155 years ago today
The Monitor and the Virginia (Merrimack)
Battle of Hampton Roads, James River Harbor, Virginia
On March 9, 1862--155 years ago today-- was a face-off between two very strange boats that forever changed war at sea...the clash of the ironclad vessels USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. As these two unconventional ships approached each other in the harbor of the James River, it must have been a strange sight to the Union and Confederate supporters watching from the shore. For no one had ever seen such vessels afloat.
The Virginia was actually a salvaged Union frigate called the Merrimack that had been sunk and later raised by Confederates. Her hull was cut away and covered with angled sheets of metal, called "a floating barn roof" by observers. The plating protected everything except her smokestack, with shuttered gun ports hiding six Dahlgren smoothbore guns, two 6-inch Brooke rifles and two more 6.4-inch Brooke rifles. She had spent the previous day decimating the Union Navy's fleet of wooden ships, totally destroying a 50-gun frigate and a sloop, and running another frigate aground. Shots simply bounced off her sloping armored sides.
Her adversary the Monitor was not a ship, so much as it was a barge, running so low in the water that waves broke across her flat deck. Not an elegant vessel, it was jokingly called a "Yankee cheese box on a raft." Its only feature was a revolving turret with two large guns that could only be fired once every seven or eight minutes. The iron plating on the hull was covered in rounded rivets like the bumpy skin of a toad.
Though very different in appearance, the ships could not have been more evenly matched. The two bizarre ships circled round and round, Monitor's revolving turret rotating to keep its two guns sighted as Virginia tried to position herself to broadside Monitor with her fixed guns. They fired volley after volley at almost point-blank range, but neither boat was able to cause crippling damage and there was no clear victor. But ship to ship combat would never be the same.
The age of the wooden warship was over in a day. This was, for all intents and purposes, the start of a new age in sea battles.
It is hard to imagine the sweltering heat the gun crews had to tolerate in their wool uniforms, the deafening noise of black powder cannons inside the metal ships, and the shock of those solid iron cannonballs bouncing off the outer hull. These sailors were very rugged individuals, to sail on an ironclad ship required a will of iron.
A recreation of this battle only appears in one movie that I know of, a film from 1991 called IRONCLADS. I like to watch dramatizations of historical events, so here's the edited scenes of the battle for your entertainment.