Naval history was made on March 8, 1862, when the first Confederate
ironclad steamed down the Elizabeth River into Hampton Roads to attack
the woodensided U.S. blockading fleet anchored there. Built on the hull of
the U.S.S. Merrimac (which had been scuttled and burned when the
Federals abandoned the Gosport Navy Yard in April, 1861), the new
warship had been christened C.S.S. Virginia, but in common usage
retained its original name. After ramming and sinking the twenty-four-gun
woodenhulled steam-sailing sloop Cumberland, the Merrimac headed for
the fifty-gun frigate Congress. An awestruck Union officer watched the
one-sided fight as the Merrimac fired "shot and shell into her with terrific
effect, while the shot from the Congress glanced from her iron-plated
sloping sides, without doing any apparent injury."
The results of the first day's fighting at Hampton Roads proved the
superiority of iron over wood, but on the next day iron was pitted against
iron as the U.S.S. Monitor arrived on the scene. It was just in time to
challenge the Merrimac, which was returning to finish off the U.S.
blockading squadron. The Confederate ironclad carried more guns than the
Union Monitor, but it was slow, clumsy, and prone to engine trouble. The
Union prototype, as designed by John Ericsson, was the faster and more
maneuverable ironclad, but it lacked the Rebel vessel's brutish size and
power. The Merrimac's officers had heard rumors about a Union ironclad,
yet, according to Lieutenant Wood: "She could not possibly have made her
appearance at a more inopportune time for us...... Lieutenant S. Dana
Greene, an officer aboard the Monitor, described the first exchange of
gunfire: "The turrets and other parts of the ship were heavily struck, but the
shots did not penetrate; the tower was intact, and it continued to revolve. A
look of confidence passed over the men's faces, and we believed the
Merrimac would not repeat the work she had accomplished the day
before." Neither ironclad seriously damaged the other in their one day of
fighting, March 9, 1862 though the Merrimac was indeed prevented from
attacking any more of the Union's wooden ships. A new age of naval
warfare had dawned.
Hampton Roads