The hope of the Confederacy. The most famous of the ironclads. The C.S.S. Virginia. But the Virginia did not start life out as a Confederate ship. It was the U.S.S. Merrimack prior to being captured by the Confederacy at Norfolk in May of 1861.
What is an Ironclad?
An ironclad ship is one that is propelled by a steam engine where the ship's hull was covered by iron plates to protect it from enemy fire. Part of the reason they were developed was due to the use of explosive or incendiary shot against wooden ships. It was very easy to destroy those or reek massive amounts of damage against them. So there needed to be an innovation or change to the ships.
The C.S.S. Virginia was built on top of the old wooden vessel, the U.S.S. Merrimack and was 178 feet long and 24 feet high above the water line. Its side sloped at 36 degrees in hopes that the enemy shots would ricochet off the sides of the iron plating. It was armed with ten guns mounted on both sides and the front and back of the ship. There was also an iron ram on the front of the ship so they could ram enemy ships. It was a huge target in the water.
The Virginia was unable to operate in shallow water due to its weight and could not go in the open seas for the same reason. And with a speed of only 4 to 5 knots, it was not a very fast ship. All these factors led to the Virginia to only have one hugely successful day in the Confederate Navy.
Most Successful Day
On March 8, 1862, the C.S.S. Virginia had its most successful day as an ironclad in the Confederate Navy on the Elizabeth River. It was used to go against a Union blockade at Newport News, Virginia. This engagement was known as the first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads. The Virginia destroyed two Union vessels and damaged three others.
The Union frigate the Congress and the large sloop of war the Cumberland were in the Elizabeth River. The Virginia fired upon both ships and set to ram into the Cumberland. This ship began to sink but it continued to fire upon the enemy as it was sinking. The Virginia then turned to attack the Congress. For over an hour, they continued to fire upon the Congress who finally signaled their surrender. The commanding officer of the Virginia ordered the Congress set on fire. The Union ship burned until it exploded around two a.m. after the fire reached the powder magazine.
When light was fading on March 8, 1862, the Virginia anchored and waited for the next day. They had received damage – two of their gun muzzles were shot off – but they had proven how effective an ironclad could be against a wooden ship. Even with the loss of 12 casualties and structural damage, the Virginia would still be ready to do battle when the sun rose.
This battle proved to be a turning point in naval history because it showed just how effective a steam-powered, iron armored ship could be against a sail powered wooden ship. So even though the U.S.S. Cumberland, one of the two ships destroyed, inflicted heavy damage against the Virginia, they were no match in the end for the steam-powered ironclad.
The Monitor Vs. the Merrimack (Virginia)
Throughout much of history the battle between the Union vessel, the U.S.S. Monitor, and the Confederate ironclad, the C.S.S. Virginia was known as the Monitor Vs. the Merrimack (it is sometimes spelled Merrimac) even though the second ship no longer went by its Union name.
The first battle between two ironclads was this battle on March 9, 1862 between the Monitor and the Virginia. The Monitor sat low in the water to the point where it was almost not visible. It was not a very easy target while the Virginia was quite an easy target. They fought for over two hours. The Virginia tried to ram the Monitor but was unsuccessful and its engines were not operating well. Each thought they had won but, in fact, the battle had been a draw.
Part of the problem of the Virginia is that it could not maneuver effectively. It would take as long as a half an hour to make a 180 degree turn. This left it open to significant damage infliction by smaller, more maneuverable ships – especially ones like the Monitor.
The End of an Ironclad
So, the most famous ironclad of the Confederacy really only had one great day – March 8, 1862 – because it was greatly damaged by the Monitor. The fighting on land directly impacted the naval battles and plans. As the Union forces moved closer to Richmond, the Confederates tried to move the Virginia up the James River. The heavy ironclad took on too much mud water and needed to be scuttled in the Spring of 1862. In the early morning hours of May 11, 1862, the Virginia was destroyed by an explosion in its powder magazine. But the ship will forever live on in the memory of Civil War enthusiasts as one of the most famous ironclads.