Battle of the Ironclads marked the beginning of modern ships

Ebenezer Idowu, Jr., Staff Writer

The Battle of Hampton Roads, also known as the Battle of the Ironclads, or the Battle of the Monitor and the Virginia, was a crucial battle in the American Civil War. It marked the beginning of the transition from wooden ships to ships of iron.
Before this two-day showdown, naval forces across the globe-including that of Great Britain, the nineteenth-century naval superpower-used wooden ships. After the battle, however, ships of iron began rapidly replacing their wooden predecessors. So, why was this battle so important and why did it trigger a transition to iron ships? Let’s find out in this historical narrative.

Some historical context
While wooden ships dominated nautics for most of recorded history, many ancient civilizations experimented with incorporating iron into their ship design. For instance, the ancient Japanese used iron in their hulls to provide extra reinforcement against fire, according to Wikipedia “Atakebune.” True ironclads, however, did not surface until the 19th century, with the advent of industrialization and technological advances. Wooden ships, while successfully utilized for maritime transportation for centuries, were quite inefficient. They went the direction of the wind and could easily sink in bad sea storms (something the Atlantic Ocean is known for). Many Western navies started looking for more efficient modes of transportation, leading to steamboats, which allowed the captain, not Mother Nature, to decide where the ship went, and ironclads.
The other aspect of this is the American Civil War. Faced with the depressing prospect of a divided America, Abraham Lincoln and his war generals sought to bring a swift and decisive end to the war. One method was the Anaconda Plan. According to American History Central, General Winfield Scott proposed a plan to blockade southern ports and bays, thereby cutting off the South from the much-needed trade with foreign nations. Scott hoped to strangulate the South and force them to accept Union-created terms of surrender.

Creation of the Ironclads
Lincoln approved the Anaconda Plan and sent Northern ships to surround southern ports and harbors. The blockade immediately put the Confederates in a quandary. The South had little to no industry and depended heavily on imports from Britain and France. They needed a way around the blockade, and fast. The solution came in the form of an abandoned union ship called the Merrimack. When Virginia seceded from the Union, the Union military forces stationed at Gosport Naval Yard hastily retreated from the area, which was now Rebel territory (according to Encyclopedia Virginia).
The Yankee soldiers destroyed many of their own ships to prevent them from getting into Confederate hands. One of these vessels was the USS Merrimack. Unfortunately for the North, they did a rather shoddy job of destroying the Merrimack. While they managed to burn the majority of the ship, the hull was left mostly intact, giving the Rebels something to work with. They built a ship completely out of iron on the top of the Merrimack’s hull and renamed it the CSS Virginia. They also fitted the ship with ram. (Remember that last part. It comes into play later.)
The Virginia quickly caused terror in Union ranks. Confederates sent the ship to Hampton Roads to rupture the Union blockade there and allow the Confederacy access to unhindered trade and commerce with foreign nations, creating a massive problem for the North. The Union desperately needed a solution, and fast.

Enter the Monitor
The Monitor was the crazy invention of John Ericsson. A child prodigy, American Battlefield Trust’s “USS Monitor: A Cheesebox on a Raft” observes that Ericsson was already an established war engineer who had worked with the Swedish and English armies when he moved to New York to help design the Monitor. While political backstabbing and maneuvering nearly killed the project (you can read about that in this source), eventually, the USS Monitor was constructed and hurriedly sent to Hampton Roads to prevent the Virginia from destroying the Union navy.

The Battle
On March 8, 1862, the monstrous CSS Virginia sailed to Hampton Roads to attack the Union blockade navy stationed there. According to American Battlefield Trust, Franklin Buchanan, captain of the Virginia, decided to target the USS Cumberland. After getting close enough to its prey, the Virginia quite literally rammed into the Cumberland, creating an enormous hole in its side. (Remember the ram we mentioned earlier?) While trying to dislodge, however, the Virginia’s ram broke off. The Virginia then turned its attention to the USS Congress. The crew aboard the Union vessel panicked and the Congress ran aground nearby, the American Battlefield Trust intimates. With its ram gone, the Virginia proceeded to pound the Congress with relentless cannon fire, causing it to go ablaze. The Congress inevitably surrendered, but Franklin Buchanan was wounded by Union fire from Yankee soldiers on the shore while trying to accept the formal surrender. The Confederates onboard the Virginia decided to call it a day and retreat for their safe haven in the Elizabeth River.
The next day, March 9, American Battlefield Trust tells us that the CSS Virginia sailed into the bay, ready to wreak a fresh wave of havoc on the Union wooden ships. The ship headed for the USS Minnesota and began to open fire, but before it could destroy yet another Union vessel, the Confederates manning the ship noticed a strange, raft-like vessel near the Minnesota. This ship was the aforementioned USS Monitor, the North’s response to the terror-inflicting Virginia. The two ironclads faced off in what the American Battlefield Trust calls a “close-range [cannonball] slug fest.” While both ships were ironclads, neither side had equipped their vessel with the artillery needed to damage an iron ship. It’s almost like they were iron ships with wooden cannons, that is, cannons and ammunition meant for wooden ships.
Later, the Virginia, possibly tired of the drawn-out nature of the duel and frustrated with the difficulty Monitor presented (this was no easy kill), tried to ram the Monitor, but the smaller union vessel “[turned] sharply to avoid the blow.” Several hours later, an explosion from a Confederate shell blinded John L. Worden, the captain of the Monitor. The Union soldiers aboard “[disengaged] and [headed] for the safety of shallow water,” an area the bigger Virginia could not enter (unless the Confederates were deliberately trying to run the ironclad aground), and so the battle ended.
Sadly, the two ironclads would never fight again. The Confederates destroyed the Virginia while fleeing a shipyard to prevent the Union from getting it. The Monitor was destroyed in a storm near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Nevertheless, the battle left its mark on American history and eternally altered naval battles.

The Battle of Hampton Roads, while inconclusive, forever changed naval warfare. It convinced shipbuilders of the inherent inferiority of wooden vessels, and over the next several years, Union and Confederate naval forces began constructing metal warships. The North outpaced the South in this regard, possibly contributing to their civil war victory. The iron fever soon swept throughout the globe, as foreign naval powers began constructing metal vessels. By World War I, steel ships had completely replaced their wooden counterparts.