Also known as the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack and the Battle of the Ironclads, the Battle of Hampton Roads was the most notable naval battle of the American Civil War.
Prelude to the Battle
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 Rebels had completed enough of the work to commission the Merrimack into the Confederate navy as the CSS Virginia.
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.
Aftermath of the Battle
Roughly 433 sailors were killed or injured during the Battle of Hampton Roads (US 409; CS twenty-four). 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.