Witnesses described the Union ship as looking like a “tin can on a shingle.”
The Confederate ship was like “a barn gone adrift and submerged to the eaves,” writes historian Bruce Catton.
Neither may have been glamorous, but together they staged one of the most dramatic revolutions in naval warfare.
On March 9, 1862, the two ships, respectively christened the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, collided in one of the most famous battles of the Civil War.
The Virginia had been a Union ship known as the Merrimack before the war. It was docked in Norfolk, Va., for repairs, but federal sailors scuttled it rather than see it fall into Southern hands when the shipyard was seized by the Confederacy. Southeners quickly raised the vessel and clad its oak frame with iron plating four inches thick.
At the time, the French had an ironclad frigate, and so did the British. But, writes Catton, “no one had ever bothered to create an armor-piercing shell.”
On March 8, the Virginia, which was the length of a football field, attacked two Union warships near Norfolk – the USS Congress and the USS Cumberland. The Virginia turned their decks slick with Yankee blood.
It also ran the USS Minnesota aground, all while remaining impervious to Union shelling. One witness said Union shots bounced off the Virginia as if they were rubber balls.
But before the Virginia got a chance to finish off the Minnesota the next morning, the North’s antidote, the Monitor, arrived. Unlike the Virginia, the Monitor was made completely of iron. It had fewer guns, but its guns rotated.
“Badly indeed did we feel, to think those two fine old vessels had gone to their last homes, with so many of their brave crews. ... We vowed vengeance on the ‘Merrimack,’” wrote Lt. Samuel Dana Greene, a member of the Monitor crew, after the battle.
The two ironclads met the next morning, wrote Greene, “and thus commenced the great battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack.”
For several hours, the crews threw everything they had at each other. The ironclads collided five times, said Greene, yet neither gained an advantage.
“The shot, shell, grape, canister, musket and rifle balls flew about us in every direction but did us no damage,” he wrote. “Our tower was struck several times, and though the noise was pretty loud, it did not affect us any.”
The battle ended in a draw, with the Virginia drawing off later in the day. The Monitor did not give chase, and the two never slugged it out again.
Though the fight was over, a revolution in naval combat that made wooden ships obsolete had just begun.
Quick Fact: Fate of the Ironclads
The U.S.S. Monitor sank in a storm off the coast of North Carolina in 1862. Her rotating gun turrets were recovered more than a century later. The Confederates scuttled the Virginia in the spring of 1862 after the Union occupied Norfolk.