150 years ago today, on March 9, 1862, the fate of wooden sailing vessels was essentially decided by one Civil War naval battle.
The CSS Virginia, formerly a steam frigate named the Merrimac, had been captured from the Union navy and rebuilt with iron fortification. The addition of the iron plates gave the Confederate vessel the advantage of becoming an unstoppable force against the wooden-hulled Union ships stationed in Hampton Roads off the coast of Virginia.
The Virginia attacked and sank two Union ships, a frigate called the USS Congress and a sailing sloop, the USS Cumberland. Another Yankee ship, the Minnesota, made itself an easy target by running aground. After dark, the Virginia retreated to a safe harbor, intending to finish the Minnesota off in the morning.
The Confederates were taken by surprise at daybreak March 9th, when the Monitor arrived.
The small Union vessel was described as a “cheese box on a raft.” This ship was composed of an iron exterior to repel enemy fire. The craft’s distinguishing feature, a revolving turret that enclosed two cannon, gave the strange looking vessel an advantage in maneuvering and firing in any direction.
The Monitor had actually arrived on the scene the day before, but too late to engage in battle against the Merrimac. The Yankee sailors who’d served aboard the attacked and destroyed ships had little confidence in the effectiveness of the small of the iron vessel.
But when the Merrimac reappeared on March 9th, Lieutenant S. Dana Greene gave an eyewitness account of the ensuing battle with John Worden as captain of the Yankee ironclad.
“Worden lost no time in bringing it to test. Getting his ship underway, he steered direct for the enemy’s vessels, in order to meet and engage them as far as possible from the Minnesota. As he approached, the wooden vessels quickly turned and left…”
Worden then engaged the Merrimac. The Virginia sustained direct hits, but gunfire wasn’t able to penetrate the iron shell. Four hour later, a cannon blast hit the Monitor’s pilothouse. This temporarily blinded the captain.
According to Greene: “Once the Merrimac tried to ram us; but Worden avoided the direct impact by skillful use of the helm, and she struck a glancing blow, which did no damage. At the instant of collision, I planted a solid 180-pound shot fair and square upon the forward part of her cassmate…the shot rebounded without doing any more damage than possibly to start some of the beams of her armor-backing.
“Soon after noon a shell from the enemy’s gun…struck the forward side of the pilot-house directly in the sight-hole…and exploded, cracking the second iron log and partly lifting the top, leaving an opening…Worden was standing immediately behind this spot, and, filling his eyes with powder, utterly blinded him…”
Wounded, Worden was forced to relinquish command to Greene and the Monitor withdrew, forcing a stalemate in the fight.
The Virginia escaped to Norfolk, but two months later was trapped by advancing Union forces. The iron clad vessel was destroyed by her own crew to prevent the Virginia falling into Union hands.
For more on this historic battle, visit these sites: