Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac

The second naval battle in Hampton Roads

Black-and-white illustration from Leslie's Illustrated News, March 22, 1862 issue, showing second naval battle in Hampton Roads.

The ships and landmarks in the image are identified, from left to right, as a Rebel Tug, the James [Jamestown?], the Merrimac, the Yorktown, the Monitor, the Minnesota and Newport News.

Caption: The second naval battle in Hampton Roads – Fight between the national floating battery Monitor, of two guns, and the Rebel iron-plated steamers Merrimac, Yorktown and Jamestown, carrying twenty-four guns – Defeat of the Rebel steamers – the Merrimac crippled, and the frigate Minnesota rescued, Sunday, March 9 – from a sketch by our special artist at Newport News – See page 289 [for related story]

Source: The illustration above is from Leslie's Illustrated News, March 22, 1862, pages 296-297. A week later, an article on the cover page [page 305] of Leslie's March 29, 1862 issue summed up the significance of the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac as follows:

The "Monitor"

ALTHOUGH the world has been for twenty years discussing the value of iron or ironclad steamers, and although a number have been built during the past decade, yet it was not until the 8th and 9th of March of this year that their capabilities were ever brought to the test.  The attack of the Merrimac on the Congress and Cumberland proved that wooden sailing vessels are impotent against mailed steamers, mere slaughter-houses for their crews; and it seems pretty clear that the only safety of wooden steamers, in a contest with them, would depend upon their speed – i.e., running away. We may consider it settled that the naval architecture of the world, for all purposes of war, must be changed, and iron-plated steamers take the place of all the wooden constructions now in use. The numerical superiority of the respective navies of France and England over ours is now of little consequence; we can start even with them in the race of building up an efficient navy, starting from the advance point of their experience, and with the further advantage of being readier to adopt novel ideas and combinations.  When England began to substitute railways for turnpikes she made the car for the former as nearly like the coach for the latter as possible.  And in building iron-plated vessels she has struck as closely as possible to the form and features of her wooden ships, seeking invulnerability only by piling plate on plate of iron, until the new vessel becomes a lumbering mass of iron, instead of adopting a form which should render such heavy coating of metal unnecessary.  The consequence is that her iron-clad steamers, with their vertical sides, against which heavy shot would have their full effect, would probably prove no match for the Merrimac, with her relatively light plating, and against which the shot from the heaviest navy guns glanced off like pebbles.  The principle embodied in the Merrimac was that improvised by the rebels in their "floating battery" and iron-faced land batteries at Charleston, and improved on in the National flotilla on the Mississippi –viz.: that of presenting an inclined face of 45 degrees to the line of fire.  To this was superadded, in the case of the Merrimac, the feature of a "ram" for running down and sinking an enemy.

But vessels like the Merrimac must necessarily be unwieldy; but few of their guns can be used at once, and there are other desiderata besides relative invulnerability (absolute invulnerability if perhaps unattainable), which must enter into consideration, in order to produce the most efficient iron-clad steamer or battery possible.  Most, if not all, of these are met by Ericsson’s novel structure the Monitor. He has secured light draft; strength, effective resistance, and the ability of keeping an enemy immediately under his guns, whatever his change of position.  He exposes nothing to the enemy's fire, except his round fort, which, from its form, glances off the shot directed against it, and which, being revolving, enables him to keep his guns steadily bearing on his antagonist.  The captain and crew of the Merrimac were astounded on finding, whatever their position, and however much the respective vessels shifted, still the two great, grim guns of the Monitor frowned on them. Their own guns were of equal caliber, and there were ten of them, yet they found their armament matched by that of the Monitor, before which they were compelled to retreat.

It may be questioned whether as a sea-boat, the Monitor, or vessels constructed on its plan, can be made successful.  But of their capacity for harbor's defence, or of the ability to transfer them from one port to another on our coast, there can be no doubt.  And it may be questioned whether all Europe could build a vessel capable of crossing the Atlantic which could stand against the actual Monitor, with her two guns.

Unless we are greatly mistaken, the naval battle of Sunday, March 9th in Hampton Roads, has changed the whole aspect of naval warfare and harbor defence.  It is evident that the Monitor can sail unharmed into any harbor in the world, however well defended, and laugh at the fire of its forts.  She can only be met by vessels of her own class.  As observed by a contemporary, "It is now apparent that half a dozen Monitors, three months earlier, would have cleared the Potomac, the James and York rivers; captured Norfolk and her monster, and shelled or taken Charleston, Savannah, Pensacola, Mobile and New Orleans.  Henceforth either artillery more tremendous than any known to war must be used in the defense of harbors, or iron floating batteries and iron-cased frigates.  Even the enormous and expensive plated ships, like the Warrior and La Gloire, must be replaced.  They would neither of them be a match for Merrimac, with her railroad iron plating; and as for the Monitor, our engineers believe she would pierce them through and through with her wrought-iron eleven-inch balls, fired near the water-line."

Previous image | Next image

Last Updated: March 14, 2012