In early 1862, the Union and the Confederacy were locked in one of the most influential arms races of the Civil War. While their navies still relied on wooden ships, both sides had gambled on building revolutionary “ironclad” vessels that boasted steam engines, hulking cannons and armor plating protecting their hulls. In Brooklyn, Federal forces were prepping the iron vessel USS Monitor. At Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, the rebels were finishing their own metal colossus, CSS Virginia.
The Union’s Monitor was by far the more unusual of the two craft. Designed by Swedish-born engineer John Ericsson, the ship was around 173 feet long and featured a main deck that sat just 18 inches above the waterline. Its armaments were limited to two 11-inch Dahlgren guns, but they were housed in a revolving turret powered by a steam engine. This never-before-seen feature gave the ship’s gun crews a 360-degree range of fire.
In contrast to the nimble and innovative Monitor, the Confederacy’s Virginia was the maritime equivalent of a wrecking ball. Improvised from the ruins of the ruined American frigate USS Merrimack, the 275-footer was constructed from wood reinforced with four-inch-thick iron plate. Its most eye-catching feature was a large, sloping casemate that housed a floating battery of 10 cannons—four on each side and one at both ends. The ship’s bow bristled with a 1,500-pound iron battering ram.
Neither of the ironclads was much to look at—the Monitor was labeled a “tin can on a shingle” and the Virginia a “floating barn roof”—but critics were silenced the minute their destructive power was put on display. On March 8, 1862, the Virginia left Gosport on its maiden voyage and steamed toward nearby Hampton Roads, a vital sea junction that was patrolled by a Union blockading fleet. As the ironclad neared the Federals’ wooden flotilla, Confederate commander Franklin Buchanan addressed his crew. “Sailors,” he announced, “in a few minutes you will have the long-expected opportunity to show your devotion to your country and our cause.”
The men of the Union blockading fleet had heard rumors about the “great Southern bugaboo” lurking at Gosport, but nothing could have prepared them for actually facing the Virginia in combat. At around 2 p.m., the ironclad entered Hampton Roads and made a beeline for the American ships USS Cumberland and USS Congress. The Congress unleashed a broadside, but its cannonballs bounced harmlessly off the Virginia’s metal armor. Ignoring the enemy guns, Buchanan steamed toward the Cumberland and plowed into it with his ram, cleaving a seven-foot-wide hole in its hull. The Cumberland instantly began to sink, and it nearly took the Virginia down with it before the ironclad’s ram broke off. When the crippled Cumberland refused to surrender, the Virginia pummeled it with cannon fire. “The once clean and beautiful deck was slippery with blood, blackened with powder and looked like a slaughterhouse,” one Cumberland crewman later remembered.
While the Cumberland sank, the Virginia turned its attention to USS Congress, which had intentionally run itself aground in shallow water to avoid being rammed. Despite knowing that his own brother was among its crewmen, Buchanan raked the Congress with cannon fire for several minutes, inflicting horrific casualties and eventually setting it ablaze. The ironclad would have moved on to the steam frigate USS Minnesota, which was also grounded in the shallows, but after Buchanan was wounded in the thigh, acting commander Catesby Jones elected to call off the attack and return the following morning. By then, the Virginia had sunk two Union ships and killed over 240 sailors. The battle would remain the bloodiest day in U.S. naval history until World War II.
The Virginia’s rampage had been a serious blow to the Union navy, but the remainder of the blockading fleet soon received an imposing reinforcement. On March 6, the ironclad USS Monitor had left Brooklyn and sailed south under the command of Lieutenant John Worden. By dawn on March 9, its sleep-deprived crew had arrived in Hampton Roads and positioned their vessel alongside the stranded Minnesota. “I will stand by you to the last if I can help you,” Worden vowed to the Minnesota’s captain.
Later that morning, having steeled his crew with a ration of two jiggers of whiskey per man, the Virginia’s acting commander Catesby Jones steered his ship back into Hampton Roads to finish off the Minnesota. It was only when he neared the grounded vessel that he noticed the Monitor floating alongside it. The rebels initially mistook the peculiar looking ironclad for a raft or even a ship’s boiler, but they quickly set aside their surprise and let loose with the first cannon salvo of the day. Moments later, the Monitor replied with a burst from its twin Dahlgren guns.
For the next three hours, the Monitor and the Virginia engaged in a ferocious cannon duel—the first ever waged by ironclad warships. “The fight continued with exchange of broadsides as fast as the guns could be served and at very short range, the distance between the vessels frequently being not more than a few yards,” the Monitor’s executive officer Samuel Dana Greene later wrote. The waters of Hampton Roads soon filled with the groan of steam engines, the thunderclap of naval guns and the clang of cannonballs ricocheting off iron plate. Inside their sweltering and smoke-filled metal machines, the gun crews of both ships worked frantically to fire and reload their cannons. Virginia’s chief engineer Ashton Ramsay later noted that the hellish scene could only be compared “with the poet’s picture of the lower regions.”
Both ship’s armor plating fared well under the constant barrage of cannon fire, but their crews soon ran into technical problems. The Monitor’s revolving turret continued to turn, but its operator could not easily stop it, which forced the gunners to fire on the fly. The Virginia, meanwhile, was finding it difficult to outmaneuver the faster and more agile Monitor. At one point, the Confederate ironclad even briefly ran aground in shallow water and had to push its engines to the breaking point to dislodge itself. Sensing that his guns were causing no serious damage to the Monitor, Jones eventually tried to ram it. The Virginia succeeded in colliding with the Yankee ship, but having lost its iron ram the previous day, it was unable to deal any significant damage.
The battle raged all morning with no clear advantage for either side. “Shot, shell, grape, canister, musket and rifle balls flew about in every direction,” the Monitor’s Greene wrote, “but did us no damage.” Finally, at around 12 p.m., the Virginia’s gunners fired a blast that struck the pilothouse near the Monitor’s bow. Worden had been peering out the pilothouse’s iron shutters at the time, and he was left temporarily blinded by powder and debris. “I cannot see, but do not mind me,” he told Greene as he was carried away. “Save the Minnesota if you can.”
The Monitor had pulled away from the battle while the crew saw to Worden’s injury, yet to the Virginia, it appeared that the Union ship was giving up the fight. Catesby Jones was still eager to sink the Minnesota, but with the tide turning and his enemy seemingly in retreat, he decided to withdraw. When the Monitor finally tried to rejoin the battle, the Virginia had already started steaming back to Portsmouth for repairs. At that, the first ever clash of ironclads came to a sudden and inconclusive end.
The sinking of the Cumberland by CSS Virginia. [/caption]
Both the Union and the Confederacy would later claim victory in the Battle of Hampton Roads, but most historians now consider the contest a tactical draw. The fact that neither one of the ironclads had managed to destroy the other proved to be the most significant lesson of the fight. In the span of a morning, the Monitor and the Virginia had brought an end to the age of wooden warships. After hearing about the slugfest, navies around the globe devoted themselves to building steam-powered ironclads. The Confederacy and the Union would eventually launch over 70 of the metal behemoths before the Civil War ended.
Neither the Monitor nor the Virginia lasted long after Hampton Roads. During the Confederate evacuation of Norfolk in May 1862, the Virginia’s crew intentionally blew up their ironclad to prevent it from falling into Yankee hands. Later that same year, the Monitor sank in rough seas off the coast of North Carolina. Both ships’ careers had lasted less than a year, but for those who witnessed their historic duel, it was evident that sea combat would never be the same again. “This successful and terrible work will create a revolution in naval warfare,” wrote one Southern reporter, “and henceforth iron will be the king of the seas.”
Steel vs. Steel: The Pointless Battle That Changed Naval History Forever
After the Battle of Hampton Roads, technology became the crux of naval warfare.
Here's What You Need To Remember: Ironically, the first ironclad battle itself was inconclusive. Despite much maneuvering and firing, neither ship was really able hurt the other. But that wasn’t the point.
Had you been around 155 years ago, and stood on the Virginia shore on a March day in 1862, you would have witnessed the most astounding sight.
You would have glimpsed a ship the likes of which you had never seen before: what looked like a slab-sided floating butter dish sailing into Hampton Roads, Virginia on March 8, 1862. It was the Confederate States Ship Virginia, a warship built upon the wooden hull of the captured Union frigate Merrimac (by which name the ship was also known).
Wooden ships equipped with both steam engines and sails would have been a familiar sight in 1862, as the Union navy maintained its blockade of the South’s trade. But the Virginia was different: a steam-powered ship without sails, but with sides covered by four-inch-thick iron plating, and armed with ten cannon and a three-foot iron ram protruding from the bow.
It wasn’t that ironclads were totally new: Britain and France had already been building ironclads (the first ironclad, the French Gloire, had been launched in 1859). But most ships in the mid-1800s were wooden, and ironclads had yet to be used in combat.
It was the fate of the Union blockaders at the Battle of Hampton Roads to be the guinea pigs. Their crews were shocked to discover their cannonballs bouncing off the strange ship’s sides.
Shock soon turned to horror: the Virginia rammed and sank the sloop USS Cumberland and set ablaze with red-hot cannon balls the frigate Congress, while the frigate Minnesota ran aground.
The implications were staggering. If the South could break the Union’s blockade using ironclads, the Confederacy would win the war. If the U.S. Navy’s wooden ships were helpless against ironclads, so too were the stout oaken ships of the Royal Navy, France and Russia. The clang of cannonballs ricocheting off metal armor was a declaration that most of the world’s warships were now obsolete.
Yet if that wasn’t amazing enough, what came next was. The following day, March 9, another strange ship charged into Hampton Roads like sea cavalry to the rescue. With a single turret perched on a low, flat hull, the USS Monitor was described by observers as a “cheesebox on a raft.”
Ironically, the first ironclad battle itself was inconclusive. Despite much maneuvering and firing, neither ship was really able hurt the other.
But that wasn’t the point. Sitting at our computers, wired to a world of Internet and drones and nuclear weapons, it’s easy to forget just how amazing ironclads were in an era when high tech was a slow, smoke-belching steam locomotive. Before the Monitor versus Virginia duel, naval technology had been static. The ships of the sixteenth-century Spanish Armada weren’t that different than Admiral Nelson’s ships of the line and frigates of the early 1800s. Nations like Britain and France might compete in numbers and size of ships, but not in their design.
However, after the Battle of Hampton Roads, technology became the crux of naval warfare. Consider the changes between 1862 and World War I: steel ships propelled by coal and oil instead of sail, ships with gun turrets insteads of rows of fixed guns, rapid-fire cannon, smokeless powder, radio communications, torpedoes, mines and submarines. Extend the timeline to 1962, and you have aircraft, guided missiles, radar, sonar, electronic warfare and nuclear weapons.
If technology has become key, then so are the resources that support it. Eighteenth-century Britain fought wars to ensure that it had access to naval supplies such as wood, hemp and tar. In the Industrial Age, different resources were needed. Not just iron, coal and oil, but intellectual and skilled resources: naval architects, engineers, mechanics and sailor with technical skills. Which meant that those nations with the industrial, mineral and mental resources would become dominant.
Still, someone watching the floating cheese box battle the floating butter dish can be forgiven for not appreciating what lay in the future. Just watching the first duel of two ironclads would have been enough for one lifetime.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook. This article first appeared in 2017.
Plunge into Civil War history at Hampton Roads Ironclad: The clash of the Monitor and Merrimac, in March 1862, changed naval warfare forever.
The "hallowed grounds" of the Civil War include some very hallowed waters.
Americans and foreign visitors alike make pilgrimages to the great battlefields of the War Between the States in an unending stream. The names of these killing grounds have been immortalized and sanctified by the sacrifice they represent and the importance of their outcomes -- Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, Fort Donelson, Shiloh.
But a little more than an hour's drive from Richmond -- indeed, just a half an hour east from such historic destinations as Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown -- is a place that ought to be as honored.
It was as significant to the outcome of the war as any other area of the conflict.
Though some land cannons were involved, it was a battle fought on water -- that wide stretch of the James River called Hampton Roads, just west and south of the confluence with the York. It was one of the most memorable naval engagements in the entire history of warfare: the clash of the first ironclads, the Monitor and Merrimac, in March 1862.
This was the vigorous battle that, though ending in a stalemate, changed naval warfare for all time, abruptly ending the usefulness of the wooden-sided sailing ship as an instrument of war and ushering in an era of steam-driven, ironclad warships and a maritime arms race that has endured until the present day.
And visitors may be thankful that, because of some splendidly preserved forts -- including Fortress Monroe near Newport News and Hampton -- and an abundance of excellent area maritime museums, that waterborne conflict can be relived and restudied as well as any of those major engagements on land.
Union and Confederate ships and gunboats, of course, fought in almost every theater of the War Between the States.
U.S. warships blocked the mouth of the Mississippi and seized the key port of New Orleans. The North captured the Confederate naval stronghold that was Mobile Bay.
But the waters of Virginia in the lower Chesapeake Bay were of supreme importance. The broad Potomac River led directly to Washington, and in the early days of the war, only Fort Washington on bluffs opposite Mount Vernon defended the Union capital from Confederate warships.
And the James River led directly to Richmond and was guarded by the Confederates at all costs.
Between Cape Henry and Cape Charles, the broad mouth of the Chesapeake offered a chance for Confederate merchant vessels to break into the open sea and reach friendly ports in Europe -- provided the swift Confederate blockade runners could draw off the Union warships on patrol there.
The key was Hampton Roads. Control of it meant control of all shipping to and from Richmond, Petersburg, Suffolk, Portsmouth and Norfolk.
On the north bank of the river were the important ports of Newport News and Hampton, dominated by the impregnable Fortress Monroe, which remained in Union hands throughout the war.
But on the south bank, at Norfolk, was the Gosport Navy Yard.It contained one of only two naval dry docks in the nation, a vast store of gunpowder and some 1,200 assorted cannons. It was also home to a number of important warships. The 40-gun ship of the line Merrimac, one of the most powerful in the U.S. fleet, was there for repairs.
When the Confederates threatened the yard, the base commandant abandoned it, burning the Merrimac but letting the Confederates have 1,195 guns and much of the gunpowder. The Confederates refloated the remains of the Merrimac, converting it into one of the world's first ironclad warships and renaming it the CSS Virginia.
On each side it carried three 9-inch cannons firing 70-pound explosive shells, and a 6.4-inch rifled naval gun. At bow and stern were two 7-inch rifled cannons. The bow was equipped with a sharp ram that could go through the sides of wooden warships below the waterline.
The CSS Virginia was the great hope of the Confederacy. With its armor, it could clear Hampton Roads and the lower Chesapeake of Yankee vessels, ending the blockade and opening Richmond to the Atlantic and possible alliances with France and England.
But word of the Merrimac's conversion had reached Washington, and a countermeasure was in the works. An "Iron-Clad, Shot-Proof Steam Battery of iron and wood combined," as the specifications put it, was begun in October 1861 at Greenport, Long Island.
On March 8, 1862, the Merrimac (Virginia) steamed out of Norfolk to do her worst. At 265 feet long, carrying a crew of about 300, she looked a monster and behaved like it. With Union shells bouncing off it, the Merrimac cannonaded and rammed the Union sail warships Congress and Cumberland, killing more than 300 Union seamen. It tried to get at the USS Minnesota, but could not because of shallow water.
The plan was to come back the next morning at a higher tide and finish the Minnesota. But during the night the Union Monitor arrived on the scene. At 172 feet and carrying a crew of 60, it was significantly smaller than the Merrimac. It was armed with only two 7-inch Dahlgren cannons, but these were placed in a revolving turret that could turn a lot more quickly than the Confederate ship.
When the Merrimac entered Hampton Roads in the morning, the duel began. For two hours the two ungainly warships pounded each other, but with only marginal effect. Had the Monitor's guns been firing full loads of power, they might have done the Merrimac some serious damage, but, because of fears of accidentally blowing up the Monitor's guns, only half charges were used.
The Monitor eventually withdrew to the protection of Fortress Monroe's guns. The Merrimac made another try for the Minnesota, but encountered more shallow water and broke off.
The two ironclads never fought again. The next month, as Union Gen. George B. McClellan moved up the peninsula between the York and James rivers toward Richmond, the Monitor and some accompanying gunboats were used in support.
The Merrimac's doom was sealed by President Abraham Lincoln, who in early April arrived at Fortress Monroe and ordered an immediate attack on Fort Norfolk across the river. As Union troops approached, the Confederates tried to get the Merrimac away upriver but encountered shoals again and had to blow it up to keep it out of Union hands.
Monitor's turn came that December. With the Union in full possession of the Hampton Roads area, the Monitor was taken under tow to be used against Confederate shipping in and around Charleston, S.C. Off Cape Hatteras, N.C., it took on too much water and went down. Its wreck hasbeen discovered by modern-day divers, and pieces have been retrieved.
Both ships quickly spawned progeny -- the Confederates built a large number of armored rams that resembled the Merrimac, and the Union side launched so many similar ironclad warships and gunboats that they became a new class of vessel called monitors.
The first modern battleships were on the scene in time for the Spanish-American War -- just 36 years after the era of wooden sail-powered warships ended.
Just south of Hampton (Interstate 64 south to Exit 268) Fort Monroe (as it now is known) is an operating U.S. military facility. But its famous Casement Museumis one of the best of its kind.
In addition to its role in helping the Union beat back the Merrimac, the fort was once the home of a young Lt. Robert E. Lee, when he was still in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Another famous resident was a Sgt. Maj. Edgar Allan Poe, who left the Army after two years to become a writer.
An inmate after the Civil War was Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who was falsely charged with involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln, as well as with treason and mistreatment of Union prisoners.
On Norfolk's Front Street one block east of the foot of Colley Street is historic Fort Norfolk. Every March 8-10, re-enactments are staged here, involving not only re-enactor Confederate troops, muskets and guns, but also actual, smaller-scale and motor-driven replicas of the Monitor and Merrimac. Information: (804) 625-1720.
The Nauticus National Maritime Center at 1 Waterside Drive ( 664-1000) is more concerned, on its main floor, with modern naval warfare than the 19th century's, but is a popular hands-on, high-tech attraction.
On Nauticus' second floor is the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, with exhibits on the ironclads' clash and other significant naval encounters in the region, including the 1781 Battle of the Capes between French and British fleets at the mouth of the Chesapeake, in which the British were kept from assisting the encircled Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. This assured the triumph of the American Revolution.
In Newport News, just off Interstate Highway 664 at 917 Jefferson Ave., is the Monitor and Merrimac Center ( 245-1533). It has some excellent depictions of early life and maritime activities in Virginia, and a well-done diorama of the Monitor-Merrimac fight.
Work is under way on two larger-scale copies of the ironclads that, as planned, will carry out re-enactments during the warm-weather tourist season.
Newport News' Mariners' Museum is just up the James River at 100 Museum Drive ( 581-SAIL). Its Clash of Armor exhibit also graphically retells the Monitor and Merrimac story, and it has relics on display from both vessels: Merrimac's steering wheel and Monitor's anchor and navigation lantern. It also shows an undersea video of the Monitor lying at sea's bottom.
Harbor cruises of the Hampton Roads area via sightseeing craft are available from Waterman's Wharf, 917 Jefferson Ave., Newport News ( 225-1533).
Up the Potomac, Fort Washington (at the foot of Fort Washington Road in Prince George's County,  763-4600) is a formidable Civil War landmark. From its ramparts, one has a view of the water approaches from Chesapeake Bay and the continuation up the river to Washington, marked by the Washington Monument -- which, though still under construction, would also have been visible then.
When Ironclads Clashed: How Hampton Roads Changed Naval Warfare Forever - HISTORY
By David A. Norris
Smoke swirled amid the thunderous noise that roared from powerful Dahlgren guns and Brooke rifles. Thousands of spectators along the shore watched the two most dangerous warships in the world at each other at point-blank range. Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones hoped that his Virginia would overcome the Monitor and clear the U.S. Navy from Hampton Roads, Virginia.
Jones was startled to see a party of his gunners standing idle. Confronting Lieutenant John R. Eggleston, Jones asked, “Why are you not firing, Mr. Eggleston?”
“Why, our powder is very precious, and after two hours’ incessant firing I find that I can do her about as much damage by snapping my thumb at her every two minutes and a half,” replied the lieutenant.
Eggleston was right. Alone, either ship could have cut a swath through any of the world’s navies. Matched against each other, heavy explosive rounds fired by one combatant simply bounced off the sides of the other. Shell after shell burst uselessly in the air. Others splashed into the water, throwing nothing more harmful than a little salt spray through the gun ports.
On March 9, 1862, the Union and Confederate navies fought the first naval action in history between two ironclad vessels, the Monitor and the Virginia. Both combatants at the Battle of Hampton Roads represented remarkable leaps in naval technology. Less than one year before the battle, no one could have possibly dreamed that these two ships would meet and alter the course of history. The Virginia had been a completely different ship in a different navy, and nothing then existed of the Monitor other than a batch of design drawings and a pasteboard model.
Capturing the MerrimackLt. Catesby ap Roger Jones.
Secessionist gunners opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861. One day after the fort surrendered, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to confront the rebellion, and secessionists moved to seize federal military installations in other Southern states.
Perhaps the greatest potential prize for the secessionists was the U.S. Navy’s Gosport Shipyard, on the western shore of the Elizabeth River in Virginia. Captain Charles Stewart McCauley, a veteran of the War of 1812, commanded the Gosport Shipyard. In early 1861, there were a dozen warships in varying states of readiness or neglect at the yard. U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles worried that Virginian secessionists might capture the shipyard. Among the ships at Gosport was the steam frigate Merrimack, which was scheduled to have her engines replaced. On April 11, Welles ordered McCauley to get the Merrimack ready for sea so a crew could remove her to safety in Philadelphia.
McCauley, though, accomplished nothing. Secessionist sympathizers persuaded him that any action on his part would provoke an attack by Virginian troops. Welles sent Captain Hiram Paulding to replace McCauley and prevent the capture of the vessels at the shipyard.
When Paulding arrived on the evening of April 20, it was too late. Fearing that a secessionist attack was imminent, McCauley ordered his men to scuttle the warships and set the workshops on fire. Paulding retrieved only two ships, the steam sloop of war Pawnee and the sailing frigate Cumberland.
Virginia troops moved into the Gosport Shipyard on April 21. A vast bounty of war materials fell into Rebel hands. Approximately 1,000 cannons and 2,000 barrels of gunpowder were taken unharmed, not to mention thousands of rounds of shot and shell. Union sailors had scuttled nine naval vessels, ranging from outmoded ships of the line to the modern steam frigate Merrimack.
Although the Merrimack was burned to the waterline and then sunk, her draft of 24 feet, 3 inches meant that her engines and a great deal of her hull escaped damage. Enough remained for a rebuilding project.
An Ambitious Rebuilding Project
Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory saw ironclads as a way for his navy to counter the Union’s advantages in naval strength and industrial potential. Time was of the essence, and the Merrimack’s hull and its engines would give the South a head start in building a new ironclad at the captured navy yard.
For the new ship’s design and construction, Mallory consulted with Navy Lieutenants John Mercer Brooke and John L. Porter. Mallory chose a plan proposed by Brooke. Porter supervised the overall construction of the vessel, and Brooke saw to the armor plating and the ship’s guns.
Workmen razed the Merrimack to the level of her old berth deck and built a new main deck. Atop the deck rose a 170-foot-long casemate. Little of the hull was exposed ahead and astern of the fortress-like casemate, the main deck was intended to ride about level with the waterline and would be awash when underway. Two feet of pine and oak planking covered by two two-inch-thick layers of iron protected the casemate. Angled at 35 degrees, the steep pitch of the casemate walls helped deflect enemy shot.
Aboard the Merrimack were 10 guns. Two 7-inch Brooke rifles peered from the bow and the stern of the casemate. Two 6.4-inch Brooke rifles and six 9-inch smoothbore Dahlgrens served as the broadside guns. Another weapon harked back to ancient times: a 1,500-pound, wedge-shaped cast iron ram. Lieutenant John R. Eccleston recalled that the ram “was about two feet under water, and projected about two feet from the stem. It was not well fastened.”
Although officially renamed the Virginia, the ironclad was still called the Merrimac (with the final “k” dropped) by most Northerners and many Southerners.
In action, the Virginia would have 320 officers and crew. Most officers were veterans of the antebellum U.S. Navy. Jones would become the Virginia’s executive officer. Stepping into command of the James River defenses and the Virginia was Captain Franklin Buchanan, the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. Experienced officers were easier to come by than skilled sailors. Although a sizable portion of the old navy’s officers resigned to join the Confederacy, few enlisted men followed them. In desperation, Lieutenant John Taylor Wood hunted for volunteers from the army camps around Norfolk. About 80 soldiers were obtained for the crew, including a detachment of about 30 men from the Norfolk United Artillery under Captain Thomas Kevill.
The green recruits had about two weeks of drill with naval guns aboard the Confederate States. Once the frigate United States, the 1790s-era ship was so worn out that the Federals did not bother to scuttle her when they fled from the Gosport Shipyard. Desperate for any type of vessel, the Rebels used her as a receiving ship. There was no time to train with the larger guns aboard the Virginia, and the first time the crew fired them, they would be in action.
The “Ericsson Battery”Lt. John Worden.
Word of the mysterious and dangerous new Confederate project under construction at the Gosport Shipyard reached the North. As the Rebels rushed to complete their “iron battery,” the Union scrambled to counter this new threat.
A man with a potential answer to the Union’s emergency was John Ericsson. The Swedish-born inventor had a long record of innovations. He was one of two inventors who independently introduced the screw propeller in 1836. Ericsson also designed the Princeton, the first screw propeller ship in the U.S. Navy.
The U.S. Navy issued a call for new ironclad vessel designs, with a deadline of August 15, 1861. Businessman Cornelius Bushnell, who pushed a design of his own, showed Ericsson his plans. While approving of Bushnell’s proposed vessel (which became the Galena), Ericsson shared a much more visionary plan of his own. Bushnell was so impressed with Ericsson’s ideas that he used his considerable influence to help the Swedish inventor get a contract to build what became the Monitor.
On October 25, 1861, the keel was laid at the Continental Iron Works at Green Point, New York. Parts of the vessel, including the turret and the engines, were built elsewhere and brought to Green Point for final assembly.
For months called “Ericsson Battery,” the craft was an all-iron vessel with a main deck that rose scarcely 18 inches above the waterline, leaving little freeboard for enemy gunners to hit. Besides collapsible smokestacks, little interrupted the flat expanse of the deck other than an armored gun turret and a small pilot house. With a cylindrical turret atop the almost featureless deck, it is little wonder that the ship was called “a cheese box on a raft.”
Ericsson’s ironclad was 172 feet long and had a beam of 41.5 feet. The broad flat deck overlapped far beyond the hull to protect the engines, rudder, and propeller. Inside the iron turret, which had an interior diameter of 20 feet, were two 11-inch Dahlgren guns. The turret rotated under the power of the ship’s engines. Forced-draft ventilators stoked the fires and refreshed the air in the engine room.
Lieutenant John L. Worden was chosen as captain of “Ericsson Battery” on January 16, 1862. Worden would command a much smaller crew than Buchanan. Executive officer Lieutenant Samuel Dana Greene wrote that, including the captain, there were 58 men aboard when the ironclad first went into action. Worden wrote Gideon Welles about the gun turret: “17 men and 2 officers would be as many as could work there with advantage a greater number would be in each other’s way and cause embarrassment.”
The Troublesome Iron Clads
Commissioned on February 25, 1862, Ericsson’s ship was given the name Monitor. When the peculiar-looking craft steamed into the East River two days later, it looked like Ericsson won the sprint to finish his iron vessel before the Rebels commissioned theirs. But the trip was cut short because the steering failed. Then, during an attempt to steam to the South, stormy weather in the Atlantic threatened to swamp the Monitor, and she again returned to port.
At Gosport, the South’s long-awaited ironclad was commissioned on February 17, 1862. She was 275 feet long and drew 22 feet when loaded. Artisans rushed to complete the final stages of construction. A lack of gunpowder kept the vessel out of action. Scraping up supplies of powder took several days, then there was a further wait while the gunpowder was measured out for cartridges.
Although reconditioned as much as possible, the Virginia’s second-hand engines were just barely adequate they could manage just six knots. Turning the unwieldy vessel around took half an hour.
The North was desperate to get the Monitor to Hampton Roads before the Rebels’ ironclad could ravage the Union’s vulnerable wooden warships. On March 6, the Monitor left New York again. Far at sea by the next day, the iron vessel struggled to stay afloat. Water rolled over the deck, surging into the pilot house and knocking down the helmsman. There were a host of other problems as well. The most technologically advanced warship in the world was in peril of sinking before getting a chance to fire a single shot.
But the hands held to their work all night. By the next morning, the weather moderated and the exhausted crew headed for Hampton Roads. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming clash with the Rebels, it was clear that the Monitor would never be fit for long-term duty at sea.
“Swinging Lazily by their Anchors”
On March 8, with the Monitor still out in the Atlantic, the Virginia was ready for action. She left the Gosport yard and headed for Hampton Roads, a wide estuary where the James, Nansemond, and Elizabeth Rivers unite and empty into the Chesapeake Bay. Guarding the entrance by the Chesapeake stood Union-held Fortress Monroe and the Rip Raps, an artificial island occupied by the Union’s Fort Wool.
The main channel ran between the Confederate-held southern shore and the Union-occupied northern shore. A shallow called the Middle Shoal split the passage into the North Channel and the South Channel. Confederate land batteries kept the Union ships toward the northern fringes of the deep channel.
In Hampton Roads was a Union naval force headed by the screw frigates Roanoke and Minnesota and three sailing frigates, the Cumberland, Congress, and St. Lawrence. With them were numerous other craft, including a hospital boat, three colliers, five tugs, and a dozen small gunboats.
The Virginia steamed out of the Elizabeth River, keeping to a narrow channel between a projecting headland on the right and the shallow stretch of the Craney Island Flats to the left. In support of the Virginia were the gunboats Raleigh and Beaufort. At 1 pm, the Virginia cleared Sewall’s Point.
Later in the day, three vessels of the James River Squadron would join the Rebel force: the converted sidewheel passenger steamers Jamestown (officially named the Thomas Jefferson) and Patrick Henry and the tugboat Teaser. The Patrick Henry carried 10 guns, but the others had no more than one or two guns apiece.
Past Sewell’s Point, the ironclad made a slow turn to port. This turn brought her south of the Middle Shoal. The Confederates drew nearer to the sailing vessels Cumberland and Congress off Newport News Point. The day was calm, and Wood remembered the pair of Union frigates “swinging lazily by their anchors.” Their crews seemed to have no idea of the catastrophe that loomed. Wood saw “boats hanging in the lower booms, washed clothes in the rigging.” Upon seeing the Virginia, the idyllic mood aboard the sailing ships vanished and their crews rushed to their battle stations.
The Battle of Hampton Roads Begins
Aboard the five Union frigates were a total of 200 guns. Had they been able to maneuver together to concentrate their fire on the Virginia, the wooden frigates might have stood a chance of inflicting critical damage. But on that day there was so little wind that the sailing vessels relied on tugboats to move. The St. Lawrence was too far away to lend support. As for the steamers, the Roanoke’s main shaft had been awaiting repair for months. There was nothing the Roanoke could do except make a show of releasing angry clouds of steam. A shot from a Rebel battery at Sewall’s Point hit the Minnesota’s mainmast, and the steamer soon ran aground about a mile east of Newport News Point.
Two days of action at Hampton Roads are condensed in this period lithograph. At left Union troops rescue sailors from the USS Cumberland, and at right the two ironclads trade shots at close range.
This chain of setbacks left the two sailing frigates to face the oncoming Virginia alone. Buchanan wrote that “the Virginia commenced the engagement” by firing her bow gun at the Congress. Two dozen 32-pounders aboard the Congress answered with a broadside. Close to 800 pounds of metal flew across the water. But any shots that hit their mark simply clanged against the Virginia’s armor and bounced off. The armor plating seemed invincible, but Chief Engineer H. Ashton Ramsey recalled the officers still continually warned the gunners, “Keep away from the side ports, don’t lean against the shield, look out for the sharpshooters.”
Passing the Congress, the Virginia built as much speed as possible and made straight for the Cumberland. Captain William Radford of the Cumberland was not aboard his ship. That morning, Radford was on the Roanoke, serving on a court of inquiry. Seeing his ship in peril, Radford went ashore, obtained a horse, and rushed toward Newport News. There was no time for Radford to reach his ship, and executive officer Lieutenant George U. Morris was in command as the Rebel ironclad neared.
Wood recalled that the Cumberland opened fire with her pivot guns, and then the Congress and the enemy shore batteries joined in. Aboard the Virginia, Lieutenant Charles Simms aimed the forward Brooke rifle. When Simms fired, the shot wiped out most of the Cumberland’s aft pivot gun crew.
Ramming the Cumberland
About 15 minutes after the firing began, the Virginia closed in on the Cumberland. Ramsey heard the orders communicated to the engine room. “Two gongs, the signal to stop, were quickly followed by three, the signal to reverse.” There was a brief interval while the ship sliced through the last few yards of open water. Then, the ironclad snapped through a futile barrier of spars set afloat to fend off nautical mines. Approaching at a right angle to the enemy vessel, the iron ram of the Virginia plowed deep into the Cumberland’s starboard bow, just ahead of the fore chains. Heavy hull timbers and planking gave way as if they were sticks.
Aboard the Virginia, Lieutenant Jones remembered that he felt little of the impact, but, “The noise of the crashing timbers was distinctly heard above the din of battle.” Down in the engine room, the impact felt heavier. Ramsey recalled it as a “crash, shaking us all off our feet.” The engines “labored,” and “we seemed to be bearing down with a weight on our prow,” he wrote. Indeed, the iron prow was locked inside the crushed hull timbers of the Cumberland. As the stricken ship settled into the water, she threatened to pull the Virginia under as well. Lieutenant William Harwar Parker of the Beaufort observed that the bow of the Confederate vessel “sunk several feet.” Reversing the engines, the Rebels managed to back away. Unknown to Buchanan and his officers, the ram broke off and stayed embedded in the doomed Cumberland.
The USS Cumberland‘s guns shattered a Dahlgren gun mounted on the CSS Virginia.
A few shots from the Cumberland struck home. A Yankee shell exploded near a port by the forward 7-inch Brooke rifle, hitting several men with fragments. About half of Kevill’s detachment manned one of the broadside guns, a 9-inch Dahlgren. Two of the captain’s gunners were wounded by musket balls. Just after the crew loaded another round, a shot hit their Dahlgren, simultaneously firing the gun while knocking off its muzzle. Despite the damage, Kevill’s gunners kept on firing the gun for the rest of the battle.
Another Yankee shot struck one of the 6.4-inch Brooke rifles and broke off the tube at the trunnions. The crew kept on loading and firing this gun as well, even though each discharge set the wood around the gun port on fire.
Demonstrating the Iron Clad’s Devastating Advantage
For a bit of added protection against enemy shot, the armor of the Virginia bore a thick coating of pork grease. There was some hope that by making the iron plating slippery, the grease would help deflect enemy shot. Soon the odor of the pork grease blended with the sulfurous scorching smell of exploding gunpowder. To Midshipman H. Beverly Littlepage, it seemed that the Virginia was “frying from one end to the other.”
Far worse than the few random hits taken by the Virginia was the devastation brought down upon the Cumberland. As water poured in through the hole smashed open by the ram, more shot tore through the hull and over the deck. Morris’ gunners kept up their return fire, and other hands fought a losing battle to pump out the water pouring into their ship. By 3:30 pm, the forward magazine was flooded. For another five minutes, powder from the aft magazine fed the Cumberland’s 10-inch gun, the ship’s best chance of fighting off the Rebel attack.
About that time, Radford arrived at Newport News. Before he could order a boat, the Cumberland keeled sharply to port. Only minutes after the Virginia’s ram smashed into the wooden frigate, water washed over the main hatchway of the Cumberland. Emptying their guns in a final gesture of defiance, the crew abandoned ship.
Up until March 8, 1862, duels involving a pair of warships had often taken hours of maneuvering and firing. At Hampton Roads, it took perhaps one quarter of an hour to end the centuries-long age of the wooden warship. After a fleeting exchange of fire, the Cumberland was lost. One third of the crew was dead.
“Like Water on a Wash-Deck Morning”
Buchanan was now free to finish off the Congress. Reaching the enemy ship required the Virginia to steam up the James River for more than a mile while steering to port until the ship made a wide enough arc to turn around. Scraping and dragging in the mud in the bed of the channel, the keel slowed the ironclad and made the turn take even longer. All the while shore batteries exchanged fire with the Rebel vessels.
A shot punctured a boiler on the Patrick Henry, killing four of the crew. The steamer was towed out of range until repairs to the boiler enabled the ship to return to action. During this stage of the battle, Confederate fire blew up a steamer at a Union wharf, and the Rebel gunboats sank one schooner and took another as a prize.
With the USS Monitor still in the Atlantic Ocean, the CSS Virginia rammed and sank the USS Cumberland off Newport News Point.
When the crew of the Congress first saw the Virginia steam up the James, the Yankee tars cheered, believing that the ironclad was retreating. Relief quickly gave way to a dreadful reality. Already peppered with rounds from the emboldened enemy gunboats, officers on the Congress soon realized that the Virginia was coming for them. Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, the ship’s captain, ordered the tug Zouave to come alongside and drag the frigate aground on a sandbar.
Carefully easing toward the shallows protecting the enemy vessel, Buchanan’s pilot managed to get within 150 yards of the stern of the Congress. The Virginia joined the gunboats in raking the stranded frigate. Smith could reply only with two stern guns. It was not long before one gun was dismounted and the other had its muzzle blown off. Grape and shot plowed through the Congress, hitting dozens of the crew. Among the officers aboard the ship was Paymaster Thomas McKean Buchanan, brother of the commander of the Virginia.
Blood ran down the tilted deck of the Congress, spilling over the scuppers “like water on a wash-deck morning” onto the Zouave, remembered Acting Master Henry Reaney. Broadsides from the Virginia raked the Congress, knocking over more of her guns. Aboard the Zouave, a Confederate shot smashed its figurehead, “which was a fixture atop our pilot house.” The broken statue hurtled through the air and wounded two of the Zouave’s gunners.
Firing on a White FlagCpt. Franklin Buchanan.
Lieutenant Smith was killed at about 4:20 pm. Fire broke out as incoming shells slaughtered more sailors. Amid the chaos, Smith was dead for 10 minutes before executive officer Lieutenant Austin Prendergast learned that he was in command of a defenseless and dying ship. Prendergast had no option but to surrender, but the Zouave managed to get away.
Buchanan sent the Beaufort to take possession of his prize, offload the prisoners, and burn the ship. Prendergast stepped onto the Beaufort with Captain William Smith the latter officer, recently reassigned from command of the Congress, was still aboard and serving as a volunteer officer. Prendergast surrendered the ship, although Parker noted that the Union officer handed over an ordinary cutlass rather than his own sword.
Upon hearing Parker’s orders from Buchanan, Prendergast pleaded with Parker not to set the Congress afire, as 60 wounded men were still aboard. As they talked, wounded sailors were being transferred to the Beaufort. The gunboat Raleigh joined them, and Parker directed their officers to help removed the wounded Union crewmen.
Then, Union soldiers on shore opened fire on all three vessels. All the men standing on the deck of the Beaufort, other than Prendergast and Smith, were killed or wounded. Two officers were killed aboard the Raleigh, and some of the wounded Yankee sailors were shot by their own men. Parker was wounded in his left knee. He wrote, “Lieutenant Pendergrast now begged me to hoist the white flag, saying that all his wounded men would be killed. I called his attention to the fact that they were firing on the white flag which was flying at his mainmast.”
Buchanan’s temper flared at what he saw as a treacherous violation of the rules of war, and he ordered the heating of some 9-inch solid shot. When the Beaufort and Raleigh moved away, the Virginia opened fire again with red-hot shot. Smashing into the Congress, the rounds set fire to the wreckage and flames soon ate away at wood and cordage.
Buchanan climbed up to the casemate’s roof, or spar deck. He vented his outrage by taking up a musket and firing at the Yankees on the shore. While on the spar deck, a musket ball fired from shore struck the captain in the leg, severing a femoral artery. Carried below, Buchanan turned over command to Jones. Jones tried to close in on the Minnesota. The ironclad’s deep keel kept the vessel from getting closer than about one mile from the stranded frigate. Only one shot from the Virginia struck the enemy vessel. The Jamestown and Patrick Henry edged in closer and hit the Minnesota several times before they were driven off by the Union vessel’s larger guns.
Catastrophe for the Union
As dusk approached, Jones broke off the action and returned to Gosport, deciding to wait until the next day before mopping up the rest of the Hampton Roads flotilla. In the darkness, the wreck of the Congress continued to burn. March 8, 1862, was one of the most disastrous days in the history of the U.S. Navy. Nearly 300 officers and men were killed. Two frigates were destroyed, and only shallow water and the onset of nightfall prevented the destruction of three more capital ships.
In contrast to the catastrophe that struck the U.S. Navy, the Virginia’s loss was only two dead and eight wounded. Some minor damage was evident. Besides the two broken gun muzzles, Jones reported that the armor was damaged slightly, and the “anchors and all flagstaffs shot away and the smokestack and steam pipe were riddled.” The damage to the ram was not fully realized that evening Jones wrote that “the prow was twisted” but seemed unaware that it was actually broken off and lost in the Cumberland’s hull.
“So Many Pebbles Thrown by a Child”Lt. Samuel Greene.
Meanwhile, help was near for the dispirited U.S. Navy. At 4 pm, as the battle was at its height, the Monitor passed Cape Henry. Echoes of cannon fire carried 20 miles to reach Worden and his crew. A few hours later, as bright flames flared from the Congress into the night sky, the Monitor steamed into Hampton Roads.
Lieutenant Greene took the Monitor’s cutter and visited the Minnesota. The sailors took comfort at the arrival of the “iron battery,” which they hoped would shield them when the Virginia came back. Just as Greene returned to his ship, the Congress exploded “not instantaneously, but successively her powder tanks seemed to explode, each shower of sparks rivaling the other in its height.” He continued, “Certainly a grander sight was never seen, but it went straight to the marrow of our bones.”
Sailors worked all night to get the Minnesota afloat again, but not even steam tugs and a rising tide could budge the frigate. “The tremendous firing of the broadside guns,” wrote Captain Van Brunt, “had crowded me farther upon the mud bank, into which the ship seemed to have made herself a cradle.”
Battle resumed on Sunday, March 9. At 6 am, the Virginia came out of the Elizabeth River, followed by three gunboats. At first, the Confederates steamed past the Minnesota at a comfortable distance and headed toward Fortress Monroe. Van Brunt dismissed the hands so that they could eat, but breakfast was cut short as the Virginia turned around. When the Rebel ship closed to within one mile, the Minnesota fired her stern guns and signaled to the Monitor.
One shot from the Virginia punched through several compartments aboard the Minnesota before exploding and setting a fire. Laboring to free the Minnesota, the tug Dragon took a fatal hit when a Confederate round exploded her boiler.
Worden quickly steered toward the Virginia, intending to fight the Rebel ironclad as far away from the Minnesota as possible. For the first time, two ironclad naval vessels turned their fire against each other. From the Minnesota, Van Brunt observed that even the heaviest shot and shell affected the ironclads no more than “so many pebble stones thrown by a child.”
Advantages and Disadvantages of the Monitor
The Virginia was even slower than she was on March 8. Shot holes punched through her smokestack the day before reduced the draft needed to feed the engine fires and raise steam. Although the top speed of the Monitor was only about seven knots, she could make a turn in about five minutes as opposed to the half an hour required by the Virginia. Drawing half as much water as the larger Confederate ironclad, she could maneuver over sandbars or shallows that would trap the Virginia. Rather than having to constantly maneuver into new firing positions, the Monitor could simply stay in one spot and rotate her turret.
This is not to say that everything worked perfectly aboard the Monitor. The Yankee ironclad’s turret could swing in any direction but could not fire straight ahead without risking serious injury to the occupants of the pilot house. Early in the battle, the speaking tube linking the pilot house with the turret was knocked out, requiring officers to send messengers running back and forth.
There had been little time for the crew to get used to operating the turret and aiming the guns. Looking through the ports, gunners could see only a tiny sliver of the outside world over the barrels of the massive cannons. Before the battle, reference marks were made to aid the gunners in lining up shots at particular bearings, but the bustle of action soon wore away the marks.
Placing the turret in motion was tricky, but stopping at a precise point was proving impossible. The gunners quickly learned how to estimate the moment when the gun would bear on its target, and fire while the turret was still in motion.
“No Longer an Ironclad”
Two days of combat operations had consumed tons of coal and ammunition aboard the Virginia. This did not solve the problem of her excessive draft, but instead nearly doomed the ship. Lightening her coal bunkers did not keep the Virginia from suddenly running onto a sandbar. There had been no time to extend the armor far enough below the waterline to protect the wooden hull. Now, a band of wood planking was exposed to enemy fire. And, the rudder and propeller were now potential targets as well.
Following the inconclusive battle at Hampton Roads shown in this Harper’s Weekly illustration, the USS Virginia returned to port. The Confederates scuttled the Virginia on May 12, 1862, rather than risk her capture by Union forces.
As Ramsey put it, the Virginia was “no longer an ironclad.” Without a fast escape from the sandbar, the Confederate ship would meet a similar fate to the two frigates she destroyed the day before. In the engine room, the safety valves were lashed down. The crew “piled on oiled cotton waste, splints of wood, anything that would burn faster than coal,” wrote Ramsey. Steam pressure rose to frightening levels. The propeller spun wildly, but the keel stayed stuck fast. At last, the engine crew felt a slight movement, and the massive ironclad slowly slipped into deeper water.
Mutual pounding with heavy guns proved only that neither ironclad could shatter the other’s armor. Jones thought ramming the Monitor might do the trick, and he “determined to run into her.”
Before the Virginia could reach the Monitor, the Union ship moved nimbly out of the way and received only a glancing blow. The Virginia’s attempt at ramming “left no mark on the iron except some splinters from her timbers, which are sticking to a nut and screw on her hull,” wrote a New York Times correspondent.
Lieutenant Greene remembered that one of the Dahlgrens fired a 180-pound solid round that struck the enemy’s casemate. According to their instructions, the gunners used only a 15-pound powder charge. Greene believed that a 30-pound charge, fired at such close range, could have punctured the Confederates’ armor.
No shots from either ship broke through the other’s armor. Just the same, the iron did not provide complete protection. A Confederate shell landed on the turret armor of the Monitor. Although not piercing the iron, the force of the impact knocked down three officers who were either touching the turret’s inner wall or standing close by. One officer was unfazed, but the other two were temporarily knocked unconscious.
Both ships received hits that left large dents in the armor. On the Monitor, bolts held on the armor plating. Each bolt was secured on the inside by a nut, which a shell impact could knock loose and send flying like a bit of shrapnel. A similar hit on the Virginia would crack the wooden backing behind the armor. The flying iron and wooden splinters caused no major injuries, but would remain a concern aboard later American Civil War ironclads.
Who Won the Battle of Hampton Roads
Ramming would not sink the Monitor, and firing at the turret was futile. There was nothing else on Ericsson’s “raft” to aim for except the pilot house. This proved a more vulnerable target. About noon, a Confederate shell exploded just in front of the viewing hole in the pilot house. The blast cracked and bent a protective iron “log” that sheltered the viewing port and partly blew off the roof.
Temporarily blinded by the flash of gunpowder, Captain Worden could barely sense that light was flooding in through the damaged roof. Believing that the pilot house was wrecked, Worden ordered the helm put to starboard. They made for shallow water, where the crew could assess the damage.
Worden, his face covered in blood, was tended by the surgeon. Lieutenant Greene took command. To his relief, Greene found that the pilot house was not too badly damaged. Perhaps 20 minutes after the captain was wounded, Greene was ready to renew the battle. But, he saw that the Virginia was steaming back toward the Elizabeth River. It seemed plain enough to everyone aboard the Monitor that the “cheese box on a raft” won the battle.
Aboard the Virginia, the Confederates took an entirely different view. To them, it appeared that they had inflicted serious damage on the enemy vessel, because the Monitor pulled away and retreated into shallow water. Next, the Rebels anticipated the destruction of the Minnesota. It was not to be. The pilots warned Jones that the tide was falling, and they risked grounding once again. And, there was minor damage to see to, such as a persistent leak in the prow caused by the loss of the ram and the impact with the Monitor. Jones ordered the ship to return to the shipyard. When the Virginia passed Craney Island, the crew heard raucous cheers from hundreds of soldiers who congratulated the Confederate tars for their apparent victory.
Both sides claimed they won the Battle of Hampton Roads. The Monitor was the first to break off the fight and leave the scene of the battle. But the Yankees did return to renew the battle, and they did prevent the Minnesota from meeting the fate of the Cumberland and the Congress.
Casualties were light. No one was killed on either ship, and only five men on the Monitor, including Captain Worden, were wounded. Although dueling with wooden ships cost the Confederates almost two dozen casualties on March 8, they lost no men at all to the Monitor.
The Death of the Wooden Warship
The famous pioneer ironclads never met again in battle. Only one more major action awaited the Monitor, a failed May 12 naval attack on Confederate fortifications and batteries at Drewry’s Bluff on the James River, downstream from Richmond. Although resistant to the enemy artillery, the Monitor was unable to elevate her turret-enclosed guns sufficiently to engage the Confederate batteries.
Neither the Monitor nor the Virginia would survive 1862. Union forces moved against Norfolk in early May. On the morning of the Monitor’s unsuccessful May 12 run on Drewry’s Bluff, the Confederates scuttled the Virginia rather than risk her capture.
Late in 1862, the Monitor was dispatched to Beaufort, North Carolina, to join a Union attack against the Confederate port of Wilmington. On the stormy night of December 30, 1862, Ericsson’s historic ironclad was under tow by the Rhode Island off North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Barely capable of steaming through calm waters, the Monitor plunged up and down as waves washed over her deck. Overwhelmed by the storm, the Monitor sank at about 1 am on December 31 with the loss of 16 of her crew.
Afloat for only a few months, the Virginia needed only one afternoon to prove that wooden ships had no chance in battle against armored vessels. Ramsey rather poetically noted, “The experience of a thousand years ‘of battle and of breeze’ was brought to naught. The books of all navies were burned with the Congress.” In an instant, all of the world’s wooden warships became as outdated as Roman galleys. From that moment on, the future of naval warfare belonged to descendants of the Monitor and the Virginia.
Narrrowly avoiding a fatal blow from the Italian ironclad ram Affondatore, Commodore
Anton von Petz, commander of Austrian wooden-hulled ship of the line Kaiser, came under fire from the heavy rifled guns of another enemy ironclad, the Re di Portogallo, on July 20, 1866, near the Dalmatian island of Lissa in the Adriatic Sea. This time, instead of evading the other vessel, Petz brought his ship on a collision course with the enemy’s armored hull. The 92-gun Kaiser supplemented a full set of sails with a two-cylinder steam engine. Gathering speed and momentum from her boilers, one of Europe’s last wooden ships of the line was seconds away from ramming one of Europe’s first ironclad warships in a history-making naval encounter of the Third Italian War of Independence.
For centuries Italy had been a collection of divided and rival monarchies, some of them under foreign control. The post-Napoleonic political order left much of Italy under the rule of Austria’s Hapsburg dynasty. Three wars were fought to unite Italy and win its independence. Each of these wars placed the Austrians against the Italian forces and their allies. Dominant among the Italian states, the Kingdom of Sardinia grew as it annexed the Austrian territory of Lombardy, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Tuscany, and several smaller principalities after the second war in 1859. In 1861,
the combined nation was proclaimed the Kingdom of Italy. King Victor Emanuelle of the Sardinia-Piedmont became the new country’s first king. Unification was not yet complete. French troops still garrisoned the remnants of the Papal States around Rome, and Austria still controlled Venice.
Ironclad warships like those participating in the Battle of Lissa had three primary characteristics: an armored hull, steam propulsion, and guns capable of firing exploding shells. An early version of the ironclad was first used during the Crimean War when the French employed floating ironclad batteries against Russian coastal fortifications on the Kinburn Peninsula in October 1855. It was an impressive debut. Despite receiving fire from Russian batteries, the ironclad batteries in concert with wooden warships destroyed the Russian forts in just three hours.
Seven years later, Union and Confederate ironclads clashed at Hampton Roads during the American Civil War on March 8-9, 1862. The battle on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States marked the first true naval combat between vessels built of iron rather than wood. Union and Confederate ironclads saw more action during the conflict, and European naval officers and ship designers eagerly studied accounts of these encounters. However, no bat- tle between fleets of ironclads occurred during the four-year conflict. That landmark event occurred about a year after the end of the war when approximately 20 ironclad ships of the Austrian and Italian navies fought at Lissa.
By European standards, the navies that clashed off Lissa were both new. Italy’s navy, the
Regia Marina, was formed in 1861. It was predominantly a combination of the navies of Sardinia-Piedmont and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies with contributions from smaller states. Count Carlo Pellion di Persano, a veteran officer of the old Sardinian navy, commanded the united maritime force of the new kingdom. Persano had joined the
Sardinian navy in 1824 and advanced rapidly through the ranks. He commanded the Daino during the First Italian War of Independence in 1848-1849 and a decade later participated in naval actions as a rear admiral during the Second War of Italian Independence for which he was promoted to vice admiral. In 1862 he became Italy’s Minister of Marine and afterward rose to full admiral.
With part of their country still under Hapsburg rule, the Italians saw Austria as their most likely adversary in a new war. In a major expansion and modernization program, two oceangoing ironclads were ordered from New York shipbuilder William H. Webb. The Webb vessels were the armored frigates Re d’Italia and the Re di Portogallo. At 5,700 tons each and plated with 4.5- inch armor, both ships carried impressive batteries of heavy rifled and smoothbore guns.
The New York Times reported that the engines of the Re d’Italia were built at the Novelty Iron Works, the same firm that built the distinctive turret of the USS Monitor. When first contracted by the Italian government in 1861, the Re d’Italia was begun as a wooden steam frigate. After the ironclads Monitor and CSS Virginia fought at Hampton Roads, plans were changed to include armor plating for the Re d’Italia. The design left the propellers and rudder unprotected by armor. Two smaller ironclads, the 2,700-ton iron corvettes Formidabile and Terribile, were purchased from France. An armored turret ship, Affondatore, was built in England. Essentially a double-turret monitor, the Affondatore carried only two pieces of artillery, both 10-inch Armstrong guns. The Austrian Empire arose from the land- locked interior realms of the Continent, and for centuries its Hapsburg rulers paid little attention to naval affairs. In the 1797 Treaty of Campo Formio, the Hapsburgs swapped the Austrian Netherlands with Revolutionary France in exchange for Venice and the Adriatic coastal regions of Istria and Dalmatia. With Venice came a ready-made navy for the Hapsburgs.
Austrian ship Kaiser undergoes repairs after the battle having suffered damage after ramming an enemy vessel.
Twenty-two-year-old Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian was placed in charge of the Imperial and Royal War Navy in 1852. Despite his youth, the archduke was an excellent choice as commander-in-chief. He had spent a few years at sea in the navy. His royal status gave the imperial sea service a much-needed advocate. A forward-looking reformer, Maximilian modernized the Austrian navy. When the archduke left his post in 1861, his navy was well on its way to world-class status. In the early 1860s, the Austrians began acquiring up-to-date ironclad steam warships, all of which were built in their own Adriatic shipyards.
Beside a trend toward ironclad war vessels, the navies of Austria and Italy had another factor in common: their crews spoke several different languages. Austrian officers gave their commands in German, the official language of the navy. However, many of the crewmen spoke Croatian, and many others spoke Italian dialects. When Austrian officers gave orders in German, petty officers had to translate for most of the crew.
At the time of unification in 1861, the great majority of Italians spoke regional dialects rather than standard Italian. Adding to the language differences were rivalries between the former officers of the old navies of the Italian states.
Italian Admiral Carlo Pellion di Persano made a disastrous decision to shift his flag from the Re d’Italia to the ironclad Affondatore, which opened a large gap in the Italian fleet’s line of battle.
War broke out between Austria and Prussia on June 14, 1866. This conflict, the Seven Weeks’ War, would determine whether the German states united under the wishes of Prussia or the Hapsburgs. Prussia’s ally Italy declared war on Austria on June 19. The Prussians wanted the Italian army and navy to distract the Austrians as much as possible.
Before the outbreak of the war, Admiral Persano took stock of the state of the navy. He had well-armed modern ships but was short of trained gunners, engineers, and warrant officers. He warned the naval ministry on May 21 that the fleet was unprepared for war. “It would take three months to make it tolerably ready,” he told the ministry.
Rear Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff to command of the Austrian battle fleet. He had a proven track record having led the North Sea fleet both in the Second Schleswig War of 1864 and the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. His performance in the former won him promotion to the rank of admiral. Stubborn and tending to offend superiors with his blunt opinions, Tegetthoff’s courage, efficiency, and ability to command more than compensated for his troublesome temperament. Although strict, he was fair and considerate to his subordinates, gaining their trust and admiration. He led with a steady hand in a time of technical transformation for European navies and exhibited superb command skills and impressive tactical ingenuity.
The Italian ironclad Formidable was a wooden- hulled vessel plated with iron. It boasted a battery of 20 guns in a broadside arrangement.
Tegetthoff pushed to complete the unfinished ironclads Erzherzog Ferdinand Maximilian (known as the Ferdinand Max) and Habsburg. Their new Krupp guns had not arrived, so he armed the ships with old-fashioned 48-pounder smoothbores. He was soon ready to take the fleet to sea.
On June 27, Tegetthoff’s fleet appeared off the Italian naval base at Ancona, roughly 125 sea miles southeast of Venice. The ships at Ancona were coaling, and two of them were still bringing guns on board. On the Re d’Italia, the crew was fighting a coal fire. The Re di Portogallo was unserviceable because she had water in her cylinders. None of the ships was ready for battle. Tegetthoff lingered off the coast for a few hours and then steamed away.
Spurred by demands from Prussia for action, the government ordered Persano out to sea. He left Ancona on July 8, spent five days steaming through empty waters, and returned to port.
Still under pressure from the government, Persano decided to capture Lissa. Held by an Austrian garrison, Lissa was 10 miles long and five miles wide. The island’s sea-going inhabitants worked the sardine fisheries in the offshore waters, and farmers produced wine, almonds, and figs. The British had occupied Lissa during the Napoleonic War, and the Royal Navy had achieved a minor naval victory near the island in 1811. After the final downfall of Bonaparte, the British returned Lissa to the Austrians.
The British left three Martello towers on the island, as well as British-built fortifications. Martello towers were small, round coastal forts that the British erected throughout their far-flung empire. In the intervening years, the Austrians augmented Lissa’s defenses.
Austrian Rear Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff had superb command skills and exhibited tactical ingenuity. He advised his captains to rely on ramming as well as their heavy guns.
By mid-July, rumors reached Tegetthoff that negotiations were underway to transfer Venice to Italian control. He had 800 Venetians with his fleet. Concerned about the reaction of the 800 Venetians with his fleet, the admiral requested permission to put them ashore if the city was given up. “Venice not yet given up task of the squadron unchanged,” was the reply he received. This helped restore morale when Tegetthoff revealed it to his crews.
On July 16, Persano left Ancona with a fleet of 34 ships, including 12 ironclads, 14 wooden warships, five small dispatch vessels, and three troop transports. For amphibious assaults on Lissa, he could spare only 500 marines and 1,500 sailors.
On the night of July 17, the Italian fleet neared Lissa. The mountainous island had three harbors. San Giorgio, the well-fortified main harbor, was on the northeast of the island. Two smaller harbors, Comisa and Manego, were defended by forts and guns on high ground, and their garrisons were prepared to fend off naval attacks. Comisa was on the western side of the island, and Manego on the southeastern side.
Two days of bombardment damaged the Austrian forts, but the garrisons held off the ships. Persano’s fleet suffered 16 men killed and 114 wounded, and several of the ships were damaged. On the night of July 19, Tegetthoff was steaming toward Lissa. After considering how a battle might unfold the next day, he gave detailed action plans to all of his captains. If signals were unreadable or the admiral fell in the action, his officers would know what to do.
The Austrians were outnumbered with only seven ironclads with 88 guns against a potential 13 armored Italian ships carrying 103 guns. Overall, the Italian ships were more modern, better armored, and possessed greater tonnage and horsepower. Two Italian ships boasted a pair of men- acing 10-inch, 300-pounder Armstrong guns. The ships of the fleet also had among them six 8- inch Armstrong guns and a variety of 7-inch and 8-inch guns, the majority of which were long- range rifled pieces.
The Austrian wooden warships carried a few rifled guns, but most of their armament consisted of 30-pounder smoothbores. None of their guns was larger than 48 pounds, and all were smaller than any of the guns on the enemy’s main vessels. Well aware that the enemy fleet outgunned him, Tegetthoff instructed his captains to rely on ramming and gunnery against the Italian vessels.
On the morning of July 20, the garrison of Lissa saw little through the rain and mist that cov- ered the island and the surrounding waters. They expected the landing of the enemy marines and naval infantry.
The Austrian ship Kaiser (center) has just rammed the Italian ship Re di Portogallo (right). The Kaiser advanced on the extreme left wing of the Austrian wedge that steamed into the Italian vanguard.
The little Italian dispatch vessel Esploratore appeared at 8 AM after leaving her station, signaling that the enemy was in sight. News of the approach of the Austrian fleet was a shock to the Italian officers. The fleet was scattered around the island preparing for bombardments and troop landings. Two ironclads had broken engines and another, the Formidabile, was engaged in transferring 50 wounded men to a hospital ship.
In the preceding weeks, Tegetthoff had emphasized gun drill with his crews, while the Italian sailors were given little training with their new rifled guns. Persano had not prepared a battle plan, and he had held no discussions about tactics with his captains. Indeed, Persano scoffed at the enemy’s arrival. “Behold the fishermen!” he said.
For Tegetthoff and the Austrian fleet, it had been a rough morning. Squalls stirred up rough seas, and heavy rain lashed the ships. So violent were the waves that the smaller ironclads were compelled to shut their gun ports. For a time, it looked as if the weather might prevent the impending battle. At 10 AM, the sun burned away the mist. The Austrian soldiers in their battered fortifications cheered as they saw their fleet in the distance, steaming toward them from the northwest.
Tegetthoff arranged his fleet in three arrow-shaped divisions that bore down rapidly on the enemy. His lead division of seven ironclads was followed by the steam-powered ship of the line Kaiser and five wooden steam frigates, and a last division combining the smaller wooden vessels. The latter division included the Greif, the emperor’s paddle-wheel steam yacht, which was pressed into service as a dispatch boat.
As the enemy neared, Persano had 10 ironclads present and ready for action. One ironclad, the Terribile, was en route from Comisa. Another ironclad, the Formidabile, was incapable of battle because of damage from the Austrian shore batteries on Lissa. Under Vice Admiral Giovanni Battista Albini, the wooden vessels clustered off the north coast of Lissa and took little part in the battle. Following a practice used during the American Civil War, some of the wooden ships hung heavy iron chains over their sides to give some protection to their engines and hulls.
Persano’s ironclads formed a line, steaming north of Lissa in a northeasterly direction. While the enemy approached, the Italian commander made the disastrous decision to shift his flag from the Re d’Italia to the tenth available ironclad, the Affondatore. The remainder of his armored ships ended up in three divisions of three ships commanded by Rear Admiral Giuseppe Vacca, Captain Emilio Faa di Bruno, and Captain Augusto Riboty.
Halting to change flagships opened a large gap in the line of battle because the three vessels in the lead kept steaming ahead. Persano later explained that he wanted to direct the battle “outside the line in an ironclad of great speed, to be able to dash into the heat of bat- tle, or carefully to convey the necessary orders to the different parts of the squadron.” Unfortunately, the admiral had not mentioned this move to his captains beforehand, and most of them were too far away to see that the Affondatore was now their flagship. During the battle, most of the fleet watched in vain for signals from the Re d’Italia. At any rate, the Affondatore’s low freeboard and minimal array of two bare pole masts made her poorly suited for displaying signal flags.
Tegetthoff’s course took his fleet nearly at a right angle toward the Italian line. Rear Admiral Vacca’s flagship Principe di Carignano, which was first in line, opened fire at 10:43 AM. One of the first shots struck the Austrian ironclad Drache, killing her commander, Captain Heinrich Freiherr von Moll.
Gunfire flashed from one ship after another. Tegetthoff was in the lead aboard the Ferdinand Max. He steamed into battle smoke that was so thick that he initially was unaware that he was leading his division through a gap in Persano’s battle line. Vacca’s three ships turned to port to flank the first division of enemy vessels and to get closer to the vulnerable unarmored ships in the rear divisions. Three Austrian ironclads to port of Tegetthoff steered to block Vacca, while the three to starboard veered to confront the remaining enemy ironclads.
The Ferdinand Max passed completely through the enemy line then turned back to confront the enemy center. Captain Maximilian Daublebsky von Sterneck climbed halfway up the shrouds to get a better vantage point.
Battle formations dissolved into a melee as ships maneuvered on their own, seeking to ram opponents or avoid collisions. With the poor visibility, it was difficult to distinguish national ensigns. All the Italian ships were painted gray, and the Austrians were painted black, although each funnel was painted with individualized color trim. Tegetthoff sent no signals after the firing began, but his captains had their instructions, which told them to ram everything gray.
On the Affondatore, Persano tried to ram the Kaiser. With its 10-inch Armstrong rifles blazing from both turrets, the Affondatore hit the Kaiser several times with 300-pound shells. One of these huge shells dismounted a gun on the Austrian deck, and mowed down six men at the helm. But the ship of the line evaded the Italian ram and delivered two damaging broadsides.
The Affondatore drew off and then sped toward the Kaiser for another attempt at ramming but once again missed. Both vessels scraped close together. Small arms fire mortally wounded an Austrian officer, an ensign who was posted in the mizzen top. It was becoming clear that ramming an enemy vessel that was underway was not as easy as it seemed. For the ironclads, a full turn took several minutes, while most of the time a quick adjustment of the helm was enough for a potential target to change course and avoid being hit.
Eluding the Affondatore, the Kaiser was confronted by another ironclad, the Re di Portogallo. The latter, with the armored ships Maria Pia and Varese, attacked the wooden ships of Tegetthoff’s second division. Some of the shells soared over the Kaiser and hit other vessels, and one shot killed the captain of the screw frigate Novara. The wooden-screw corvette Erzherzog Friedrich and the paddle-wheel dispatch boat Kaiserin Elisabeth were in danger of destruction by the Re di Portogallo.
No Austrian ironclads were at hand, so Commodore Petz brought the Kaiser’s prow on a course to ram the Re di Portogallo amidships. The Re di Portogallo altered course just in time to soften the blow inflicted by the Kaiser. As the ships crashed at 11 AM, the oak prow of the Kaiser dented the ironclad’s armor. Between the sharp impact and a broadside from the Italian ship, the Kaiser lost her bowsprit and part of the stem. The foremast collapsed and, falling backward onto the deck, crushed the funnel. The Austrian crew hacked at the wreckage but could not prevent the tangle of wood, canvas, and rigging from catching fire. Broken off in the collision and left on the deck of the Italian ironclad was the Kaiser’s figurehead, a statue of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.
Petz inflicted some damage on the ironclad. Eleven port lids were smashed and two anchors and a field gun on the deck of the Re di Portogallo were knocked overboard. As the ships exchanged broadsides, several Austrian shots struck the Italian ship’s hull below the armor plating.
While the wreckage of the Kaiser’s foremast continued to burn, more shells plowed into the ship of the line and knocked out some of the forward guns. The steering gear was damaged, and with- out the funnel the engineer could raise but little steam. Petz headed for safety at San Giorgio, and several of the wooden vessels clustered around to protect the Kaiser.
The Ferdinand Max’s iron ram punched through the armor and heavy timbers into the engine room of the Re d’Italia, leaving a gaping hole on her port side. In the mistaken belief that the Re d’Italia was the enemy’s flagship, four Austrian ironclads descended on the unfortunate vessel.
Persano on the Affondatore steamed forward to ram the Kaiser. A square hit amidships would have sunk the ship of the line. At the last moment, Persano ordered the helm turned to miss the Kaiser. The admiral later stated he gave the order because the enemy ship was already helpless. Just the same, the Italian vessels pounded the crippled ship with their guns until the Kaiser was able to draw out of range. A single shell from the Affondatore killed or wounded 20 men.
The Ferdinand Max twice tried to ram enemy iron- clads. The second try yielded a trophy when the enemy’s mizzen topmast and gaff snapped and fell onto the forecastle of the Austrian ship. Quartermaster Nicolo Car- covich ran forward. Under heavy small arms fire, Carcovich tugged at the Italian ensign. Finally pulling the flag free, he fastened it to a stanchion. It is believed the captured flag came from the Palestra. In the apparent mistaken belief that the Re d’Italia was still the enemy’s flagship, the Austrians targeted that vessel. Four ironclads including the Ferdinand Max beset the Re d’Italia, which in turn was assisted by the Palestro.
Austrian shot bounced off the plating of the Palestro, but only one-fourth of the vessel was armored, protecting the engine room but little else. A shell smashed through the unprotected wooden stern and set the wardroom on fire. With flames spreading close to the magazine, the Palestro dropped out of action to deal with the fire. Meanwhile, the steering gear of the Re d’Italia was hit and the ship steamed slowly amid the Austrian vessels. Captain Sterneck, still watching from high up in the shrouds, ordered the Ferdinand Max to ram the enemy vessel. When it was just a few hundred feet from the Re d’Italia, Sterneck ordered the engines to stop. That way the ship would be ready to reverse engines and back away from the enemy’s crushed hull before the two vessels locked together. As the engineers awaited their order, momentum carried the ship ahead at 111/2 knots.
Aboard the Re d’Italia, Captain Faa di Bruno made a fatal error as the Austrian armored frigate loomed off his port side. He was running ahead at full speed, but another Austrian ship blocked his path. Rather than push ahead and ram the ship off his bow, Faa di Bruno decided to reverse engines to elude the Ferdinand Max.
But there was no time to finish the maneuver. The Re d’Italia ceased forward motion and stopped dead in the water. Before the ship could begin backing out of harm’s way, the Ferdinand Max struck the Re d’Italia amidships on her port side. The iron ram punched through the armor and heavy timbers into the engine room. An 18-foot-wide hole, half of it below the waterline, let in a flood of seawater. For a few moments, the stricken ship lurched 25 degrees to starboard, exposing to view the fatal wound in her hull. The starboard tilt stopped, and then the ship tipped back to port. Righted for only an instant, the roll to port accelerated and water rushed in through the hole.
Aboard the Ferdinand Max, the chief engineer reversed the engine when he felt the impact, and the vessel steamed backward clear of the enemy hull. Aboard the doomed ship, the chief gunner saw one of the cannons on deck had been loaded but not fired. “Just this one more,” he cried and fired the last cannon shot from the sinking ship. Some accounts stated that Captain Faa di Bruno then shot himself with his revolver. Conflicting accounts say he jumped overboard and was pulled down by the sinking ship.
With the deck awash, Italian marines climbed aloft into the rigging. They fired at the Austrians, hitting numerous sailors before the masts disappeared as the ship slipped downward into 200 fathoms of water. An Austrian officer who glanced at his watch was astonished that scarcely 11/2 minutes elapsed between the moment of collision and the sinking of the enemy ship. By 11:20 AM nothing was left but scattered survivors swimming in the sea or clinging to bits of floating wreckage. The firing had begun only 40 minutes earlier.
After the Re d’Italia’s deck was awash, Italian marines climbed aloft into the rigging to fire on the Austrians. They managed to kill some of the enemy sailors before the ship slipped down into 200 fathoms of water.
Before Sterneck’s crew could lower their one remaining undamaged boat to start picking up survivors, another Italian ironclad (believed to be the Ancona) loomed out of the smoke. Apparently unaware that scores of the crewmen of the Re d’Italia were still in the water, the ironclad aimed to ram the Ferdinand Max. The Austrians averted a collision, but the ships passed so closely together that their forward gunners could not maneuver their rammers to reload.
The Italian vessel fired several rounds at point-blank range. Although the guns flashed fire and bellowed smoke, there were no signs of any projectiles. With great relief, sailors aboard the Ferdinand Max wondered if the enemy had fired at them with unshotted guns. Indeed, this may have been what happened. The Ancona’s captain later reported that his muzzle loaders were packed with their powder charges before the gunners were told whether to load iron or steel shot. In the chaos of battle, his gunners sometimes fired without ever adding projectiles.
To avoid meeting the same fate as the Re d’Italia, the Ferdinand Max steamed away. Of the crew of 600 aboard the sunken ship, only nine officers and 159 men were saved. Most of them were picked up by Italian vessels, although 18 men survived by swimming to the shores of Lissa.
Firing and maneuvering continued, but the battle wound down as the fleets drew apart. Before the smoke cleared two of Persano’s ships, the Ancona and the Varnese, collided. Damage was slight, but their rigging was entangled, and it took some time to separate themselves. Another collision between the ironclads Maria Pia and San Marino injured the latter ship so severely that it was unfit for continued fighting.
At 12:10 PM, Tegetthoff signaled his vessels to close in on his flagship. One and a half hours after the first shot, the main action of the Battle of Lissa was over.
The Kaiser headed for San Giorgio with her wooden escorts. Fire still raged aboard the ship of the line, and she was menaced by the Affondatore, which made several attempts to ram. Enemy vessels fired from long range, but two Austrian ironclads arrived to guard the Kaiser. At 1:15 PM, the ship of the line was off San Giorgio and the crew redoubled their efforts to douse the fire on board.
Smoke gradually drifted away from the now silent guns of Persano’s fleet. The admiral, unable to spot his old ship, signaled, “Where is the Re d’Italia?” Several vessels responded that it had been sunk.
Persano intended to continue the battle, and with the Affondatore steamed toward the division of wooden vessels off Lissa. With them was the ironclad Terribile, which had arrived from Comisa but lingered with the wooden ships while taking little part in the battle. In contrast with the assertive and risky roles played by some of the Austrians’ wooden ships, Albini seems to have felt that his unarmored vessels had no place in such a battle. Persano sent several signals to rally his ships in pursuit of the Austrians, but few answered his call as the enemy fleet steamed away toward San Giorgio.
One more disaster was yet to befall the Italian fleet. Commander Alfredo Capellini’s crew still fought the fire that broke out in the wardroom of the Palestro. Flames spread to some extra stocks of coal that were piled on the deck to increase the ship’s cruising range. Several boats were offered to take his crew to safety. “Those who wish to go, may go for my part, I remain,” said Capellini, who refused to abandon ship. His crew followed their captain’s lead, and only the wounded consented to being put aboard the boats.
In desperation, Capellini flooded the Palestro’s powder magazines, and it seemed that the ship was then saved. But a supply of shells had been stored outside the magazine for easier access during the battle. At 2:30 PM, the flames reached these shells, and the Palestro exploded. Witnesses in both navies saw fire flash out of the gun ports. Sailors and wreckage soared high into the air. A few minutes later the wreck disappeared beneath the surface. Only one officer and 19 sailors of the 250-man crew survived.
Tegetthoff’s ships were in San Giorgio by sunset. Their dead and wounded were taken ashore. Four vessels patrolled outside the harbor during the night while repair work went on aboard the damaged vessels. Early on the morn- ing of July 21, every ship other than the Kaiser was ready to renew the battle. But a signal sta- tion reported that the only sight of the enemy, a distant smudge of smoke to the north-northeast, had disappeared. Persano’s ships, already far from the scene, anchored at Ancona later that morning.
Austrian losses came to three officers and 35 men dead and 15 officers and 123 men wounded. Two-thirds of the dead and wounded were aboard the Kaiser, which was the hardest hit of Tegetthoff’s ships.
Directly from enemy fire, the Italian ships lost only five men killed and 39 wounded. It was a total far less than the cost of the bombardment of Lissa. The death toll, though, rose as high as 667 because of the sinking of the Re d’Italia and the explosion of the Palestro.
Tegetthoff was promoted to vice-admiral hours after news of the battle reached Vienna. Back in Italy, Persano tried to pass off the action as a victory. Public opinion turned against the admiral as details of the battle and the loss of two of the navy’s finest ships became known. Tried by the Italian senate, Persano was found guilty of negligence and incapacity and dismissed from the service. Although he had reported Albini and Vacca for disobedience of orders for their failure to follow him to renew the battle, they were allowed to testify against him during the proceedings.
Austrian shot set the wardroom of the Palestro on fire and flames ignited some shells stored outside the magazine for easier access during the battle. The ensuing explosion after the battle killed the majority of her crew.
Austrian success at Lissa ultimately meant little. Prussia defeated Austria in the Seven Weeks’ War, which ended in August 1866. Under pressure from the Prussians, and with French mediation, Austria was compelled to give up Venice. Rather than transfer the venerable city-state directly to Italian control, Austria transferred the territory to France, which ceded Venice to Italy. Possibly, Tegetthoff’s victory at Lissa contributed to Austria’s retaining control of its other Adriatic coastal possessions.
Lissa was the largest battle involving a European navy between Navarino in 1829 and the Battle of Tsushima Straits in 1905. The 1866 clash involved more ships that did the Spanish- American War actions at Manila Bay or Santiago de Cuba in 1898. Thus, in an age when naval strategists were evaluating the ironclad warship, the battle attracted considerable attention. Unlike the age of wooden warships, the heyday of the ironclads, which lasted from 1805 to 1905, passed quickly.
Had a veteran of British Admiral Horatio Nelson’s fleet seen the Battle of Lissa, he would certainly have recognized the familiar sights of a forest of masts and spars rising from a thick haze of powder smoke. Yet the future of naval warfare was plainly evident with steam-powered armored vessels, large modern rifled guns, and steel projectiles. There were no boarding parties, and no prizes were taken. Symbolic of the passing of the old navies, the stalwart wooden ship of the line Kaiser was converted into an ironclad in 1871. For more than three decades after the Battle of Lissa, though, the fate of the Re d’Italia meant that warships of the world’s large navies were still designed as rams and gun platforms.
The Day Iron Ships Went to War
Detail of The Monitor and Merrimac: The First Fight Between Ironclads, 1886. (L. Prang & Co./Library of Congress)
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O ne hundred and fifty-nine years ago today in Virginia, on the second day of the Civil War Battle of Hampton Roads, something happened for the first time in the history of the world: Two ironclad ships fought each other. The Confederate CSS Virginia, a rebuilt version of the USS Merrimac, had participated in the battle’s first day and had its way against the wooden ships of the United States Navy. The USS Monitor, hastily dispatched from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, arrived just in time to join the battle on the second day. News of the two ironclads’ clash was carefully
She was then shipped by rail on 12 August 1863, to Charleston. Hunley (then referred to as the “fish boat”, the “fish torpedo boat”, or the “porpoise”) sank on 29 August 1863, during a test run, killing five members of her crew….H. L. Hunley (submarine)
Here is what we know as of now…. Crew Remains: Archaeologists excavating the Hunley after its recovery in 2000 found the crewmembers’ remains were largely found at their stations, with no sign of panic or desperate attempts to escape the submarine.
Clash of the Ironclads
The USS Monitor and CSS Virginia were not the world's first ironclad ships, but their epic clash at Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862, marked a major turning point in naval warfare. When they met near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, Union iron-plated gunboats had already been plying the waters of Western Theater rivers for some weeks. But no two such ships had ever faced each other in combat.
The two vessels each featured innovative design characteristics. Virginia, (built on the hull of the USS Merrimack, which had been burned and scuttled when the Union navy abandoned the Norfolk Navy Yard in April 1861), was larger and mounted a total of 10 stationary guns, plus a 1,500-pound iron ram on its bow. Nearly 100 feet shorter and with only a quarter of the displacement, Monitor was more maneuverable, an attribute augmented by the flexibility of the two guns in her rotating turret.
Seeking to interdict Federal naval operations in Hampton Roads, Virginia left its berth at Norfolk under the command of Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan on March 8, 1862. Around 2:00 p.m., Virginia struck the USS Cumberland with its ram, smashing a huge hole in the other ship's wooden hull. Despite the mortal blow delivered to the Cumberland, Virginia became entangled in wreckage and was at risk of being carried down. The ironclad was able to dislodge itself from the frigate's side, but in doing so the lethal ram broke free.
With one opponent vanquished, Virginia turned its sights on the nearby USS Congress, which, having witnessed Cumberland's fate, purposely ran aground. Unable to deliver a ram attack, Virginia maneuvered to pound the frigate with powerful broadsides, forcing Congress to strike its colors. During this time, Buchanan was wounded by musket fire coming from shore. With daylight waning and its captain needing medical attention, Virginia broke off its attack.
The next morning, Catesby Jones, now in command of the Virginia, prepared the rebel ironclad for another assault, now against the USS Minnesota. As the Virginia approached the Minnesota, it noticed a strange raft-like vessel defending its quarry and shifted fire to the newcomer, USS Monitor.
At the battle of Hampton Roads, Va., the hours-long engagement between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia ended in a draw, but demonstrated the dawn of a new era of naval technology. Louis Prang & Co., Bos. Library of Congress
The two ironclads then settled down to a close range slug-fest, both landing hits that took little effect. After several hours of close combat, Monitor disengaged and headed for the safety of shallower waters, its commander temporarily blinded by a shell that exploded near the viewing slit of the pilothouse. Virginia, short on ammunition and conscious of the retreating tide, retired to Norfolk. The first battle between steam-powered, ironclad warships had ended in a draw.
The Clash of the Ironclads: The Battle of Hampton Roads at 158 Years
Yesterday and today mark the 157th anniversary of an event which changed naval warfare forever, the Battle of Hampton Roads. It was a watershed event which ended the reign of the great wooden ships which plied the oceans of the world under massive fields of canvas sails.
It took place about 10 miles from my current office, which is just a few hundred yards from Drydock Number One, at Naval Station Norfolk, in Portsmouth, Virginia, then called Gosport. It was here that the Confederate Navy, salvaged the wreck of the Steam Frigate USS Merrimac, razed her to the waterline, and constructed an ironclad casemate over her and recommissioned as the CSS Virginia.
On March 9th 1862, two very strange looking ships joined in battle. This is the story of the Battle of Hanpton Roads and the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. This is their story, and the story of the men who designed and commanded them.
On the morning of March 8th 1862 the CSS Virginia steamed slowly from her base at at the former US Navy Shipyard, Gosport,in Portsmouth, Virginia into Hampton Roads at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Her mission, break the Union blockade.
Awaiting her was a US Navy squadron of wooden warships including the steam Frigate USS Minnesota, the Sloop of War USS Cumberland and Frigate USS Congress and a number of smaller vessels. Together these ships mounted over 100 heavy guns, and were backed up by the shore batteries at Fort Monroe, on the Hampton side of Hampton Roads.
The Ships, Their Captains, and Designers
The CSS Virginia was an armored ram built from the salvaged remains of the large steam frigate USS Merrimack,which had been burned at Gosport (Now Norfolk) Naval Shipyard when the Navy abandoned the shipyard to keep her from being captured by the Confederates after Virginia had seceded from the Union on April 20th 1861. She was raised in May and the wreck was placed in what is now called Drydock Number One, at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, which is the oldest Drydock in the Western Hemisphere, a historic landmark, and still in use on May 30th 1861. Upon inspection it was determined that her hull below the waterline was intact and her engines serviceable. Since Merrimac was the largest ship, wrecked or intact, with serviceable steam engines and boilers Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory decided that she would be converted into an ironclad.
Her design was that of Lieutenant John Mercer Brooke, a former U.S. Navy officer, and Naval Constructor John L. Porter, who had been a civilian employee of the Navy at Gosport. The design was an ironclad ram, with a massive casemate armored with four inches of Iron and 24 inches of Oak and Pine, which protected her battery of six 9” Dahlgren smoothbores,which were at the Naval Yard, and four 7” Brooke Rifled Guns, designed by LT Brooke and modeled on the design of the Parrot Rifled Gun, used by both sides during the American Civil War.
Her stem and stern nearly underwater, a V Shaped breakwater was mounted forward of the casemate, and an iron ram mounted below the waterline, a throwback in Naval design which had been abandoned since the Middle Ages when cannons became the weapon of choice. This was because the Confederates discover that the guns mounted on her might not be effective against Union ironclads which were being designed. Her design would be the prototype for almost all future Confederate Ironclads.
Iron Plates from CSS Virginia at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard
However, she was plagued with unreliable engines which had been condemned by the US Navy, even before she was burn and sunk, were scheduled to be replaced during her refit at Gosport. As such, her design limited her to a coastal defense role, and her engines limited her to a speed of 5 to 6 knots. Her turning radius was over a mile and it took her 45 minutes to make a complete circle. Though lethal to wooden ships in enclosed waters, she was hardly a threat to Union maritime supremacy. In heavy seas she would have been a death trap to her crew.
Her Captain, Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan was a former U.S. Navy Captain originally from Maryland. In expectation that Maryland would secede from the Union, he resigned his commission on April 22nd 1861. When Maryland did not secede he attempted to withdraw his resignation but was rebuffed by Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. Thus he left the Navy in May 1861 and joined the Confederate Navy in September 1861. He was appointed commander of the James River Squadron in February 1862 and selected CSS Virginia as his flagship. His Executive Officer was Lieutenant Catsby ap Jones.
The USS Monitor
However, Virginia’s plans had been leaked to the US Navy by a Union sympathizer at Gosport, and taken to Washington, DC, by a freed slave named Mary Louvestre in February 1862. She met with Welles and sped the efforts of the Navy to complete and commission a number of ironclad ships of different types, but most importantly Welles pushed the Navy and builders to speed up the completion of the USS Monitor.
Monitor was the brainchild of the Swedish Engineer John Ericsson, who had a troubled history with the US Navy. He invented the Screw Propeller for steamships, an idea rejected by the British Royal Navy, but then recruited by the ambitious American, Captain Robert F. Stockton to come to the United States. His propellers were first used on USS Princeton, for which he also designed a 12” breech loaded, rotating gun named Oregon. The gun which he designed was built in England and used hoop construction, also known as built up constructionto pre-tension the breech. This method involved placing red-hot iron hoops around the breech-end of the weapon thereby allowing the gun to take a higher powder charge than previous cast iron weapons, which relied on using thicker iron to take an increased charge, making the weapon larger and heavier without increasing its strength.
However, Stockton moved to ensure that Ericsson was not acknowledged as the primary designer. Likewise, he decided that “his” ship should have two 12” guns, Ericsson’s and his own, which used the older technology and heavier iron, but without the tensile strength of Ericsson’s gun. Its huge size made it the more impressive looking weapon, but with the tendency common to such weapons, to burst.
However, Stockton’s gun was hastily built and had only a few test firings before demonstrating it before President John Tyler,his future wife Julia, former First Lady Dolly Madisonand an assortment of cabinet officers, congressmen, and their families, numbering close to 400 on February 27th 1844. While coming back up the Potomac River, Stockton personally fired a shot in honor of George Washington at Mount Vernon. Stockton pulled the lanyard and the left side of the breech blew out, sending large fragments of cast iron, killing Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer, Secretary of State Abel Upshur, Chief of the Navy Board of Construction and Repair, Captain Beverley Kennon.Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Captain Stockton, and another 14-18 crew members and visitors were wounded.
Stockton, who had a benefactor in President Tyler, blamed Ericsson who went on to many other accomplishments, but who refused any dealings with the Navy until Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles convinced him to design an ironclad in 1861. Ericsson responded with yet another revolutionary design which was at first ridiculed by naval experts. Ericsson based the hull of the ship on that of shallow draft Swedish lumber barges, but constructed completely of iron and not equipped with sails. He armed the ship with a heavily armored turret mounting two powerful 11” Dahlgren guns, which rotated a full 360 degrees. The turret was designed to mount two 15” Dahlgren guns, but they were not yet available. Had those guns been ready, Monitor might have sunk the Virginia.
Monitor was completed in under 100 days as Ericsson had promised. She was laid down on October 25th 1861, launched on January 30th, and commissioned on February 25th 1862. Her Captain was Lieutenant John Worden. Worden had served in the Navy since 1834, and he would go on to many great accomplishments, finishing his career as a Rear Admiral, having commanded another monitor, USS Montauk, Superintendent of the Naval Academy, Commander of the Mediterranean Squadron, and President of the Naval Institute.
However, in February 1862 the relatively old lieutenant took Monitor to sea two days later, but the deployment was cut short by a steering failure, which resulted in the ship returning to New York for repairs. She sailed for Hampton Roads again on March 6th and she would arrive on the evening of March 8th, not long after Virginia had wreaked havoc on the Union ships at Hampton Roads. His Executive Officer was Lieutenant Samuel Dana Greene, son of the future Union General and hero of Culp’s Hillat the Battle of Gettysburg, George Sears Greene.
During the ensuing fight of March 8th Virginia rammed and sank Cumberland which though fatally wounded disabled two of Virginia’s 9” in guns. Virginia destroyed Congress by gunfire which burned and blew up and appeared to be in position to destroy Minnesota the following day as that ship had run hard aground. The losses aboard Cumberland and Congress were severe and included the Captain of the Congress and Chaplain John L. Lenhart of Cumberland, the first US Navy Chaplain to die in battle. During the battle Virginia had several men wounded including her Captain, Franklin Buchanan who during the action went atop the casemate to fire a carbine at Union shore batteries. He was wounded by a bullet in the leg and though he survived he missed the next day’s action.
Due to the coming of darkness and a falling tide the acting commander of Virginia, Lieutenant Catsby Ap Roger Jonesher executive officer took her in for the night. During the night Monitor, under the command of Lieutenant John Worden arrived and took up station to defend Minnesota.
The next morning Virginia again ventured out and was intercepted by the Monitor. The ships fought for over three hours, with Monitor using her superior speed and maneuverability to great effect. During the battle Monitorsuffered a hit on her small pilothouse near her bow blinding her Captain Worden. Monitor’s executive officer, Lieutenant Dana Greene, took command. Neither side suffered much damage but the smokestack of Virginia was pierced in several places affecting her already poor engine performance. Jones broke off the action and returned to Gosport for repairs while Monitorremained on station, still ready for battle.
Gideon Welles wrote after the battle: “the performance, power, and capabilities of the Monitor, must effect a radical change in naval warfare.”
It did. The battle showed the world the vulnerability of wooden warships against the new ironclads. Monitor in particular revolutionized naval warfare and warship construction. From that time on the truly modern ships were fully iron and later steel, with revolving turrets, and within twenty years without sails, even as a back up to their steam engines.
Her defining mark was the use of the armored gun turret which over the succeeding decades became the standard manner for large ships guns to be mounted. Turrets like the warships they were mounted upon grew in size and power reaching their apex during the Second World War, only to be superseded by the next revolution in Naval warfare, the Aircraft Carrier.
Both Virginia and Monitor reached less than glorious ends. Virginia had to be destroyed by her crew to prevent her capture just over two months after the battle on May 11th 1862. Monitor survived until January 31st 1862 when she sank during a heavy storm off Cape Hatteras North Carolina with the loss of 16 of her 62 man crew. The remains of two of those men, recovered during the salvage of Monitor’s engines, turret, guns and anchor were interred at Arlington National Cemetery on March 8th 2012. The relics from Monitor and some from Virginia are displayed at the Mariners Museum in Newport News (http://www.marinersmuseum.org )while one of Virginia’s anchors resides on the lawn of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. Two of her iron plates are on display at Norfolk Naval Shipyard.
Those early ironclads and the brave men who served aboard them revolutionized naval warfare and their work should never be forgotten.
Union troops watch the battle between USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, March 1862.
It was a tactical victory for the Confederates but inconclusive overall, as the Union blockade remained.
The ships never faced one another again. Virginia was scuttled to prevent its capture when Norfolk fell in May 1862, and Monitor was lost in a storm on December 31, 1862.
But the battle had an immense impact on naval warfare.
It proved that metal ships – particularly ones with rotating turrets and powered entirely by steam – were the future. Thicker armor and more powerful guns had to be developed, rams were reintroduced, and "monitor" became the moniker for a new type of warship: a small coastal vessel with oversized guns.
The Union and Confederacy built over 70 ironclads before the end of the Civil War, while the world's major naval powers embarked on an ironclad building spree.
Russia quickly built 10 Uragan-class monitors based on designs from the US's Passaic-class ships, which succeeded Monitor. France and Britain both halted construction of all new wooden ships and built ocean-going and coastal ironclads.
In 1866, Italian and Austrian ironclads faced off at the Battle of Lissa. It was the first major sea battle between metal ships and proved they were now the kings of the seas.