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The Historic Clash of Ironclads

Artists Depicted the First Engagement Between Ironclad Warships

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No photographs were taken of the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, though many artists later created images of the scene.
A Currier and Ives print depicting the Monitor battling the Virginia.

A Currier and Ives print depicting the Monitor battling the Virginia (which was identified by its previous name, the Merrimac in the print's caption).

Library of Congress

As CSS Virginia was destroying Union warships on March 8, 1862, USS Monitor was coming to the end of a difficult sea voyage. It had been towed southward from Brooklyn to join the American fleet stationed at Hampton Roads, Virginia.

The trip was nearly a calamity. On two occasions the Monitor came close to flooding and sinking along the New Jersey coast. The ship was simply not designed for operating in the open ocean.

The Monitor arrived at Hampton Roads on the night of March 8, 1862, and by the next morning it was ready for battle.

The Virginia Attacked the Union Fleet Again

On the morning of March 9, 1862 the Virginia again steamed out from Norfolk, intent on finishing its destructive work of the day before. The USS Minnesota, a large frigate which had run aground while trying to escape the Virginia on the previous day, was to be the first target.

When the Virginia was still a mile away it lobbed a shell which struck the Minnesota. The Monitor then began to steam forward to protect the Minnesota.

Observers on the shore, noting that the Monitor appeared much smaller than the Virginia, were worried that the Monitor would not be able to stand up to the cannons of the Confederate ship.

The first shot from the Virginia aimed at the Monitor missed completely. The officers and gunners of the Confederate ship immediately realized a serious problem: the Monitor, designed to ride low in the water, did not present much of a target.

The two ironclads steamed toward each other, and began firing their heavy guns at close range. The armor plating on both ships held up well, and the Monitor and Virginia battled for four hours, essentially reaching a stalemate. Neither ship could disable the other.

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