The Battle of the Ironclads

An engraving of the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia.

On the second day of the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 9 1862, which took place on a river near the Chesapeake Bay, two ironclad ships fought. What made these ships different from others was that they were made not only out of wood, but had iron covering the outside. The iron protected the boat greatly from enemy fire, and allowed it to sustain larger and more powerful shots. On one side, there was the USS Monitor, made by the Union. On the other was the CSS Virginia, made by the confederacy. Both ships were built around the same time, but the Monitor was launched earlier. The Virginia was built on top of the hull of the sunken ship the Merrimack, making use of its steam engines. It is sometimes referred to as the Merrimack because of that.

One the first day of the battle, the Virginia had taken out two union ships, and caused more to be run aground. It went out on the second day expecting to easily defeat the ships that had run aground, but instead encountered a Union ship that had similar features to itself, the Monitor. At first the crew of the Virginia did not think it was a ship, with one person describing it as a “cheese-box”.   The Virginia fired first, and the Monitor fired back.  After seeing that their shots were not doing much to the Monitor, the Virginia tried to ram it, but that did not do much. The battle continued like this, with inflicted damage minimal, for about three hours. At one point a lucky shell hit near the viewing slots in the Monitor, which caused paint and fragments of the ship to fly into the gunman’s eyes. This caused the Monitor to withdraw briefly. The Virginia saw this as them retreating from the fight, so they felt they had won and turned back. The Monitor returned and saw the Virginia leaving, so they thought that they had won. The way in which this ended is why the result of the Battle of the Ironclads is not definitive.

A curious thing about this battle is that it could have been won by either side, if changes in weaponry were made. The Monitor could have penetrated the Virginia’s plating if it had used the full amount of black powder to fire the main cannon. The creator of the Monitor chose instead to use only half of the charge, because he feared that the full amount could cause the cannon to explode. The Virginia could have won if it had used solid shot instead of shells. Solid shot is made of solid cast iron, while shells have a  chamber in the middle that is filled with explosive powder. The reason that it used shells instead of solid shot is because it was thought that it would only fight wooden ships, not ones similar to itself.

Sources:

The Civil War Home, History Central, Civil War Talk

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One thought on “The Battle of the Ironclads

  1. I also wrote a piece about new battle tactics in the civil war so this blog was appealing to me. It was very interesting to see how influential iron was in the Civil War, due to it becoming one of the greatest industries during the Guilded Age. I also thought it was interesting that the Confederate ship didn’t even take the correct type of ammunition because they did not expect to see another advanced ship. It also shows just how much military battle tactics and supplies increased during the Civil War, laying the way towards giant improvements in weapons and industry.

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