On March 9, 1862, the age of modern naval warfare began with the first battle between two ironclad vessels, the Union’s Monitor and the Confederacy’s Virginia.
The Virginia was originally a wooden U.S. frigate called the Merrimack that had been scuttled near Norfolk, Virginia. The Confederates raised the Merrimack, covered its hull with slanting iron plates, and renamed it the Virginia. The result looked like a floating barn roof with ten cannons sticking out of the sides and a smokestack on top.
On March 8 the clumsy Virginia steamed into combat against five wooden Union ships blockading the port of Norfolk. The Virginia quickly sank the USS Cumberland and USS Congress, and drove the USS Minnesota aground. The Union ships’ cannonballs glanced off the Virginia’s iron sides with “no more effect than peas from a pop-gun,” as one observer put it.
When news of the Union disaster reached Washington, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war worried the Virginia would sink the whole Union fleet, then “come up the Potomac River and disperse Congress, destroy the Capitol and public buildings.”
But the next day, when the Virginia chugged out of its berth, it met a surprise. The Union navy had rushed its own experimental ironclad to the scene. The Monitor rode low in the water and had just one revolving turret housing two big guns. It looked like a “tin can on a shingle.” But it was every bit as tough as the Virginia.
The ironclads locked in battle, pounding away with their guns. Neither could puncture the other’s iron shell. After more than three hours, the battered ships both turned and limped away.
Each side considered the battle a draw, but overall it was a Northern victory in that the Virginia failed to break the Union blockade. When admirals around the world heard of the battle, they realized that the age of tall-masted wooden warships had come to a close.