Naval Warfare Changed Forever

March 2, 1862/2012
Volume 3, Issue 9 (73 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

“. . . a sign we intend the Union to go on”

March 4, 1862. Appearing before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, Lincoln urged Congress to appropriate funds so that work on the Capitol building’s new dome could start again, after having been suspended for a year due to lack of funds. “It is a sign we intend the Union to go on,” Lincoln said.

– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Executive Director, Vermont Humanities Council

U.S. Capitol building under construction, July 1861, Library of Congress

U.S. Capitol building under construction, July 1861, Library of Congress

Naval Warfare Changed Forever

March 8, 1862. When Union forces abandoned the naval shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia at the beginning of the war, they scuttled and sank the Union frigate Merrimack. In the summer of 1861 the Confederate navy recovered the ship, covered her with iron plates, converted her to steam power, outfitted her with formidable guns, and renamed her the Virginia. The Union’s uncontested supremacy on the seas was now at risk.

Despite the Confederacy’s best efforts to preserve secrecy, Washington learned about this work. The prospect of wooden ships going up against what might prove to be a virtually indestructible iron steamship was, needless to say, a great concern. And so the Union raced to make the Monitor, a specially designed “ironclad,” ready for battle as soon as possible.

The Merrimack resembled an iron-fortified raft. The Monitor was lower in the water; its main deck rose only eighteen inches above the water with a revolving gun turret in the middle.

On March 8, the Merrimack attacked and sank two wooden Union ships in Hampton Roads, the channel through which Virginia’s James River flows into Chesapeake Bay. The Confederate commander of the Merrimack was not deterred by the fact that his brother served on one of them. This was the U.S. Navy’s worst day in its eighty-six-year history.

The next day, the Monitor steamed into the area, and the two ironclads went up against each other. They fought to a draw, although the Union continued to control the Bay. The age of wooden ships was over. (1)

The ironclads changed everything, but they were still a new technology, and their design left much to be desired. Union Navy Lieutenant S. Dana Green described just how imperfect the design for the Monitor’s novel revolving turret was:

“. . . [t]he reverberation of [the Merrimack’s] shots against the tower caused anything but a pleasant sensation. While Stodder, who was stationed at the machine which controlled the revolving motion of the turret, was incautiously leaning against the side of the tower, a large shot struck in the vicinity and disabled him. He left the turret and went below, . . . .

“The drawbacks to the position of the pilot-house were soon realized. We could not fire ahead nor within several points of the bow, since the blast from our own guns would have injured the people in the pilot-house, only a few yards off. . . . It was difficult to start [the turret] revolving, or, when once started, to stop it, on account of the imperfections of the novel machinery, which was now undergoing its first trial.”

– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Executive Director, Vermont Humanities Council    

The Monitor and the Merrimac, Library of Congress

The Monitor and the Merrimac, Library of Congress


1. See Voices of the Civil War, Richard Wheeler, 1976, pp. 61-81

2. Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, My Brother’s Face, p. 60

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1862

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