On the Sesquicentennial of Iron Ship Combat

This months marks the 150th anniversary of the iron ship era.  March 8th and 9th saw the Battle of Hampton Roads off the Virginia Coast.  There two ironclad vessels fought to a draw and marked the beginning of the end for wooden vessels in military use.

The two ships represented different approaches to technology.  The CSS Viriginia was constructed from the hull of the USS Merrimack and resembled a traditional vessel, while the USS Monitor was a completely new vessel employing an innovative design.  The Virginia was bigger, heavier, and had more guns than the Monitor.  But the Monitor’s guns were larger, and those guns were more maneuverable.  It was constructed in just four months.  The two vessels, as might be expected with ‘new’ vessels, also had mechanical problems during that first battle.  But the draw worked to the benefit of the Union, as the Virginia was ripping through their wooden vessels prior to the arrival of the Monitor.

Neither vessel survived to see 1863.  The Virginia was scuttled in May (succeeding where the Union had failed to destroy the Merrimack), and the Monitor sunk in December.  The bulk of the vessel remains on the seafloor outside Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is responsible for the vessel, which lies in the eponymous marine sanctuary (the nation’s first) created in 1975.  The turret, guns, engine and other artifacts are on display in Newport News, Virginia.

While the first ironclad battle was in North America, The two Americas were not the first to make iron ships.  Both France and the United Kingdom were working on changing to iron war vessels in the late 1850s.  The lessons of the American Civil War ironclad vessels were to affect tactics and weaponry for naval battles for several decades.  As the change from sailing vessels to steam vessels overlapped a good portion of the period when ironclads came of age, the design of the ships mattered as much as the new technology.  Ships like the Monitor could make technology choices that ships with more traditional design elements (like masts) could not.  While the slaughter of the period was sometimes relentless, the technological changes of the period were at least as influential.