The Battle of Hampton Roads, 1862

March 8–9, 1862

The Battle of Hampton Roads was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America from March 8 to 9, 1862. The outcome of the battle was a draw. The battle is most well-known for being the first naval battle of ironclad ships and the most notable naval battle of the Civil War.

John Lorimer Worden, Portrait, Brady

Lieutenant John Worden commanded the USS Monitor during the Battle of Hampton Roads. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Battle of Hampton Roads Quick Facts

  • Also Known As — Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack, Battle of the Ironclads
  • Date — March 8–9, 1862
  • Location — Sewell’s Point, Hampton Roads, Virginia, near the Gosport Shipyard — later named the Norfolk Naval Shipyard
  • Opponents — United States of America (USA) and Confederate States of America (CSA)
  • USA Commanders — John Marston, John Worden
  • CSA Commanders — Franklin Buchanan, Catesby Jones
  • Winner — Inconclusive

Battle of Hampton Roads Summary

The Battle of Hampton Roads was the most significant naval battle of the Civil War. It took place from March 8–9, 1862 near Hampton Roads, Virginia. It is most well-known for being the first battle between two ironclad warships. For the Union, it was the USS Monitor. For the Confederacy, it was the CSS Virginia, which was previously the USS Merrimack. Although the battle ended in a draw, it marked the dawn of a new era in maritime warfare as nations moved toward fleets of ironclad ships.

Battle of Hampton Roads Overview and History

When the American Civil War erupted in April 1861, Southern sympathizers seized control of the Gosport Shipyard (later named the Norfolk Naval Shipyard) in Virginia. Before evacuating the site on April 20, the commandant, Captain Charles S. McCauley, ordered his men to destroy the facility and to scuttle nine naval vessels at anchor. Among those ships was the USS Merrimack, which burned to her waterline before sinking.

Confederates Salvage the Merrimack

After taking control of the shipyard, Confederate officials salvaged the Merrimack, whose steam engines were still intact. For the next nine months, Southern engineers developed and implemented plans to convert the Merrimack to a new kind of ship that would revolutionize naval warfare—the ironclad.

By February 17, 1862, the Confederates had completed enough of the work to commission the Merrimack into the Confederate navy as the CSS Virginia.

Union Blockade of Hampton Roads

The Virginia’s first challenge was to end the Union naval blockade of Hampton Roads that had isolated Norfolk and Richmond from trans-Atlantic trade. Belying its name, Hampton Roads is a bay-like body of water formed by the confluence of the James, Elizabeth, and Nansemond rivers in southeastern Virginia. The word “roads” is a nautical term for a partially sheltered body of water where ships may ride at anchor. Passage through Hampton Roads is the only point of connection between Norfolk and the Chesapeake Bay (and subsequently the Atlantic Ocean).

The Virginia Sinks the Cumberland

On the morning of March 8, 1862, the Virginia left her mooring at Norfolk, under command of Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, and steamed into Hampton Roads to confront the five U.S. warships blocking access to the Chesapeake Bay. As shells from the frigates USS Cumberland and Congress bounced harmlessly off of her iron surface, the Virginia pierced the Cumberland’s hull with her iron ram, sending the Union frigate to the bottom along with 121 sailors.

The Virginia Destroys the Congress

Buchanan next focused on the Congress, which had run aground during the maneuvering. The Virginia’s crew shelled the Congress into submission. Seeing the Congress’s white flag of surrender, Buchanan went on deck to accept her surrender, but Union batteries continued to fire on the Virginia, wounding Buchanan. In retaliation, Buchanan ordered the destruction of the Congress, claiming the lives of another 120 Union sailors.

At that point, the Union frigate Minnesota closed on the Virginia but also ran aground. Seeing that the Minnesota was helpless, Buchanan withdrew and anchored at nearby Sewell’s Point, with intentions of sinking the Minnesota on the following day. During the night, doctors took Buchanan and hospitalized him. Lieutenant Catesby R. Jones assumed command of the Virginia.

The Monitor Intercepts the Virginia

The next morning changed the history of naval warfare. As the Virginia steamed out to dispose of the Minnesota, she encountered the USS Monitor, the Union’s version of an ironclad. The Monitor had arrived under tow from New York on the previous evening. Commanded by Lieutenant John Worden, the Monitor immediately engaged the Virginia. For the next two-and-one-half hours, the two ironclads shelled each other at close range, producing little damage. At approximately 12:15 PM, Jones realized that continued shelling of the Monitor would be a waste of munitions and he withdrew. The first battle between two ironclads in the history of naval warfare ended in a draw.

Monitor v Merrimac, Battle of Hampton Roads, Painting
This painting depicts the USS Monitor (right) and the CSS Virginia (Merrimack) firing on each other at the Battle of Hampton Roads. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Battle of Hampton Roads Outcome

Although the results of the engagement were inconclusive, the Virginia failed to dislodge the federal fleet from Hampton Roads. The Monitor’s continued presence in Hampton Roads enabled Union General George B. McClellan to launch his Peninsula Campaign with an amphibious landing near Fort Monroe on March 17.

Later, commanded by Flag Officer J. Tattnall, the Virginia attempted to block McClellan’s advance up the James River. After failing to prevent a Union landing at Yorktown, Tattnall unsuccessfully tried to retreat upriver. Rather than let his ship fall into Union hands, Tattnall scuttled the Virginia on May 11, 1862.

Later in the summer of 1862, following the failed Peninsula Campaign, the Monitor helped cover McClellan’s retreat from the Virginia Peninsula. In December, officials ordered the ship to support Union operations off of Wilmington, North Carolina. On January 1, 1863, the Monitor foundered during a storm off of Cape Hatteras and went to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, along with four officers and twelve crewmen.

Battle of Hampton Roads Significance

The Battle of Hamptons Roads was important because it was the first battle between two ironclad ships and changed the way ships were built.

Battle of Hampton Roads Facts

Campaign

Military Forces Engaged

  • USA — USS Monitor, various ships, an onshore artillery battery
  • CSA — CSS Virginia, various ships, an onshore artillery battery

Number of Soldiers Engaged

  • USA — Roughly 1,400
  • CSA — Roughly 188

Casualties

  • USA — Estimated to be 369 (261 killed, 108 wounded)
  • CSA — Estimated to be 95 (78 killed, 17 wounded)

Battle of Hampton Roads Interesting Facts

  • The Battle of Hampton Roads was a naval engagement between two ironclads, the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor.
  • Hampton Roads is a bay-like body of water formed by the confluence of the James, Elizabeth, and Nansemond rivers in southeastern Virginia.
  • In the case of Hampton Roads, the word “roads” is a nautical term for a partially sheltered body of water where ships may ride at anchor.
  • Passage through Hampton Roads is the only point of connection between Norfolk and the Chesapeake Bay (and subsequently the Atlantic Ocean).
  • On March 8, 1862, the Confederate commander of the CSS Virginia was Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan.
  • On March 9, 1862, the Confederate commander of the CSS Virginia was Lieutenant Catesby R. Jones.
  • The commander of the USS Monitor during the Battle of Hampton Roads was Lieutenant John Worden.
  • The Battle of Hampton Roads was the first engagement between two ironclads in the history of naval warfare.
  • The USS Monitor’s continued presence in Hampton Roads following the Battle of Hampton Roads enabled Union General George B. McClellan to initiate his Peninsula Campaign with an amphibious landing near Fort Monroe on March 17, 1862.
  • Flag Officer J. Tattnall scuttled the CSS Virginia in the James River on May 11, 1862, rather than let his ship fall into Union hands.
  • On January 1, 1863, the USS Monitor foundered during a storm off Cape Hatteras and went to the bottom of the Atlantic along with four officers and twelve crewmen.

Timeline of the Battle of Hampton Roads

This list shows the main battles and events that took place before and after the Battle of Hampton Roads, and how it fits into the chronological order of the Peninsula Campaign.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title The Battle of Hampton Roads, 1862
  • Date March 8–9, 1862
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Hampton Roads, Peninsula Campaign
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 21, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024

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