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Iron Wills, Iron Ships

May 2024
3min read

Although a draw, the fight between the Monitor and Virginia decisively ushered in the modern era

What the USS Monitor’s crewmen remembered most about the moments before the battle on the morning of March 9, 1862, was the silence.


“Every one was at his post, fixed like a statue,” Paymaster William Keeler recalled. “The most profound silence reigned” on board the ironclad, and “if there had been a coward heart there its throb would have been audible, so intense was the stillness.” All 58 men on board the Monitor had reason for the deepest foreboding. Their vessel, untested in battle, had barely survived its maiden voyage from New York to Virginia, where its Confederate foe, the former Merrimack, now reborn as the CSS Virginia, lay in wait.


The Monitor had become the great hope of the U.S. Navy, though skeptics referred to it as an iron coffin. The brainchild of Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson, it was unlike any other craft then afloat. At 172 feet long, it was rather small for a warship, and all of its living quarters, machinery, and workspaces, save two, were below the waterline. Above it, the pilot house sat forward—a tiny iron box, really—perforated with viewing slits. In the center of the vessel was a revolving gun turret. Two XI-inch Dahlgren smoothbore guns perforated one side. Powered by a small steam engine, the guns could be brought to bear by turning the turret, not by maneuvering the entire ship as in earlier vessels.


As the Monitor approached the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay at 3 p.m. on March 8, the officers and crew heard distant gunfire. At 7, a pilot sent to bring the ironclad into Hampton Roads confirmed what the men already suspected—the Virginia had ravaged the Union fleet: the USS Cumberland had sunk with all flags still flying; the USS Congress was ablaze; and the USS Minnesota, which had run aground, would be easy prey for the Confederate ironclad the following morning. News of the Monitor’s arrival spread quickly among Union forces. Not all were impressed, however. Lt. Samuel Dana Greene recalled that “the pygmy aspect of the new-comer did not inspire confidence among those who had witnessed the destruction of the day before.”


At 8 the next morning, the heavy fog lifted and the crew of the Virginia made out their victim’s ravaged hull. Beside the frigate, they saw what appeared to be “a shingle floating in the water, with a gigantic cheesebox rising from its center.” The Virginia fired the first shot through the Minnesota’s rigging shortly before 8:30. The Minnesota returned fire, as did the cheesebox.


The two ironclads danced a slow pas de deux around one another for the next four hours, testing their capabilities and armor. Enemy shots from the Virginia as well as friendly fire from the Minnesota hit the Monitor’s sides but did not penetrate. The gun crews inside the turret became disoriented with the noise and the continuous spinning of their platform.


Just after noon, a shot from the Virginia’s stern gun slammed into the Monitor’s pilot house, temporarily blinding the commanding officer, Lt. John Lorimer Worden. The Monitor veered off toward a shoal so that the officers could take stock of the situation. Reading this as a retreat, the Virginia’s officers determined to finish off the Minnesota, but the receding tide made that impossible, and the ship turned toward Sewell’s Point. Dana Greene, now in command, swung the Monitor back into action only to see what he interpreted as the Virginia in retreat. Both sides would claim victory.


The importance of the action lay not so much in tactical victory, however assessed, but in wider strategic implications. The Confederates had smashed a squadron of older-line Union vessels. The Union had maintained its blockade, even against this formidable iron ship. For the new industrial world, the significance resided less in the operations of a single battle than in the future of warship design. Steam-powered ironclads ever more impervious to shot and shell would almost overnight displace the wooden walls of the great age of fighting sail. Steam power and the revolving turret ensured that the graceful white wings of sailing ships would vanish before the black coal smoke that broke naval warfare free from the old broadside tactics.


Less tangible, but no less important, was the shift in the popular psyche wrought by this first battle of machines. Mere days later, Nathaniel Hawthorne visited the “rat trap,” as he called the Monitor. With its coming, he mourned that “all the pomp and splendor of naval warfare are gone by.” It signaled a sea change that would breed “a race of enginemen and smoke-blackened cannoneers, who will hammer away at their enemies under the direction of a single pair of eyes.” Saddest of all, he believed, was that “heroism . . . will become a quality of very minor importance.”


The men of the Monitor recalled the approach of battle as framed in silence. When all was over, they realized that “there [wasn’t] enough danger to give us glory.” The ironclad age made war efficient—but many of its practioners were not comfortable settling into their new role of “operatives.”

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