U.S.S. Monitor Battles C.S.S. Virginia (aka U.S.S. Merrimack)
On this day March 9, 1862 – one of the most famous naval battles in history took place. This batlle between the iron-clads – the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimack*) “ushered in a new era in naval warfare.”
History.com offers this account of the battle and the circumstances:
One of the most famous naval battles in history occurs as the ironclads Monitor and Virginia fight to a draw off Hampton Roads, Virginia. The ships pounded each other all morning but the armor plates easily shed the cannon shots, signaling a new era of steam-powered iron ships.
The C.S.S. Virginia was originally the U.S.S. Merrimack, a forty-gun frigate launched in 1855. The Confederates captured it and covered it in heavy armor plating above the waterline. Outfitted with powerful guns, the Virginia was a formidable vessel when the Confederates launched her in February 1862. On March 8, the Virginia sunk two Union ships and ran one aground off Hampton Roads.
The next day, the U.S.S. Monitor steamed into the bay. Designed by Swedish engineer John Ericsson, the vessel had an unusually low profile, rising from the water only 18 inches. The flat iron deck had a 20-foot cylindrical turret rising from the middle of the ship; the turret housed two 11-inch Dahlgren guns. The shift had a draft of less than 11 feet so it could operate in the shallow harbors and rivers of the South. It was commissioned on February 25, 1862, and arrived at Chesapeake Bay just in time to engage the Virginia.
At 9:00 am, the duel began and continued for four hours. The ships circled one another, jockeying for position as they fired their guns. The cannon balls simply deflected off the iron ships. In the early afternoon, the Virginia pulled back to Norfolk. Neither ship was seriously damaged, but the Monitor effectively ended the short reign of terror that the Confederate ironclad had brought to the Union navy.
A further note:
Both ships met ignominious ends. When the Yankees invaded the James Peninsula two months after the battle at Hampton Roads, the retreating Confederates scuttled their ironclad. The Monitor went down in bad weather off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, at the end of the year. Though they had short lives, the ships ushered in a new era in naval warfare.
The Lowell connection:
Merrimack was launched by the Boston Navy Yard June 15, 1855 and commissioned February 20, 1856 with Captain Garrett J. Pendergrast in command. She was the second ship of the Navy to be named for the Merrimack River… (My bold)
On the April 20, before evacuating the Navy Yard (at Norfolk) the U.S. Navy burned Merrimack to the waterline and sank her to preclude capture. The Confederacy, in desperate need of ships, raised Merrimack and rebuilt her as an ironclad ram…. Commissioned as CSS Virginia February 17, 1862, the ironclad was the hope of the Confederacy to destroy the wooden ships in Hampton Roads and to end the Union blockade which had already seriously impeded the Confederate war effort.
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And whatever happened to that piece of the Merrimack that was kept at the library for many years?
It was a piece of the Monitor, not the Merrimack and it was displayed at the library last summer as part of the Lincoln exhibit It was inside a glass case but it seemed about 14 inches long by 4 inches high by 2 inches wide. The artifact was given to the city by Gustavus Fox, a Lowell resident, who served as Asst Secretary of the Navy during the war.
When the war began, the Merrimack was at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia to have its engines rebuilt. When the ship was converted into the CSS Virginia, the Confederates reinstalled the outdated and poorly performing engines which contributed to the ship’s lack of speed and maneuverability.