The North learned through their intelligence network what was cooking in Virginia and Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, requested of Congress the funding to develop and build an ironclad ship themselves. In August of 1861 the money was approved and a board appointed to consider designs. John Ericsson's design of a monitor was selected and USS Monitor was born.
She was built in Brooklyn NY and was a highly radical design, often dubbed the "cheesebox on a raft."
Ericsson armed her with a only two guns, each an 11" Dahlgreen mounted in a cylindrical turret. There was one flaw, a major one, as it turned out: the pilot house was mounted directly in front of the turret which meant that the guns could not fire dead ahead.
CSS Virginia steamed into the Chesapeake Bay on the morning of 8 March with the intent of laying waste to the wooden Union warships anchored off Hampton Roads. While the Yankee ships fired on the ironclad behemoth approaching them, their shot had little effect. USS Cumberland was chosen by Capt Buchanan of the Virginia as his first target and he rammed her, holing her below the waterline.
She sank quickly, continuing to fire her guns as long as they remained above the water. With 121 of her men dead and another 30 wounded, it was a bad loss for the Union. The Confederate ironclad then turned to the other Union ships and while was unable to sink them, did do considerable damage. The toll was the worst Navy defeat until WWII! But Monitor was on the way!
The two met the morning of 9 March and lasted for hours.
|Virginia dwarfs the Monitor|
So essentially, it was a draw, but the important thing here is the success of the ironclad ships.
Through a series of events I will not go into here, the Monitor later sank off Cape Hatteras and her sunken hulk was found and partially salvaged in the 1990's. The turret and one of her guns are currently undergoing conservation at the wonderful Newport News Mariner's Museum.
In a marvelous exhibit devoted entirely to these historic ships, they have recreated the turret of Monitor as it looked just out of the water, full of mud and human remains, as well as a full sized mock up of Virginia loading aboard one of her guns.
Maybe we'll do a piece on that in another post.