Combat

The day of the duel between the Virginia and Monitor dawned with fog lingering near Norfolk, Virginia. From the spar deck of the Confederate ironclad moored at the mouth of the Elizabeth River, Lieutenant Jones observed the Minnesota was still aground, and that an "iron battery," in all probability the Monitor, was close by her. Regardless of the fact that she was not supplied with the armor-penetrating bolts necessary to damage or sink another ironclad, he committed Virginia to battle. Shortly before 8.00am on March 9, 1862, the Virginia, accompanied by the gunboats Patrick Henry, Jamestown, and Teaser, slipped their moorings and got underway from Sewell's Point. Steaming in the direction of Fortress Monroe, they altered course after about ten minutes and headed toward the Minnesota, with the ironclad occasionally firing from its bow gun at the stricken frigate. Watching with Surgeon Daniel Logue, William Keeler, paymaster of the Monitor, recorded, "a shell howled over our heads and crashed into the side of the Minnesota... . We did not wait [for] a second invitation but ascended the tower & down the hatchway... . The iron hatch was closed over the opening & all access to us cut off."

Shortly before 8.30am Lieutenant Worden got his vessel underway, steaming toward the Virginia to meet and engage her as far away from the Minnesota as possible. Lieutenant Greene, executive officer aboard the Monitor, recorded, "Worden took his station in the pilot-house, and by his side were Howard, the pilot, and Peter Williams, quartermaster, who steered the vessel throughout the engagement. My place was in the turret, to work and fight the guns; with me were Stodder and Stimers and sixteen brawny men, eight to each gun. John Stocking, boatswains mate, and Thomas Lochrane, seaman, were gun-captains. Newton and his assistants were in the engine and fire rooms, to manipulate the boilers and engines... . Webber had charge of the powder division on 6 the berth-deck." As the speaking tube providing communication between the pilothouse

First Revolving Turret Ironclad

A map illustrating the major Ironclad engagements of the war.

and gun turret was broken early in the battle, Paymaster Keeler and captains clerk Daniel Toffey, Wördens nephew, relayed orders and messages from the captain to Greene and his gun crews.

With the approach of the Monitor, the other Confederate gunboats withdrew from the battle, as the two revolutionary warships prepared to close with one another. Once the Virginia was within range, the Monitor opened fire at 8.45am, placing herself between the frigate and the ironclad. Aboard the Virginia, Acting Assistant Engineer Elsberry White recalled, "At this time we noticed a volume of smoke coming up from the opposite side of the Minnesota and there emerged the queerest looking craft afloat. Through our glasses we could see she was ironclad, sharp at both ends and appeared to be almost awash. Mounted amidships was a turret with ports and, as we looked, the turret began to revolve until her forward gun bore directly on us and, run out, it resembled a cheese box on a raft."

Observing the action from his river barge, Brigadier General Raleigh E. Colston, who commanded the Confederate defenses on the south side of the James River, stated, "No words can express the surprise with which we beheld this strange craft, whose appearance was tersely and graphically described by the exclamation of one of my oarsmen, A tin can on a shingle!' Yet this insignificant-looking object was at that moment the most powerful war-ship in the world."

Acting Assistant Engineer White continued, "We didn't have long to wait before she fired. Her first shot fell a little short and sent up a geyser of water that fell on our top and rolled off. We then fired our forward rifle and scored a direct hit on her turret, but with no apparent effect. Her next shot was better and caught us amidships with a resounding wham, but while the old boat shuddered, there seemed to be no

The Northern Ironclad Monitor

Entitled The Ironclads, this painting by the late Raymond Bayless shows the Virginia steaming resolutely towards the Monitor on March 9,1862. The stricken frigate USS Minnesota is seen in the left middle distance. (Courtesy of the US Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C. Donation of Raymond Bayless, 1925)

Stripped The Waist

appreciable damage. By this time we were getting pretty close, and both crafts were firing as fast as the guns could be served. The men were stripped to the waist and were working like mad. Powder smoke filled the entire ship so that we could see but a short distance and its acrid fumes made breathing difficult."

Aboard the Monitor, Lieutenant Greene recorded that when the two vessels got within close range, Worden changed his course so as to come alongside the Virginia. He then stopped engines and passed the order, "Commence firing!" In response, the gun crews in the turret "triced up the port, ran out the gun, and, taking deliberate aim, pulled the lockstring." Of his experience in the gun turret, Greene recalled, "My only view of the world outside of the tower was over the muzzles of the guns, which cleared the ports by only a few inches. When the guns were run in, the port-holes were covered by heavy iron pendulums, pierced with small holes to allow the iron rammer and sponge handles to protrude while they were in use. To hoist these pendulums required the entire gun's crew and vastly increased the work inside the turret. The effect upon one shut up in a revolving drum is perplexing, and it is not a simple matter to keep the bearings. White marks had been placed upon the stationary deck immediately

A highly inaccurate lithograph by Kurz and Allison published circa 1889 combines both days of the battle of Hampton Roads by showing the USS Cumberland sinking and the Monitor engaged in combat with the Virginia. Commanding Camp Butler and the shore batteries lining Newport News Point, General Joseph K. Mansfield and staff stand in the foreground. (Library of Congress LC-48 USZC4-1252)

Crew Confederate Ironclads

Another inaccurate representation of a gun aboard the Monitor published in Deeds of Valor in 190?, this lithograph at least retains the drama of battle as the gun crew peer through the port waiting for the turret to rotate sufficiently to bring the Virginia in view. (Naval Historical Foundation photo NH P9906)

below the turret to indicate the direction of the starboard and port sides, and the bow and port sides, and the bow and stern; but these marks were obliterated early in the action. I would continually ask the captain, 'How does the Merrimacbeai?' He replied, 'On the starboard-beam,' or 'On the port-quarter,' as the case might be. Then the difficulty was to determine the direction of the starboard-beam, or port-quarter, or any other bearing. It finally resulted, that when the gun was ready for firing, the turret would be started on its revolving journey in search of the target, and when found it was taken 'on the fly,' because the turret could not be accurately controlled."

The Virginia was quick to respond to Greene's guns, returning "a rattling broadside." According to Lieutenant Wood, who commanded the stern gun aboard the Virginia, his vessel delivered "a starboard broadside at short range, which was returned promptly... . Both vessels then turned and passed again still closer. The Monitorvi&s firing every seven or eight minutes, and nearly every shot struck."

Despite suffering a hail of fire with every broadside received from the Virginia, the Monitor remained relatively undamaged. Greene recorded, "The turrets [sic] and other parts of the ship were heavily struck, but the shots did not penetrate; the tower was intact, and it continued to revolve." With relief, he added that "a look of confidence passed over the men's faces, and we believed the Merrimack would not repeat the work she had accomplished the day before." The lack of solid shot for the broadside guns, and absence of armor-penetrating iron bolts for the Brooke rifles, would account for the lack of penetration achieved by the guns of the Virginia.

Nonetheless, the crew of the Confederate ironclad fought on bravely. Painting a vivid picture of the scene below deck, Acting Chief Engineer Ramsay recalled, "On our gun-deck all was bustle, smoke, grimy figures, and stern commands, while down in the engine and boiler rooms the sixteen furnaces were belching out fire and smoke, and the firemen standing in front of them, like so many gladiators, tugged away with devil's-claw and slice-bar, inducing by their exertions more and more intense heat and combustion. The noise of the crackling, roaring fires, escaping steam, and the loud and

OVERLEAF

The Brooke 2-inch rifles at bow and stern of the Virginia were both mounted on pivot carriages which permitted them to fire at greater elevations and on a wider arc than those on the gun deck. In the confined space under the casemate, these guns were served by a reduced crew of 16 including the powder boy. The gun tube weighed 15,300 pounds, and fired round shot weighing 110 pounds to a maximum range of 2,200 yards.

Battery Deck Ironclad

Captured by the camera of James F. Gibson several months after its encounter with the Virginia, the turret of the Monitor bears the scars of battle. The modified pilot house with sloping sides is seen in the background, plus the deck lights with covers removed. Note the circular coal chute hatch set into the deck in the foreground, and cracked deck plates at lower right. The officers examining the turret are Lieutenants Albert B. Campbell, Second Assistant Engineer (left), and William Flyle, Acting Volunteer, USN (right). (Naval Historical Foundation photo NH 577)

Elsberry White

labored pulsations of the engines, together with the roar of battle above and the thud and vibration of the huge masses of iron being hurled against us, altogether produced a scene and sound to be compared only with the poet's picture of the lower regions. And then an accident occurred that threatened our utter destruction. We stuck fast aground on a sandbar."

The 23-foot draught of the Virginia had confined her to a narrow channel of water, while the Monitor maneuvered more freely with her much shallower draught of 10 feet. In his after-battle report, Jones recorded, "The great length and draft of the ship rendered it exceedingly difficult to work her. We ran ashore about a mile from the frigate and were backing fifteen minutes before we got off." While the Virginia was stuck in the mud, the Monitor approached and fired several times at almost point-blank range. Phillips continued, "Taking a position very close to us, and where none of our guns could be brought to bear upon her, she directed a succession of shots at the same section of our vessel, and some of them striking close together, started the timbers and drove them perceptibly in, but not enough to do any serious damage."

In fact, the situation was critical for the Virginia at this stage. The coal consumption of the two days' battle had lightened her prow until her submerged deck was almost awash. The armor on her sides had been extended only about 3 feet below the waterline due to a hasty departure before completion. Lightened as she was, these exposed areas rendered her vulnerable. Had the Monitor depressed her guns and fired low along the waterline, she might have sunk the Virginia there and then. "Fearing that she might discover our vulnerable 'heel of Achilles,' while she had us 'in chancery,'" recalled Ramsay, "we had to take all chances. We lashed down the safety valves, heaped quick-burning combustibles into the already raging fires, and brought the boilers to a pressure that would have been unsafe under ordinary circumstances. The propeller churned the mud and water furiously, but the ship did not stir. We piled on oiled cotton waste, splints of wood, anything that would burn faster than coal. It seemed impossible the boilers could long stand the pressure we were crowding upon them. Just as we were beginning to despair there was a perceptible movement, and the Merrimac slowly dragged herself off the shoal by main strength. We were saved."

With his vessel again making way, and frustrated by the ineffectual fire of his vessel against the Union ironclad, Jones determined to ram the Monitor, unaware that he had lost his iron prow the day before. E. V. White recalled, "It was a last resort, seeing that our shots were ineffective, I was directed to convey to the engine room orders for every man to be at his post." It took about half an hour to maneuver the unwieldy Virginia into ramming position, while the Monitor continued to pound her. At one point, the executive officer was coming down the steps from the spar deck and observed a gun division standing "at ease," and enquired, "Why are you not firing, Mr. Eggleston?" The captain of the midship Brooke rifles replied, "Why, our powder is very precious, and after two hours' incessant firing I find that I can do her about as much damage by snapping my thumb at her every two minutes and a half." "Never mind," retorted Jones, "we are getting ready to ram her."

Finally, Jones issued the order, "Go ahead full speed," and the Virginia began her half-mile run steaming straight at the Monitor. Worden braced his vessel for the impact when he saw the Confederate ironclad begin its lumbering approach, fearing that his thin armored hull would be crushed by the weight of the larger ship. He relayed the message to the turret via Paymaster Keeler to "give them both guns." As he raced through the hull toward the gun turret, Keeler remembered thinking, "This was the critical moment, one that I feared from the beginning of the fight — if she could so easily pierce the heavy oak beams of the Cumberland', she surely could go through the Vi-inch iron plates of our hull."

Just before striking the Monitor, Jones ordered his engines reversed too soon, which lessened the impact of the collision. Also, prior to being rammed, Worden instructed his helmsman to steer the more nimble Union vessel away to starboard, which caused the Virginia to affect only a glancing blow with its already damaged and leaking wooden prow. Of the moment of impact, Keeler recorded, "a heavy jar nearly throwing us from our feet - a rapid glance to detect the expected gush of water - she had failed to reach us below the water & we were safe." The only visual evidence of the ramming found after the battle was several wooden splinters from the hull of the Virginia stuck on a bolt head on the Monitors deck, plus a minor indentation in her iron plating.

In the gun turret of the Monitor, Greene fired solid 180-pound solid shot at point-blank range from both his Dahlgrens at the forward part of the casemate of the Virginia. "Had the guns been loaded with thirty pounds of powder, which was the charge subsequently used with similar guns," he commented later, "it is probable that this shot would have penetrated her armor; but the charge being limited to fifteen pounds, in accordance with peremptory orders to that effect from the Navy Department, the shot rebounded without doing any more damage than possibly to start some of the beams of her armor-backing."

According to Lieutenant Wood, "Both shots struck about half-way up the shield, abreast of the after pivot, and the impact forced the side bodily in two or three inches. All the crews of the after guns were knocked over by the concussion, and bled from the nose or ears. Another shot at the same place would have penetrated." While the Monitor

OVERLEAF

Unsuccessful In her attempt to ram the Union vessel, the Virginia shudders from the impact as shells from guns of the Monitor strike her stern during the battle of Hampton Roads. At the same time, the crew of the Confederate ironclad gather on the spar deck in a desperate attempt to board the Monitor as the two ironclads engage in close-quarter combat.

Confederate IroncladsPics Ironclad Crews

was momentarily alongside, Jones began to organize a boarding party to scramble aboard the deck of the Union ironclad and obscure the view of the commander by tying a canvas around the pilothouse. But the Monitor slipped astern before they could get on board. Meanwhile, Worden anticipated such an attempt and had ordered Greene to double-shot his guns with canister to repel boarders.

The battle continued with the exchange of further broadsides as fast as the guns could be served - and at very close range. By about 11.00am the supply of shot in the Monitors turret was exhausted and with one of the two gun port stoppers jammed shut, she hauled oft into shallow water for a short while to replenish and attempt a repair. The former involved hoisting 180-pound shot up in a sling from the berth deck while the turret remained stationary. The port stopper could not be repaired and remained jammed. Worden took advantage of the lull in battle and climbed through the porthole giving access to the deck outside the pilothouse to get a better view of his adversary. With ammunition replenished and one gun still operational, he renewed the contest.

Meanwhile, the Confederate ironclad had turned its attention once more to the Minnesota, firing several more shots that set the Union frigate ablaze again and destroyed the tugboat Dragon nearby. Soon after 11.30am, Worden decided to ram the Virginia in an attempt to damage the larger ironclad's vulnerable propeller and rudder, which was riding high in the water. According to Confederate Master-at-Arms William Norris, "Our rudder and propeller were wholly unprotected, and a slight blow from her stern would have disabled both and ended the fight." Steaming toward the fantail of the Virginia, the Monitor missed her target at the very last moment due to a malfunction in her steerage system.

As the Union vessel passed the stern of its opponent, Lieutenant Wood fired his 7in. Brooke gun at the Monitors pilothouse. The shell struck the forward side of that structure directly on the sight hole, just as Worden was peering through the observation slit. The explosion cracked an iron log and created an opening in the top, while Worden received the fiill force of impact in the face, which temporarily blinded him. His injury was known only to those in the pilothouse and its immediate vicinity. Believing his steerage destroyed, Worden ordered Quartermaster Peter Williams put the helm to starboard and had the vessel withdrawn to assess the damage. He also summoned Lieutenant Greene to take over in the pilothouse while he was helped below, leaving Lieutenant Stimers as the only officer in the gun turret. Dazed and slightly concussed from the impact of shot and shell on the gun turret, Greene arrived on the scene and assisted in leading Worden to his cabin before taking command, for which he was afterward criticized by those who thought he should have immediately pressed on with the attack.

Meanwhile, Jones assessed the situation aboard the Virginia. Believing that the Monitor had given up the fight, and that he could not get any closer to the Minnesota, he passed along the gun deck, pausing at each division to hold an informal council of war with his lieutenants. It was agreed that, with the tide ebbing, the ship leaking at the prow, and the crew exhausted from being so long at their guns, the Virginia should return to Norfolk for repairs. Aboard the Monitor; Greene at last took his place in the pilothouse, only to find the Virginia steaming back in the direction of Sewell's Point. A few more shots were fired at about 12.15pm and the fight was over.

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  • Igor
    Where is the first battle of the ironclads on a map?
    8 years ago

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