Diving Into History

The battle

The sinking

The shot and shell from the CSS Virginia tore through the unarmored wooden hull of the USS Cumberland as if it was made of paper. Each shell that ripped into her unprotected interior carried with it huge splinters that dealt death and destruction in wholesale fashion. Acting Masters Mate Charles O’Neil aboard the Cumberland wrote, “Several shot and shell entered on one side and passed out through the other carrying everything before them.” Master Moses S. Stuyvesant Later described the scene as, “A scene of carnage and destruction never to be recalled without horror. . . . The once clean and beautiful deck was slippery with blood, blackened with powder and looked like a slaughter house.” Newspapermen watching the action from shore recalled the scene, “Now she [the Virginia] nears the Cumberland sloop of war, silent and still, weird and mysterious, like some devilish and superhuman monster, or the horrid creation of a nightmare. Now but a biscuit toss from the ship, and from the sides of both pour out a living tide of fire and smoke, of solid shot and heavy shell. We see from the ships scuppers running streams of crimson gore.” Approximately two hours of this action occurred when Lieutenant John Taylor Wood of the Virginia declared, “No ship ever fought more gallantly” as the Cumberland slipped beneath the waves. It was 3:35 P.M. when the order to abandon the Cumberland was given. She settled on the bottom with her masts still showing above the surface, her flag flying smartly. It was now the Congress’ turn to die.

It was near four in the afternoon when the seemingly invulnerable Virginia started to ravage the helpless USS Congress. She stood off about 200 yards and repeatedly raked the union vessel and her consort lying close abeam to protect her from ramming by the confederate behemoth. After almost an hour of unceasing, murderous fire, her decks a ruined slaughter pen, the commander of the union vessel struck his colors and surrendered. It was during the formal surrender that the Congress’ fate was sealed. When the boarding party was returning to the Virginia, union troops from shore began firing on the party either uncaring or unaware of the existing state of truce. Several men were wounded critically including the Virginia’s Captain. Wounded through the thigh, Captain Buchanan fumed with rage as he gave the order, “Destroy that God Dammed ship!” Lieutenant Eggleston later wrote, “Dearly did they pay for their unparalleled treachery, we raked her fore and aft with hot shot and shell!” The Congress, abandoned and burning, left a backdrop of destruction as the sun faded and the victorious CSS Virginia retired for the night. This was to be the worst defeat in US naval history until 79 years later at a place called Pearl Harbor.

This was the scene, when after the Congress’ fiery end, the diminutive USS Monitor arrived as David before Goliath.


Ironclad ships had been built before by navies in Europe and the East, but never before had two met in battle. The Virginia was an adapted wooden ship, originally, the USS Merrimack. She was constructed in this manner out of necessity for time and money. The Union had started construction on an ironclad ship, the USS Galena, of similar design. However, when it was apparent that the Confederates would have their ironclad ship ready before the Union’s, they started on a revolutionary project that would produce a ship that would influence all warship design in the future.

On March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginia (formally the USS Merrimack) steamed down the Elizabeth River to Hampton Roads where five large union ships were in blockade, the USS Cumberland, USS Congress, USS Minnesota, USS Roanoke and USS St. Lawrence. At the end of this day, two Union ships, the USS Cumberland and USS Congress, were sunk, and the USS Minnesota was grounded and severely damaged. For fear of grounding themselves in the darkness of night, the Virginia pulled back to the safety of the Elizabeth River and Sewell’s Point, where a battery of Confederate guns were placed. They planned to continue the battle the next day and the Minnesota should be easily taken before continuing the attack on the USS Roanoke and USS St. Lawrence.

What the Confederates did not know was that the USS Monitor had arrived in the darkness and had taken up along side of the Minnesota to protect her. Unlike the Virginia, which was a modified wooden ship, the Monitor was a specially designed ironclad ship, designed by a Swedish-American engineer and inventor, John Ericsson, and was a marvel of ingenuity. She weighed 776 tons, was 172 feet long and 41 feet wide, drafted 11 feet 4 inches, had a 12 inch freeboard and carried a 360 degree rotating turret that housed only two 11 inch Dahlgren guns.

On the morning of March 9, 1862, the Virginia headed out to continue the battle that had begun the day before. Before she could get close to the Minnesota, however, the Monitor moved up and engaged the Virginia. The battle lasted for approximately 4 hours and at times the two ships fired upon each other at point blank range. At one point, the Virginia ran aground, but the Monitor could not finish her. Later in the battle, the Virginia put a shot into the pilothouse of the Monitor and blinded her captain, Lieutenant John L. Worden. The Monitor, it’s captain wounded, steamed away from the battle. The Confederates believed that the Monitor was retreating. Lieutenant Samuel Dana Greene, the executive officer, assumed command with these instructions from the captain, “Gentleman, I leave it with you. Do what you think is best. I cannot see, but do not mind me. Save the Minnesota if you can.” After attending to the captain, Greene turned the ship around to resume the battle. By the time this was accomplished, the Virginia had decided to return to Norfolk for repairs, and the Union believed that the Virginia was abandoning the fight. Both sides considered the battle to be a victory despite the fact that no other ships were taken or sunk, and the blockade was still intact.

The irony of this battle was that the Monitor was not supposed to be there that day, and had she not arrived, the Confederates would have surely sunk the remaining ships and broken the blockade. Had this happened, the British and French, who were observing the battle, might have sided with the Confederates and this probably would have changed the outcome of the war.

The two ships would not meet again in battle, and in fact, neither ship would see their first birthday. On May 11, 1862, after the fall of Norfolk to the Union, the Virginia had no place to run. She was run ashore by her captain, Josiah Tattnall who replaced the wounded Buchanan, and set ablaze to prevent the Union from capturing her. Captain Tattnall reported to the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen R. Mallory, “The Virginia no longer exists.”

On December 31, 1862, the USS Monitor sank in a storm, 16.1 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina while being towed by the USS Rhode Island. She was on her way to Beaufort, North Carolina to assist with the blockade there. The scene of man after man plunging to their deaths into the raging sea while trying to reach lifeboats caused a few of the crew to freeze on the top of her turret in terror. Boats from the Rhode Island continually risked their lives evacuating the crew from the ill-fated ironclad. The men lined the Rhode Island’s rail to look for their ship, her lights alternately appearing and disappearing behind the monstrous waves. Finally, near one in the morning, her lights disappeared forever. Acting assistant paymaster William F. Keeler wrote, “The Monitor is no more.”

The Monitor was discovered in 1973 in 230/240 feet of water, and on January 30, 1975, the site was designated as the nation’s first marine sanctuary under Title III of the Marine Sanctuaries, Research, and Protection Act of 1972.


Davis, William C. Duel Between The First Ironclads. Louisiana State University Press, 1975.

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