The Monitor

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Two American warships that marked a revolution in naval warfare

Source: The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition Copyright © 1993, Columbia University Press.

The Monitor and Merrimack were two American warships that fought the first engagement between ironclad ships.

When, at the beginning of the Civil War, the Union forces abandoned the Norfolk Navy Yard at Portsmouth, Va., they scuttled the powerful steam frigate Merrimack. She was subsequently raised by the Confederates, converted into an ironclad, and renamed the Virginia.

On March 8, 1862, the Virginia, commanded by Capt. Franklin Buchanan, sallied forth into Hampton Roads against the wooden ships of the Union blockading squadron. She rammed and sank the Cumberland, destroyed the Congress after running her aground, and scattered the remaining ships, all the while sustaining practically no damage to herself.

But on the next day the Virginia, now under command of Lt. Catesby Jones, was challenged by the strange-looking Union ironclad Monitor, built by John Ericsson and commanded by Lt. John L. Worden. The Monitor had just reached Hampton Roads after a precarious voyage from New York City. The ships engaged in a four-hour close-range duel, which resulted in a draw.

In April the Virginia, under Capt. Josiah Tattnall, again challenged the Monitor, but the Union ship declined combat. When General McClellan's advance in the Peninsular campaign forced the Confederates to abandon Norfolk, Tattnall, unable to lighten the Virginia sufficiently for passage up the James River, destroyed her (May, 1862).

The Monitor foundered and sank in heavy seas off Cape Hatteras in Dec., 1862. The combat between the two ships marked a revolution in naval warfare.

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