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Hampton Roads, Battle of

Hampton Roads, Battle of (1862).Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory believed ironclads could break the Civil War blockade by the Union navy. On 11 July 1861, he ordered the conversion of the captured USS Merrimack into the ironclad CSS Virginia. His Federal counterpart, Gideon Welles, on 4 October 1861 directed John Ericsson to build the ironclad USS Monitor. Although the Europeans had started to build iron ships, the battle between these two vessels on 9 March 1862 in Hampton Roads, Virginia, near Norfolk, was the world's first combat between armored warships.

The two vessels incorporated the latest naval advances: steam‐powered, screw‐propelled, and ironclad‐hull. The Virginia (Merrimack) carried ten major guns (four in each broadside, one bow and one stern gun) and an iron ram. The low‐silhouetted Monitor resembled a “cheesebox on a raft” with its rotating centerline gun‐turret, housing two 11‐inch guns.

On 8 March 1862, the Virginia sortied against the Union navy's blockade. It sank the USS Cumberland with its ram, burned the Congress with incendiary shells, but it disengaged when it could not approach the grounded Minnesota. The next day, Lt. Catesby ap Rogers Jones succeeded the wounded captain in command of the Virginia and found the waiting Monitor, which had just arrived with Lt. John L. Worden in command.

For four hours the two ironclads pounded each other at close range (at times only 15 yards apart). The larger Virginia tried without success to ram the Monitor and to board. Neither ship could sink the other, nor pierce the armor plate, but the Virginia, taking on water from hull damage, withdrew. Although the engagement between the two ships was inconclusive, the withdrawal of the Virginia for substantial repairs left the blockade in place and was proclaimed a victory by the Union. The “battles of the ironclads” presaged an eventual revolution in naval warfare. When the Confederates abandoned Norfolk in May, they destroyed the Virginia; the Monitor foundered off the Carolina capes later in 1862.
[See also Civil War: Military and Diplomatic Course; Confederate Navy; Union Navy; U.S. Navy: 1783–1865.]


James P. Baxter III , The Introduction of the Ironclad Warship, 1933;
Robert W. Daly , How the Merrimac Won, 1957;
William C. Davis , Duel Between the First Ironclads, 1975.

George E. Buker

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