March 9, 1862: It was the second year of the American Civil War, and the confederacy had acquired a frigate by the name of the U.S.S. Merrimack. They altered the ship, heavily armoring it and adding significantly more firepower, turning it into a formidable ironclad ship, the C.S.S. Virginia. The boat absolutely pummeled wooden Union ships, firing from its 14 gun ports, destroying the U.S.S. Cumberland, defeating the U.S.S. Congress and running the U.S.S. Minnesota to the ground — all a day’s work.
The next morning, on March 9, 1862, the Virginia came head to head with the Union’s new ironclad, the U.S.S. Monitor. It was a steamship with an extremely low profile, only 18 inches above water. This would mark the first battle between ironclad ships, and would usher in a new era of naval warfare.
Upon seeing the strange Monitor when it arrived, the Virginia opened fire. From there, the two ironclad ships began to circle each other — a knife fight in the water. They fired countless rounds, all of which wound up plinking off each other’s armor. Both had armor far superior to most of the ships of that day, but neither had the guns to match.
For hours they circled around each other, firing into each other’s armor and making slow, but damaging progress on each other. One round flew into the pilot house of the Monitor, injuring the ship’s captain, John Worden. They had to briefly retreat in order to change command and re-enter the fight, but during this time the Virginia had thought they had one, and had begun to sail home. The Monitor then assumed the Virginia was retreating, and due to the need for repairs chose not to pursue, thinking they too had won — a sort of anti-climactic ending, though both ships likely wished for the battle to be over at that point anyway.
During the battle, a man named Peter Williams would earn the Medal of Honor, and though that distinction did not mean what it does now, his actions were no doubt both admirable and commendable. A Norwegian immigrant, Williams steered the U.S.S. Monitor, dodging the Virginia’s attempts at ramming them. He continued to act when his commanding officer was wounded, and continued to keep the Monitor in the fight.
Like the ending of this historic battle, neither ship saw a glorious ending to their careers. The Confederates ended up scuttling their own C.S.S. Virginia when the Union had overrun their position. The U.S.S. Monitor was built for naval warfare, not rough seas, and would wind up crashing in inclement weather near North Carolina.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.