Plunge into Civil War history at Hampton Roads Ironclad: The clash of the Monitor and Merrimac, in March 1862, changed naval warfare forever.


The "hallowed grounds" of the Civil War include some very hallowed waters.

Americans and foreign visitors alike make pilgrimages to the great battlefields of the War Between the States in an unending stream. The names of these killing grounds have been immortalized and sanctified by the sacrifice they represent and the importance of their outcomes -- Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, Fort Donelson, Shiloh.

But a little more than an hour's drive from Richmond -- indeed, just a half an hour east from such historic destinations as Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown -- is a place that ought to be as honored.

It was as significant to the outcome of the war as any other area of the conflict.

Though some land cannons were involved, it was a battle fought on water -- that wide stretch of the James River called Hampton Roads, just west and south of the confluence with the York. It was one of the most memorable naval engagements in the entire history of warfare: the clash of the first ironclads, the Monitor and Merrimac, in March 1862.

This was the vigorous battle that, though ending in a stalemate, changed naval warfare for all time, abruptly ending the usefulness of the wooden-sided sailing ship as an instrument of war and ushering in an era of steam-driven, ironclad warships and a maritime arms race that has endured until the present day.

And visitors may be thankful that, because of some splendidly preserved forts -- including Fortress Monroe near Newport News and Hampton -- and an abundance of excellent area maritime museums, that waterborne conflict can be relived and restudied as well as any of those major engagements on land.

Union and Confederate ships and gunboats, of course, fought in almost every theater of the War Between the States.

U.S. warships blocked the mouth of the Mississippi and seized the key port of New Orleans. The North captured the Confederate naval stronghold that was Mobile Bay.

Supreme importance

But the waters of Virginia in the lower Chesapeake Bay were of supreme importance. The broad Potomac River led directly to Washington, and in the early days of the war, only Fort Washington on bluffs opposite Mount Vernon defended the Union capital from Confederate warships.

And the James River led directly to Richmond and was guarded by the Confederates at all costs.

Between Cape Henry and Cape Charles, the broad mouth of the Chesapeake offered a chance for Confederate merchant vessels to break into the open sea and reach friendly ports in Europe -- provided the swift Confederate blockade runners could draw off the Union warships on patrol there.

The key was Hampton Roads. Control of it meant control of all shipping to and from Richmond, Petersburg, Suffolk, Portsmouth and Norfolk.

On the north bank of the river were the important ports of Newport News and Hampton, dominated by the impregnable Fortress Monroe, which remained in Union hands throughout the war.

But on the south bank, at Norfolk, was the Gosport Navy Yard.It contained one of only two naval dry docks in the nation, a vast store of gunpowder and some 1,200 assorted cannons. It was also home to a number of important warships. The 40-gun ship of the line Merrimac, one of the most powerful in the U.S. fleet, was there for repairs.

When the Confederates threatened the yard, the base commandant abandoned it, burning the Merrimac but letting the Confederates have 1,195 guns and much of the gunpowder. The Confederates refloated the remains of the Merrimac, converting it into one of the world's first ironclad warships and renaming it the CSS Virginia.

On each side it carried three 9-inch cannons firing 70-pound explosive shells, and a 6.4-inch rifled naval gun. At bow and stern were two 7-inch rifled cannons. The bow was equipped with a sharp ram that could go through the sides of wooden warships below the waterline.

The CSS Virginia was the great hope of the Confederacy. With its armor, it could clear Hampton Roads and the lower Chesapeake of Yankee vessels, ending the blockade and opening Richmond to the Atlantic and possible alliances with France and England.

But word of the Merrimac's conversion had reached Washington, and a countermeasure was in the works. An "Iron-Clad, Shot-Proof Steam Battery of iron and wood combined," as the specifications put it, was begun in October 1861 at Greenport, Long Island.

On March 8, 1862, the Merrimac (Virginia) steamed out of Norfolk to do her worst. At 265 feet long, carrying a crew of about 300, she looked a monster and behaved like it. With Union shells bouncing off it, the Merrimac cannonaded and rammed the Union sail warships Congress and Cumberland, killing more than 300 Union seamen. It tried to get at the USS Minnesota, but could not because of shallow water.

The plan was to come back the next morning at a higher tide and finish the Minnesota. But during the night the Union Monitor arrived on the scene. At 172 feet and carrying a crew of 60, it was significantly smaller than the Merrimac. It was armed with only two 7-inch Dahlgren cannons, but these were placed in a revolving turret that could turn a lot more quickly than the Confederate ship.

Duel to a draw

When the Merrimac entered Hampton Roads in the morning, the duel began. For two hours the two ungainly warships pounded each other, but with only marginal effect. Had the Monitor's guns been firing full loads of power, they might have done the Merrimac some serious damage, but, because of fears of accidentally blowing up the Monitor's guns, only half charges were used.

The Monitor eventually withdrew to the protection of Fortress Monroe's guns. The Merrimac made another try for the Minnesota, but encountered more shallow water and broke off.

The two ironclads never fought again. The next month, as Union Gen. George B. McClellan moved up the peninsula between the York and James rivers toward Richmond, the Monitor and some accompanying gunboats were used in support.

The Merrimac's doom was sealed by President Abraham Lincoln, who in early April arrived at Fortress Monroe and ordered an immediate attack on Fort Norfolk across the river. As Union troops approached, the Confederates tried to get the Merrimac away upriver but encountered shoals again and had to blow it up to keep it out of Union hands.

Monitor's turn came that December. With the Union in full possession of the Hampton Roads area, the Monitor was taken under tow to be used against Confederate shipping in and around Charleston, S.C. Off Cape Hatteras, N.C., it took on too much water and went down. Its wreck hasbeen discovered by modern-day divers, and pieces have been retrieved.

Both ships quickly spawned progeny -- the Confederates built a large number of armored rams that resembled the Merrimac, and the Union side launched so many similar ironclad warships and gunboats that they became a new class of vessel called monitors.

The first modern battleships were on the scene in time for the Spanish-American War -- just 36 years after the era of wooden sail-powered warships ended.

To see the past

Just south of Hampton (Interstate 64 south to Exit 268) Fort Monroe (as it now is known) is an operating U.S. military facility. But its famous Casement Museumis one of the best of its kind.

In addition to its role in helping the Union beat back the Merrimac, the fort was once the home of a young Lt. Robert E. Lee, when he was still in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Another famous resident was a Sgt. Maj. Edgar Allan Poe, who left the Army after two years to become a writer.

An inmate after the Civil War was Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who was falsely charged with involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln, as well as with treason and mistreatment of Union prisoners.

On Norfolk's Front Street one block east of the foot of Colley Street is historic Fort Norfolk. Every March 8-10, re-enactments are staged here, involving not only re-enactor Confederate troops, muskets and guns, but also actual, smaller-scale and motor-driven replicas of the Monitor and Merrimac. Information: (804) 625-1720.

Nauticus Center

The Nauticus National Maritime Center at 1 Waterside Drive ([804] 664-1000) is more concerned, on its main floor, with modern naval warfare than the 19th century's, but is a popular hands-on, high-tech attraction.

On Nauticus' second floor is the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, with exhibits on the ironclads' clash and other significant naval encounters in the region, including the 1781 Battle of the Capes between French and British fleets at the mouth of the Chesapeake, in which the British were kept from assisting the encircled Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. This assured the triumph of the American Revolution.

In Newport News, just off Interstate Highway 664 at 917 Jefferson Ave., is the Monitor and Merrimac Center ([804] 245-1533). It has some excellent depictions of early life and maritime activities in Virginia, and a well-done diorama of the Monitor-Merrimac fight.

Work is under way on two larger-scale copies of the ironclads that, as planned, will carry out re-enactments during the warm-weather tourist season.

Newport News' Mariners' Museum is just up the James River at 100 Museum Drive ([800] 581-SAIL). Its Clash of Armor exhibit also graphically retells the Monitor and Merrimac story, and it has relics on display from both vessels: Merrimac's steering wheel and Monitor's anchor and navigation lantern. It also shows an undersea video of the Monitor lying at sea's bottom.

Harbor cruises of the Hampton Roads area via sightseeing craft are available from Waterman's Wharf, 917 Jefferson Ave., Newport News ([804] 225-1533).

Up the Potomac, Fort Washington (at the foot of Fort Washington Road in Prince George's County, [301] 763-4600) is a formidable Civil War landmark. From its ramparts, one has a view of the water approaches from Chesapeake Bay and the continuation up the river to Washington, marked by the Washington Monument -- which, though still under construction, would also have been visible then.

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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