Even in 1862 the Battle of Hampton Roads was recognized as a turning point in history: “Thus terminated the most remarkable naval combat of modern times, perhaps of any age. The fiercest and most formidable naval assault upon the power of the Union which has ever been made by the insurgents was heroically repelled, and a new era was opened in the history of maritime warfare.” 1
The story, as told in the Official Records, is a dramatic narrative. Hampton Roads—the natural harbor that empties into the Chesapeake Bay and then the Atlantic Ocean was occupied by both the Union and the Confederacy. The Union was blockading the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and access to the Atlantic with a fleet of wooden-hulled ships at Fort Monroe, Old Point Comfort, and Fort Wool.
The Confederacy controlled the southern portion of Hampton Roads and the Elizabeth River with bases at Portsmouth and Norfolk and batteries at Craney’s Island and Sewell’s Point. As long as the Union kept its forces near Fort Monroe it had the fleet and fort artillery to cut off the Confederacy from the Atlantic. The Confederacy, with fewer ships, tried for nearly a year but could do little to remove them. Now they were retrofitting a sunken U.S. armored ram (the ex- US Merrimac) into an ironclad warship (the CSS Virginia) and on February 3rd, 1862, with superior strength, they raced to engage the Union blockade.
The Union was also building an ironclad, but operations were precariously held up, and here begins their story: “It was the intention and constant effort of the Department and contractors that the Monitor should be completed in the month of January, but there was delay in consequence of difficulties incident to an undertaking of such novelty and magnitude, and there were also some slight defects, which were, however, promptly remedied, and she left New York early in March, reaching Hampton Roads on the night of the 8th . . . ." 2
Click here to read the incredible story that in 1862 had an international following and caused the great nations of Britain and France to end further construction of wooden-hulled ships.
1. Extract from Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, December 1, 1862, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume IX, Part 1, Chapter XIX, page 3, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office,1880-1901).
2. Extract from Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, December 1, 1862, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume IX, Part 1, Chapter XIX, page 1, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office,1880-1901).
Photo: "The Monitor and Merrimac," Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540, U.S.
Map: "Map of Hampton Roads and Vicinity." The First Fight of Iron-clads. 1885. The Century Magazine, Vol. XXIX, March 1885. John Taylor Wood.