March 8 – 9, 1862
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.
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.
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 type of ship that would revolutionize naval warfare—the ironclad.
By February 17, 1862, enough of the work was completed for the ship to be commissioned into the Confederate navy, christened as the CSS Virginia.
The Virginia's first task was to try to put an end to a Union naval blockade of Hampton Roads that had isolated Norfolk and Richmond from Atlantic trade. Not to be confused with land thoroughfares, Hampton Roads is a bay-like body of water formed by the confluence of the James, Elizabeth, and Nansemond Rivers in southeastern Virginia. In this case, 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).
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 proceeded to pierce the Cumberland's hull with her iron ram, sending the Union frigate to the bottom along with 121 sailors. 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, seriously 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 decided to withdraw and anchored at nearby Sewell's Point, with intentions of dispatching the Minnesota on the following day. During the night, Buchanan was taken ashore and hospitalized, and Lieutenant Catesby R. Jones assumed command of the ship.
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 warship, which 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 withdrew. The first battle between two ironclads in the history of naval warfare ended in a draw.
Casualties suffered during the Battle of Hampton Roads were estimated to be 433 sailors (US 409; CS twenty-four). Although results of the engagement were inconclusive, the Virginia failed in her attempt to dislodge the Federal fleet from Hampton Roads. The Monitor's continued presence in Hampton Roads enabled Union General George B. McClellan to initiate his Peninsula Campaign with an amphibious landing near Fort Monroe on March 17.
Later, commanded by Flag Officer J. Tattnall, the Virginia attempted to prevent 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.