined to lighten the ship by throwing overboard my eight-inch guns, hoisting out provisions, starting water, etc. At 2 P. M. I proceeded to make another attempt to save the ship by the use of a number of powerful tugs and the steamer S. R. Spaulding, kindly sent to my assistance by Captain Talmadge, Quartermaster at Fortress Monroe, and succeeded in dragging her half a mile distant, and then she was immovable, the tide having fallen. At 2 o'clock this morning I succeeded in getting the ship once more afloat, and am now at anchor opposite Fortress Monroe. It gives me great pleasure to say that, during the whole of these trying scenes the officers and men conducted themselves with great courage and coolness.

I have the honor to be your very obedient servant,


G. J. VAN BRUNT, Captain, U. S. Navy,
Commanding Frigate Minnesota.

       Admiral Worden (U.S.S. Monitor commander at that time) thinks otherwise, I think it but right to give his reasons for doing so. In a private letter to me, dated March 13, 1882, he says:

       "If the prow of the Merrimac had been intact at the time she struck the Monitor, she could not have damaged her a particle more by the blow with it than she did in hitting her with her stem; and for the following reasons: The hull of the Monitor was in breadth, at her midship section, thirty-four feet, and the armored raft which was placed on the hull was, at the same point, forty-one feet four inches in breadth, so that the raft extended on either side three feet eight inches beyond the hull. The raft was five feet deep and was immersed in the water three and a half feet. The Merrimac's prow, according to Jones, was two feet below the surface of the water. The prow, therefore, if on, would have struck the armored hull one and a half feet above its lowest part, and could not have damaged it. Further, the prow extended two feet forward from the stem, and had it been low enough to reach the armored raft, it could not have reached the hull by one foot eight inches."

From http://cssvirginia.org/vacsn4/original/pd87cent.htm


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