Professor Donald Elder – Events in American History – The Monitor and the Merrimack

Mar 19, 2016 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder – Events in American History- The Monitor and the Merrimack

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, one singular event of the Civil War was the battle between two iron-clad vessels: the Monitor and the Merrimack. I think we need some definitive background on this event. When did the North and the South start building iron clad ships—or were there other iron clad vessels around the globe at that time?

If asked about the Monitor and the Merrimack, many Americans would no doubt remember them as their nation’s first iron-clad warships. Few citizens, however, would have any idea that other nations had constructed similar vessels before the launching of those two ships. In fact, some claim that a vessel known as the Turtle Ship constructed in Korea in 1591 had iron plating, which would have made it the world’s first ironclad warship.

Others point to France as the nation that could rightfully claim that distinction. Aware of technological developments in the 1800s that had made artillery much more effective against wooden warships, the French turned their attention to developing vessels that could withstand the more powerful projectiles. By 1855, they had constructed three vessels that featured iron plating. This proved fortunate for France, because that nation had become involved in the Crimean War the year before. While plated with iron, these vessels are not considered to have been warships because they possessed only a very limited propulsion system. Soon, however, the French began work on an iron-clad vessel with true maneuverability.

Launched in 1859, the French christened the vessel the Gloire. A year later, the British followed suit when they launched the Warrior. Thus, by the time of the American Civil War, two nations already had iron-clad vessels. Although aware of the pioneering work of the British and French navies, the US Navy had not responded in kind. This attitude changed when word reached Washington DC that the newly-created Confederate States of America had started work on an iron-clad. Ironically, these efforts focused on a ship that had flown the US flag until April of 1861.

In 1855, the US Navy had launched the Merrimack, a wooden vessel powered by steam engines. At the start of the Civil War, the Merrimack lay in dry-dock at the Norfolk Naval Yard. When Virginia seceded in April of 1861, US Naval authorities set the Merrimack on fire and sank it, but because it settled in shallow water the Confederates soon raised it. When they began to rebuild the burned superstructure, the Confederates decided to cover it with iron plating. They christened the refurbished vessel the Virginia, but most people chose to continue to refer to it as the Merrimack. At the same time, the Confederate Navy also deployed an iron-clad vessel known as the Manassas on the Mississippi River. This vessel was not technically a warship; rather, it tried to sink other ships by ramming them. It actually went into battle months before the Confederates had the Merrimack ready for sea duty. Learning of this development, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles issued a call for proposals to counter this threat.

A brilliant immigrant inventor named John Ericsson submitted blueprints for a vessel that he called the Monitor. Unlike the Merrimack, the Monitor would be a vessel made primarily out of iron rather than simply clad in the substance. Built in a remarkably short period of time, it made its maiden voyage in March of 1862. Interestingly, by that time the Union Navy already had seven iron-clad warships in service on inland waterways west of the Appalachians. Thus the Monitor and the Merrimack were neither the first iron-clad warships nor the first to see action.

2) Exactly where did this event take place?

Once the Confederates had refurbished the Merrimack, they sent it out to attack Union ships on blockade duty at the mouth of the James River, a location known as Hampton Roads. On March 8, the Merrimack engaged three large wooden Union warships, sinking two of them and forcing a third to run aground. The Merrimack went back to Norfolk for the night, planning to return to Hampton Roads to finish off the third ship. Incredibly, the Monitor had arrived at Hampton Roads on the night of March 8, so when the Merrimack came back on March 9 it found the Union warship waiting for it.

3) Now, who commanded the Monitor and what was singular about its shape and the vessel itself? How many men, and what was its armament?

The Monitor resembled no warship in the history of the US Navy. Because it consisted primarily of iron, it sat much lower in the water than other vessels. Indeed, its deck only sat three feet higher than the waterline. Another unique feature came from its superstructure, which consisted of a metal turret that could rotate a full 360 degrees. The armament of the Monitor consisted of two cannons capable of firing shells 11 inches in diameter. Housed inside the turret, the Monitor’s crew deployed the cannons though two portholes when ready to fire. 179 feet long and 41 feet wide, the Monitor had a crew of 49 officers and enlisted men. 41-year-old Lieutenant John Worden commanded the vessel.

4) On the other side, the Merrimack: Who was its commander, and what was important about this vessel?

The Merrimack was a much larger vessel than the Monitor, 275 feet in the length and 51 feet wide. Although estimates vary on the size of the ship’s crew on the day of the battle, most experts believe that it carried 320 officers and men. Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, who served as the commander of the Merrimack, had a very interesting path to that position. He had served in the US Navy from 1815 to 1861, holding important positions ranging superintendent of the US Naval Academy to the commandant of the Washington Navy Yard. By birth a Marylander, he felt certain that his home state would secede from the Union in 1861 and join the Confederacy. Accordingly, he resigned his commission in the US Navy. Much to his surprise, Maryland did not secede, and Buchanan tried to take back his resignation. Secretary of the Navy Welles refused to countenance this however, and so Buchanan offered his services to the Confederacy, and was given command of the Merrimack.

5) What was the immediate outcome of the battle? Was there a winner? And what implications did this battle have for the Civil War in general?

The Monitor and the Merrimack fought each other for most of the morning on March 9, but neither ship inflicted irreparable damage on the other, even though they often fired at each other from point blank range. In fact, only one significant casualty occurred that day: an officer temporarily blinded on the Monitor. That injury proved quite important for the manner in which the battle ended, however, as John Worden was the casualty.

Unable to continue to command his ship, Worden gave control of the vessel to Lieutenant Samuel Dana Greene. As the transfer took place, the Monitor sailed away from the Merrimack to regroup, causing the Confederates to believe that they had won the battle. The Confederate vessel, never completely seaworthy after Union Naval authorities had sunk it in April of 1861, decided at that point to return to Norfolk. This action caused those on the Monitor to believe that they had forced Confederate vessel to withdraw. Although both sides thus claimed victory as the battle concluded, in retrospect it is clear that the day ended in a draw. But in a strategic sense, the Union had achieved a great victory. The Monitor had saved the grounded Union vessel from destruction, and as it turned out the Merrimack would never serve as a menace to Union warships again. A Union army landed on the James Peninsula later that spring, and as it advanced it threatened to recapture the Merrimack as it sat in dry dock in Norfolk. Rather than allow that to happen, the Confederates blew up the Merrimack. The Confederates would never seriously challenge the Union blockade ever again. At first glance a draw, the battle in retrospect represented a huge victory for the Union.

6) Was there a reaction to this battle from around the world? Was it the first battle of two iron clad ships?

Unlike other events that took time to be recognized for their importance, naval experts around the world recognized the significance of this battle. No wooden ship could hope to win a battle against an iron-clad, and navies the world over began to convert to metal construction. As a result, this battle represented an epochal event in both US and world history.

7) What have I neglected to ask?

As previously noted, the Merrimack would never engage in a battle after that fateful day at Hampton Roads. In April it sailed out from Norfolk and fired a few shells in the direction of the Monitor, but the Union warship chose not to give battle, and at the end of the day the Merrimack had no chose but to sail back to Norfolk. It turned out that the Monitor’s had one last day of combat. In May of 1862, the Monitor joined a small flotilla of Union warships in an effort to drive the Confederates from a strategic point on the James River just south of Richmond. Because it could not elevate its guns, the Monitor played only a limited role in the battle.

In December of 1862, the US Navy sent the Monitor south to join a squadron currently engaged in blockading the Carolina coast. Unfortunately, the Monitor capsized off Cape Hatteras. Presumed lost forever, a team of researchers found the Monitor in 1973. In the ensuing years, parts of the vessel have been raised, and form the nucleus of a museum dedicated to its honor.

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