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Summary Article: Hampton Roads, Battle of
from The Civil War Naval Encyclopedia

Start Date: March 8, 1862

End Date: March 9, 1862

The Battle of Hampton Roads during March 8-9, 1862, occurred against the backdrop of the Peninsula Campaign, Union major general George B. McClellan's plan to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond by a move up the peninsula between the James and York rivers. Union ships gathered in Hampton Roads, however, were threatened with destruction by the Confederate ironclad Virginia.

The casemated Virginia was the reincarnation of the U.S. Navy steam frigate Merrimack, burned and scuttled at the Norfolk Navy Yard in April 1861. The Virginia mounted 10 guns (6 IX-inch Dahlgrens and 2 6.4-inch single-banded Brooke rifles in broadside, and 2 7-inch single-banded Brooke rifles in pivot mounts at bow and stern). It also boasted a 1,500-pound ram. The ship had inadequate and unreliable engines, and steering so sluggish that it took 30-44-0 minutes and four miles to bring the ship about 180 degrees. An error in calculating its displacement also meant that the ship rode too high in the water, and in places its armor protection barely extended to the waterline.

Hag Officer Franklin Buchanan, in charge of Confederate naval defenses on the James, took charge of the ship and its crew of 320 men, including 55 marines. Buchanan was determined to drive the Union ships from Fort Monroe, and as soon as the Virginia was ready, at 11:00 a.m. on March 8,1862, he sortied from Norfolk. Conditions were ideal. The day was clear and bright, and the water calm.

In addition to his flagship, Buchanan had two small steamer tenders, the Beaufort and Raleigh, mounting a total of 3 guns. He also had the three gunboats of Commander John R. Tucker's James River Squadron: the steamers Patrick Henry and Jamestown (each with 10 guns) and the former tug Teaser with a single gun. These six Confederate ships, mounting 35 guns, faced Union ships mounting 204 heavy guns. The larger Union ships were the screw frigates Minnesota (40 guns) and Roanoke (40 guns), the sailing frigates Congress (50 guns) and St. Lawrence (50 guns), and the razee (cut down) sailing sloop Cumberland (24 guns).

At about 1:30 p.m. on March 8 the Virginia rounded Sewell's Point and entered Hampton Roads, the large basin into which the James, Nansemond, and Elizabeth rivers empty before Chesapeake Bay. Union troops occupied its northern shore: Newport News, Hampton, and Fort Monroe. Confederate forces held the southern shore, including Norfolk and Portsmouth. Although the Roads is seven miles across, the Virginia required at least 22 feet of water to operate, effectively confining it to an area never more than two miles across.

The USS Monitor (right) and the CSS Virginia (left) battling on March 9, l862.Their engagement in Hampton Roads was the first in history between two ironclad warships. (National Archives)

The crews on the Union ships had ample time to prepare, as it took the Virginia more than an hour to steam across the Roads. The two nearest Union ships, the Cumberland and Congress, were the first likely targets. At 2:20 p.m. the little Beaufort opened the battle with a shot from its lone 32-pounder against the Congress. Buchanan, meanwhile, ordered the Virginia to make for the Cumberland. During this time the tide shifted so that the Cumberland's stern faced the oncoming Virginia, with few of its guns able to bear.

Buchanan opened fire at about 1,500 yards. A shell from the Virginia's 7-inch Brooke pivot gun on the bow caused considerable damage and casualties on the Cumberland's starboard quarter. As the Virginia lumbered on, it came abreast of the Congress, which loosed a broadside, but none of the shot entered open gun ports. At the same time, the Virginia's response from its four starboard guns caused extensive damage and casualties on the Congress. Buchanan kept straight for the Cumberland, however.

Fearful that, even at six knots, his ship might strike too hard and become embedded in the Union sloop's wooden hull, Buchanan ordered the Virginia's engines stopped at about 50 yards distance, and the ironclad glided forward on momentum. The Virginia struck the Cumberland at an almost right angle on its starboard side. The ram tore a gaping hole below the waterline, and the Cumberland began to sink. It almost took the ironclad with it, but when the pressure became too great, the ram twisted off in the Union ship as the Virginia's 17-foot propeller pulled the ironclad away. The Cumberland, which sustained 121 dead, continued to fire against the ironclad, even as it sank, eliciting admiration from the Confederates.

The Virginia then turned to attack the Congress. Although the Virginia was only several hundred yards away from the Congress, the ironclad took nearly half an hour to come about because of its deep draft and poor steering. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, captain of the Congress, ordered the armed tug Zouave to tow his ship into shallower water under the protection of Union batteries at Newport News. This action prevented the Virginia from ramming. Unfortunately for Smith, the tide swung the stern of the Congress so that only 2 of its 50 guns could be brought to bear on the Virginia. At the same time, the Raleigh and Beaufort maintained a steady fire, keeping the Congress's gun crews occupied. At about 4:00 p.m. the Virginia was at last in position. At the same time the three James River Squadron ships exited the river and began exchanging fire with Union shore batteries at Newport News.

Buchanan now positioned his ship about 150 yards off the stern of the Congress and opened a deadly raking fire. In short order, 100 men, a quarter of the Union ship's crew, were casualties. Both of the Union ship's stern guns were soon disabled, and Lieutenant Smith was killed, decapitated by a shell fragment. Still, the Union frigate took nearly an hour of punishment before it struck.

When the Congress surrendered, Buchanan directed that the Beaufort and Raleigh take off the prisoners and burn the ship. But as this was being effected, Union troops on shore several hundred yards away opened up fire with small arms. Several Confederates were killed, and Lieutenant William H. Parker of the Beaufort was among the wounded. Parker ordered the Beaufort to cast off and move to safety. Thirty prisoners were aboard, but the Beaufort suffered some 10 casualties from the Union shore fire. Buchanan was furious at Parker for not burning the Union ship, but he was also incensed at what he considered a breach of the laws of the sea, although the Union troops on shore certainly had not surrendered.

Lieutenant Robert Minor of the Virginia then set out for the Congress with eight men in one of the ironclad's boats. Despite a white flag, he too came under fire and was wounded. He then ordered the boat back to the ironclad. Buchanan believed that the fire was coming from the Congress, which was not true, but he ordered the Virginia's gunners to set it alight with hot shot.

The excitable Buchanan also climbed to the top of the exposed deck of the Virginia and began firing at the troops on shore with a musket. Hit in the thigh by a musket ball, he was carried below, where he was forced to transfer command to Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones. Jones carried out Buchanan's order to continue firing hot shot into the Congress until it was alight. Sometime after 5:00 p.m., the Congress was engulfed in flames.


The Virginia's pilots now insisted that the ship return to its base before dark or risk running aground. The tide had receded, and the ironclad would be restricted to the channel. The ship was also leaking at the bow, and its crew was exhausted. Given the circumstances, Jones decided to retire, confident he could complete his work the next day.

The battle had been a Confederate triumph. The Virginia had destroyed two major Union warships with 250 men dead, 75 wounded, and 26 captured. Confederate losses were only 2 dead and 8 wounded. Although it had been struck more than 100 times, damage to the Virginia was minor. At about 8:00 p.m. the Virginia dropped anchor off Sewell's Point.

That same evening, a strange warship arrived in the Roads. It was the Union ironclad Monitor. Designed by John Ericsson, the Monitor, like the Virginia, was only just commissioned. The Monitor had but two guns—XI-inch Dahlgren smoothbores—in a single large turret protected by 8 inches of iron plate. With only 18 inches of freeboard, the ship resembled a hat floating on the water. Lieutenant John L. Worden commanded a crew of 10 officers and 48 seamen. The men were exhausted from their two-day trip south from New York, during which the ironclad had nearly foundered on several occasions.

At about 9:00 p.m. the Monitor pulled alongside the frigate Roanoke, where Worden conferred with Captain John Marston, senior Union officer in the Roads. Marston ordered Worden to defend the Minnesota, and at 1:00 a.m. on March 9 the Monitor anchored alongside the grounded Union flagship. Shortly thereafter, fires on the Congress reached the magazine, and that ship blew up. Few men on the Monitor slept that night.

At about 6:00 a.m. on March 9, the Virginia got under way. The sea was again calm, and the day clear. Jones ordered the Virginia to make for the Union flagship. At 8:00 a.m. Worden saw the Virginia and its consorts steam out into the main channel and head for the Minnesota, and he immediately ordered battle preparations. The Monitor was far more maneuverable than the Virginia, but it also was only a fraction of the Confederate ship's size and mounted but 2 guns to the 10 on the Virginia. There must have been serious doubts aboard the Monitor as to whether the ship would prove a worthy opponent.

Jones intended to ignore the Union ironclad until he had finished off the Minnesota with hot shot. At about one mile from the grounded Union ship, Jones commenced fire. Almost immediately a round struck the Minnesota and started a fire. Shot from the Minnesota's stern guns simply ricocheted off the Virginia's armor. Worden now set the Monitor straight for the Virginia.

The Minnesota and Virginia exchanged fire until the Monitor had closed the range. The Union ironclad's small pilothouse forward prevented its guns from firing directly forward, so Worden conned the Monitor parallel to the Virginia. At 8:45 a.m. the Monitor fired the first shot of the battle.

The duel lasted three and a half hours. This time, the Virginia's consorts were only spectators, for the Monitor's heavy guns would have made short work of them. The battle was fought at very close range, from a few yards to more than 100.

The crew of the Virginia was surprised that the Union guns did not inflict greater damage. Not a single shot struck the Virginia at its vulnerable waterline. The Confederates believed that the Monitor's crew simply fired their guns as rapidly as possible (every five or six minutes) without aiming. The Virginia was also extremely vulnerable when it ran hard aground, and the Monitor, with half the draft, could circle its antagonist and fire at will. With the Virginia's very survival now at stake and its boiler safety valves tied shut to provide maximum steam, the Virginia at length pulled free.

Following two hours of battle, Worden disengaged to resupply with ammunition, which had to be hoisted up from a storage bin below deck through a scuttle that required the ship to be stationary. Jones took advantage of the respite to try to sink the Minnesota, but shoal water halted the Virginia almost a mile away from its target. Nonetheless, shot from its guns did damage the Union flagship. The Monitor then returned, and the struggle between the two ironclads resumed.

With his fire having no apparent effect and unaware of the loss of his own ship's ram, Jones decided to ram and then board the Union ship. Seeing a chance, Jones ordered his ship forward at full steam, but Worden was able to turn the more nimble Monitor aside, and it received only a glancing blow. The attempt actually hurt the Virginia more, opening up another hull leak. Virginia also sustained damage from the 20 hits that registered from 41 180-pound shell hits by the Monitor. In places the wooden backing behind the armor plate on the Confederate vessel was cracked and splintered. Although the more numerous Confederate guns fired many more shot and shells than did the Monitor, only 24 struck, and the only results were dents in the Monitor's armor.

A few minutes after noon, Warden's attempt to ram the stern of the Virginia ended in a near miss. Just as the Union ship passed the stern of the Virginia, a 7-inch shell exploded in a direct hit on the Monitor's pilothouse, stunning and temporarily blinding Worden. He ordered the Monitor to sheer off to assess damage, and the ironclad drifted away toward Fort Monroe. Executive Officer Samuel Greene, 22 years old, took command. Jones, meanwhile, decided to return to Norfolk for repairs. Greene declined to pursue, pursuant to his orders to protect the Minnesota. Each side subsequently claimed the actions of the other meant that its opponent was beaten.

The battle in fact was a draw. Aboard the Monitor, Worden was the only serious casualty, while the Virginia sustained 2 dead and 19 wounded. The fight might have gone differently had the Virginia concentrated its fire on the Monitor's pilothouse, a difficult target in the best of conditions, or if solid shot or bolts had been available for the rifled guns. On the other hand the Monitor's fire should have been directed at its opponent's waterline. Its guns should also have employed 30-pound powder charges instead of the 15 pounds decreed. Following an 1844 gun explosion, the Navy Department had decreed that no gun could be fired with a powder charge more than half that for which it had been designed. This order was revoked only after the Monitor-Virginia engagement. Ericsson was furious. He claimed that had the Monitor taken up position at 200 yards range with its guns exactly level and fired with the 30-pound charges he had sought, the shot would have gone clear through the Virginia.

Tactically, the engagement between the two ironclads was a Northern victory. The Monitor had saved the flagship Minnesota and assured the safety of the Union transports and supply ships, hence continuing the Peninsula Campaign. But the South could claim a strategic victory, for as long as the Virginia remained in being, Norfolk and Richmond were safe from Union warships; and the Virginia's mere presence acted as a brake on McClellan's drive toward Richmond.

The battle between the two ironclads was not renewed, but it did signal a new era in naval warfare. This first battle between ironclad vessels gave new impetus to the revolution in naval warfare then in progress. Both ships also became models for ironclad construction on their respective sides.

See also

Brooke Guns; Buchanan, Franklin; Dahlgren Guns; Ericsson, John; Fort Monroe, Virginia; Hampton Roads, Virginia; Ironclads, Confederate; Ironclads, Union; James River; James River Squadron, CSA; Jones, Catesby ap Roger; Marine Corps, CSA; Marston, John; Minnesota, USS; Monitor, USS; Monitor Mania; Norfolk Navy Yard; Parker, William Harwar; Raleigh, CSS; Richmond, Virginia; Smith, Joseph Bryant; Tucker, John Randolph; Virginia, CSS; Worden, John Lorimer

  • Davis, William C. Duel between the First Ironclads. Doubleday Garden City, NY, 1975.
  • De Kay, James Tertius. Monitor. Walker New York, 1997.
  • Holzer, Harold, and Tim Mulligan, eds. The Battle of Hampton Roads: New Perspectives on the USS Monitor and CSS Fordham University Press Virginia. New York, 2006.
  • Johnson, Robert Underwood, and Clarence Clough Buel, eds. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: Being for the Most Part Contributions by Union and Confederate Officers. 4 vols. 1883; reprint, Secaucus, NJ: Castle, n.d.
  • Quarstein, John V C.S.S. Virginia: Mistress of Hampton Roads. H. E. Howard Appomattox, VA, 2000.
  • Smith, Gene A. Iron and Heavy Guns; Duel between the Monitor and McWhiney Foundation Press Merrimac. Abilene, TX, 1998.
  • Tucker, Spencer C.
    Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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