Seeking to interdict Federal naval operations in Hampton Roads, the ironclad CSS Virginia (ex-Merrimack) left its berth at Norfolk and steamed out to attack the nearby Union ships. Under the command of Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, the CSS Virginia headed straight for the USS Cumberland off Newport News.
Around 2pm on March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginia struck the Cumberland with its 1,500lb iron ram, smashing a huge hole in its wooden hull. Despite the mortal blow delivered to the Cumberland, the CSS Virginia, which had become entangled within the shredded hull of its opponent, was also at risk of also being carried down. Fortunately for the Virginia, the ironclad was able to dislodge itself from the frigate’s side, but in doing so the lethal iron ram broke off and sank.
With one opponent vanquished, the Virginia turned its sights on the nearby USS Congress. Seeking to avoid the same fate that befell theCumberland, the USS Congress purposely ran aground on a nearby shoal. Unable to deliver a ram attack, the CSS Virginia maneuvered to a point 200 yards away and pounded the frigate with its powerful broadsides. Unable to maneuver, the Congress was quickly wrecked by the Confederate fire. At 4pm the USS Congress lowered its flag and surrendered. Hoping to accept the USS Congress’ formal surrender, Franklin Buchanan, who had come out onto his ship’s deck under a white flag, was wounded by a musket ball fired from shore. With daylight waning and its captain needing medical attention, the Virginia broke off its attack and returned to shore.
Despite the growing panic in Washington DC and within the Federal fleet, a new and innovative ship had silently slipped into the Roads during the night of March 8, 1862. The USS Monitor, the radical invention of John Ericsson and commanded by Lt. John L. Worden, prepared to defend the rest of the Federal fleet from the seemingly invincibleVirginia.
The next morning, Catesby Jones, now in command of the Virginia, prepared the rebel ironclad for another assault. Steaming towards the USS Minnesota, the Virginia began to take this new victim under fire. As the Virginia approached the Minnesota it noticed a strange raft-like vessel by its side. With the USS Monitor now bearing down on the Virginia, the Confederate ironclad shifted its fire to this newcomer with the large rotating turret. The two ironclads then settled down to a close range slug fest where both ships fired into each other with little effect. The Virginia at one point in the struggle sought to ram and capsize the smaller Monitor, but the nimbler Monitor was able to largely avoid the ram-less Virginia.
After several hours of close combat the USS Monitor disengaged and headed for the safety of shallower waters. Lt. Worden, who had been in the forward pilot house on the Monitor, had been temporarily blinded when a shell from theVirginia exploded near the viewing slit of the pilothouse. Despite its temporary advantage, the CSS Virginia, short on ammunition and concerned over the lowering tide, broke off the engagement and headed for the safety of Norfolk. The world’s first battle between steam-powered, ironclad warships ended in a draw, but its impact on the future of naval warfare would be profound.