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A Submerged House: Ironclads and the Civil War

The Monitor after her fight with the Merrimac. Near the port-hole can be seen the dents made by the heavy steel-pointed shot from the guns of the Merrimac. Hampton Roads, Virginia. Stereo., 07/1862 (559269)

The original Monitor after her fight with the Virginia.To the left can be seen the dents made by the heavy steel-pointed shot from the guns of the Virginia. Hampton Roads, VA. Stereo., 07/1862 (559269; 200-CC-486)

The USS Monitor was the Navy’s first ironclad vessel, but it was not the only one in Civil War waters.

The Virginia had started life in 1855 as the Merrimack, a Union ship that had been burned to the waterline, sunk, and abandoned in the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, VA. The Confederates raised what remained of the ship and used the hull to build the ironclad Viriginia.

On March 8, 1862, Virginia made its first combat sortie, as the ship headed through Hampton Roads and fired on the Union frigates Cumberland and Congress in an attempt to break the Union blockade at Hampton Roads. According to this New York Times article, the Virginia looked like “a submerged house” with “nothing protruding above the water but a flagstaff flying the rebel flag, and a short smokestack”

But when the Cumberland fired on the Virginia, the Confederate ship proved to be far tougher than an underwater home: “the latter opened on her with heavy guns, but the balls struck and glanced off, having no more effect than peas from a pop-gun.” The Virginia rammed the wooden frigate, which was no match for the ironclad boat, and also took out the Congress. Another Union ship was run aground.

Battle between the Monitor and Merrimac, Hampton Roads, Virginia, March 9, 1862. Copy of engraving by Evans after J.O. Davidson., ca. 1921  (ARC 530500)

Battle between the Monitor and Merrimac, Hampton Roads, Virginia, March 9, 1862. Copy of engraving by Evans after J.O. Davidson., ca. 1921 (ARC 530500; 111-BA-1917)

The next morning, March 9, the Monitor arrived. The two ironclads fired on each other for several hours in the waters of Hampton Roads, VA, eventually reaching a standoff as neither could significantly damage the other enough to declare victory. As you can see from the image above, the Monitor did sustain damage—but the blockade remained unbroken.

Surprised to learn that naval warfare was a key part of the Civil War?

If you’re in Washington, DC, join us on April 7 at 7 p.m. for “The USS Monitor: A Technological Marvel,” a program presented at the National Archives Building in partnership with the U.S. Navy Memorial and Heritage Center.

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