The Battle of Hampton Roads was a naval battle that occurred off the coast of Virginia on March 8 and 9, 1862.
The Monitor and the Virginia were the first two ships built by the Union and Confederacy, respectively, that had iron armor protecting their hulls. The Virginia, constructed from the wreckage of the Merrimac, left the Norfolk, Va., shipyard on March 8, 1862, immediately after its completion and sailed to Hampton Roads, where Union forces were conducting a blockade.
The Congress and the Cumberland, two wooden-hulled Union ships, attacked and “rained full broadsides on the iron-clad monster, that took, no effect, the balls glancing upwards, and flying off.” The Merrimac sank the Cumberland using its iron ram (an underwater extension of the bow) and defeated the Congress in a cannon battle. Then, when the Merrimac was fired on from ashore, its captain, Franklin Buchanan, ordered that the Congress be burned.
The Minnesota ran aground while fleeing the battle, but as darkness fell, Buchanan decided to return to Norfolk for the night. The Merrimac suffered considerable damage during the battle; its ram was broken off, its iron plates loosened and two cannons destroyed. Still, it was in good enough shape to return to the battle the following day and destroy the Minnesota and other Union ships.
To combat the Merrimac, Union leadership rushed its own ironclad, the Monitor, to Hampton Roads from Brooklyn. The March 10 New York Times provided a detailed account of the Monitor’s design and construction.
The Monitor arrived on the morning of March 9 and moved to defend the Minnesota. The Monitor and Merrimac engaged in battle at close range, inflicting considerable damage on each other. After several hours, the Monitor retreated to waters too shallow for the Merrimac to navigate to attend to the injuries of its commanding officer, Lt. John L. Worden, who had been temporarily blinded by a shell. By the time a new commanding officer had been put in place, the Merrimac, believing that the Monitor had withdrawn, was already sailing back to Norfolk.
The battle therefore ended in a draw, though both sides claimed victory. The Times correspondent pronounced the Monitor victorious, reporting that it had “routed the famous rebel iron-clad floating battery.” The Confederates, he wrote, had frequently averred that the Merrimac “was about to run out, sink the blockading vessels, and run along the Atlantic coast, and by destroying our men-of-war effectually raise the blockade. And indeed the first reports yesterday seemed as if the threat was actually about to be carried out.”
“But she was no match for the Monitor, who has now effectually Admonished her to keep out of the Road hereafter.”
The battle was the last action the Merrimac would ever see. In May 1862, with Union troops advancing on Norfolk, the Confederacy destroyed the damaged ship rather than let it fall into Union hands. The Monitor, meanwhile, sank during a storm off the coast of North Carolina on Dec. 31, 1862.
Though the battle between Monitor and the Merrimac had little effect on the outcome of the war, the power and hardiness they displayed at Hampton Roads changed the way ships were built. The United States Navy and navies in Europe abandoned the building of wooden ships and began building ironclads, ushering in a new era of iron warships.