The Monitor Makes Port


On March 9, 1862, a naval engagement near Chesapeake Bay in Virginia ended with no decisive victor and without claiming a single life. Yet no one has ever doubted that the bloodless fight changed naval warfare forever. Now, only a few miles from the broad channel where the battle took place, it is changing something else: the way present-day visitors experience Civil War history.A hundred and forty-five years ago, with hundreds of spectators watching transfixed from the surrounding shoreline, two revolutionary high-tech ironclad warships—the hulking Confederate CSS Virginia (né USS Merrimack ) and the Union’s sleeker and smaller “iron pot,” the USS Monitor—squared off in a sensational, protracted, smoke-shrouded duel in the eight-mile-long channel of Hampton Roads at the confluence of the James, Elizabeth, and Nansemond Rivers. Just “the sounds of the conflict,” recalled one of the Monitor ’s crew, “were terrible.” To one soldier watching breathlessly from nearby Fortress Monroe, the first all-iron sea battle in history seemed nothing less than “one of the greatest Naval engagements that has ever occurred since the beginning of the world.”

As naval engagements go, truth to say, it was not even the most dramatic of the Civil War. For more than four hours the two relatively sluggish ships circled each other with agonizing slowness, all but parodying classic sea duels from the age of sail. The Monitor and Virginia mounted powerful guns and left plenty of dents on each other’s thick armor plates, but neither managed to inflict any lasting damage. The Virginia ’s most formidable weapon, its forward ram, had broken off the day before.

The battle’s only real casualty turned out to be the captain of the Monitor , 43-year-old New Yorker John L. Worden, who had the bad luck to be peering through a viewing slit in the pilothouse at the moment a shell burst outside, blinding him, though only temporarily. Three of the Monitor ’s crew did tumble heavily to the deck when another shell struck full force against her hull, and two of them lapsed into unconsciousness, but they, too, soon recovered. The Virginia counted a few mildly injured seamen of her own, but nothing serious. At the end of the long day, both ships simply ceased firing and steamed off in different directions almost simultaneously, presumably to fight another day. But they never did.

Monitor crewmen relax on the deck in summer sunshine. It is July 9, 1862; they have already fought their epochal battle, and the turret bears the scars of Rebel shot.
the mariner’s museum, newport news, va.2007_2_44

Both sides claimed victory afterward, igniting a debate that continues to this day. Did the Monitor retreat to shallow waters where the heavier Virginia could not follow ? Or did the Virginia chug off first, leaking badly, to resume its defense of the nearby waterways leading to the Confederate capital of Richmond? Did the Virginia win by dealing a staggering blow the day before to the less advanced vessels of the Union Navy? Or did the Monitor triumph by halting her rival’s deadly rampage and turning her away before she could inflict further damage? The controversy among historians rages on, but on one subject everyone agrees, then and now: Naval warfare would never be the same again.

For one thing, the Monitor ’s unique revolving gun turret revolutionized sea-going weapons technology—at least in concept. To say the least, the turret did not function properly during the engagement. “It was difficult to start it revolving,” said a crew member named Samuel Dana Greene, “or, when once started, to stop it.” After a while it simply turned round and round on its own, requiring gunners to fire on the fly whenever the Virginia returned to dizzying view. Nonetheless, warships would thereafter feature guns that rotated so that ships themselves would not have to waste time turning about to fire on enemy vessels.

Of equal significance, the age of sail abruptly came to an end on March 9, for at Hampton Roads the day before the famous duel the Virginia had decimated the Federal blockading squadron, ramming or shelling three wooden warships into submission, leaving two of them ablaze, killing some 250 sailors, and inflicting more damage than the U.S. Navy suffered in a single day until Pearl Harbor, some fourscore years later. The catastrophe drove Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet into what Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles described as a frenzy of “excitement and alarm.” Even the usually unflappable Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, appeared “the most frightened man on that gloomy day,” Welles remembered with competitive satisfaction. Stanton was “almost frantic” in his worry that the entire North might soon be under siege from the impregnable Rebel behemoth.