First of the Ironclads “There came from behind the Minnesota a cheese-box on a shingle. It had lain there hidden by her bulk since midnight. It was it’s single light that we had watched and thought no more of! A cheese-box on a shingle – and now it darted into the open as though a boy’s arm had sent it! It was little beside the Minnesota. It was little even beside the turtle. There was a silence when we saw it, a silence of astonishment. It had come so quietly upon the scene – a deus ex machina, indeed, dropped from the clouds between us and our prey. In a moment we knew it for the Ericsson – the looked-for other ironclad we knew to be a-building. The Monitor, they call it….”
Taken from Margret Johnson’s novel The Long Roll published in 1911
On March 8, 1862, the first steam-powered Ironclad warship of the Confederate army, The CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) ushered in a new era of naval warfare when it attacked a blockading Union fleet and destroyed two Union vessels, the Cumberland and the Congress, at what became known as the Battle of Hampton Roads.
The Virginia’s thick metal casing, which withstood a fierce bombardment from several Union vessels, sounded the death-knell for the traditional wooden built war ships. The next day, the Union’s own Ironclad – the USS Monitor – engaged the Virginia in a heated day long battle.
With shells bouncing off the armor of each, the two ironclads continually tried to ram each other, the battle eventually ending in stalemate. This was the very first engagement of two Ironclad ships and the battle made headlines around the world.
During the summer of 1862 the Monitor remained in Virginia, plying the waters around Norfolk and Hampton Roads. At one point it sailed up the James River to bombard Confederate positions.
As the Monitor’s commander, Lieutenant John Worden, had been wounded during the fight with the CSS Virginia, a new commander, Captain William Nicholson Jeffers was assigned to the ship.
Jeffers was known as a scientifically-minded naval officer, and had written several books on subjects such as naval gunnery and navigation. In this photograph, captured on a glass negative by photographer James F. Gibson in 1862, he relaxes on the deck of the Monitor.
Note the large dent to the right of Jeffers, a result of a cannonball fired by CSS Virginia.
Marines of the USS Galena relax on the side-rail of their ship following action at Drewry’s Bluff in 1862. The Union attempt to move up the James River for a reconnaissance in force of the defenses leading to Richmond was repulsed at the bluffs.
The action was notable for the Marines on two counts. It saw US Marines in combat against their Confederate counterparts - an even smaller organization that the USMC - and also saw Cpl. John Mackie win the Medal of Honor when he and his detachment came up to service a gun on the USS Galena after its crew had all been taken out of action.
Although the Battle of Hampton Roads was an inconclusive and minor engagement as far the flow of the war was, it was a simply revolutionary battle for the evolution of naval warfare as the first clash between ironclad warships.
The Monitor-style design proved enduring, and many Civil War era ships remained in reserve for decades, such as the USS Jason, seen here when she was recommisioned for coastal patrol during the Spanish-American War.
Although an effective design for coastal combat, the USS Monitor was not suited to the high seas, and while under tow by the USS Rhode Island on December 31, 1862, she foundered in heavy seas and went down with 16 of her crew.