Friday, March 9, 2012

Clash of the Ironclads

March 9, 2012, marks the 150th anniversary of the naval engagement between USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) off Hampton Roads, Virginia, during the second year of the Civil War. Although inconclusive, the three-hour battle—the first conformation between a new vessel type known as ironclads—was an important turning point in naval history. In this excerpt from Dr. Spencer C. Tucker's The Civil War Naval Encyclopedia, the initial encounter between the two ironclads is described.

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 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.

A Senior Fellow in Military History for ABC-CLIO Publishing since 2003, Dr. Spencer C. Tucker has been instrumental in establishing ABC-CLIO as the premier military history reference publisher in the country. Spence's interest in military history began while he was a student at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and was enhanced by a Fulbright Fellowship in France and while serving as a captain in military intelligence in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War. Although he concentrated on Modern European History in his graduate studies, he became interested in all periods of military history. Spence taught at the university and college level for 36 years, 30 of these at Texas Christian University and the last 6 as holder of the John Biggs Chair of Military History at VMI. Spence is particularly excited to be the editor of ABC-CLIO's award-winning series of war encyclopedias, which includes the 2nd edition of The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History.

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