The Monitor and the Merrimack: March 9, 1862

March 9, 2012

I was researching a history book when my author asked me a perfectly sensible question: Whats the difference between First Bull Run and First Manassas? Confederates named their battles for nearby towns and the Union army named theirs for the closest streams, I replied. Its the same battle. Determined not to confuse readers, he decreed: Ill use only one name for each battle. That raised the next obvious question: Which name to use, Union or Confederate? Not wanting to show bias, he further decreed: Let the winner of the battle name it.

King Solomon: Call your office! I liked that decision. Its fair and sportsmanlike. And it gives all sides an added incentive to win their battles.

Applying that sensible rule, I always refer to the great sea battle that took place on this dateone hundred fifty years agoas the Monitor and the Merrimack. These two ironclad vessels fought for hours on March 9, 1862. Their climactic clash made every other navy on earth obsolete.

The Confederates had seized and overhauled the USS Merrimack the year before when Union forces evacuated the great naval shipyard at Gosport, Virginia. Re-naming the ship CSS Virginia, they converted it into a deadly ram.

The Merrimack now had ten huge naval guns, four on each side of sloping, fortress-like superstructure, and one gun each emplaced at the bow and stern. The Confederates had applied iron railroad rails to the exterior, greatly increasing the vessels weight and reducing her speed and maneuverability.

Nonetheless, Merrimack was a terror of the seas. She steamed out of Norfolk on March 8, 1862 and headed for two federal ships, USS Congress and USS Cumberland. Capt. Franklin Buchanan was her skipper. He had been superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, but chose to fight for the South.1

When word of the unexpected rebel attack reached Washington by telegraph, there was panic in the capital. People actually feared that the Merrimack would steam up the Potomac and shell federal buildings.

That was never a possibility. But the Merrimack nonetheless wreaked havoc on the Union blockade. At the onset of hostilities, in April, 1861, President Lincoln had ordered the United States Navy to blockade Southern ports. If the Confederates could break the Union stranglehold, they could receive war materiel from Britain and France. And there was a real chance that Britain and France might actually recognize the Confederate States of America as a sovereign nation.

The stakes in March, 1862, could not have been higher. The very life of the Union was at risk. The story of battle is well-told by historian Spencer C. Tucker.2

Union shore batteries and Union warships were soon blasting away at Merrimack, but to little effect. Most of their cannon balls simply bounced off the ships sloping ironclad hull. She rammed the Cumberland, which soon began to sink. Soon USS Congress was in flames and the Union flagship, USS Minnesota, was run aground.

By sundown on March 8, the U.S. Navy had suffered the worst day in its history. There would be no more disastrous defeat for the navy until the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

Then, on the morning of March 9th, the most improbable craft edged out from the shelter of the Minnesota. Much smaller than Merrimack was the revolutionary new USS Monitor. Designed and built in a hurry by the ingenious Swedish immigrant, John Ericsson, little Monitor mounted only two guns. But these were housed in a turret, which made it possible to fire in any direction, as rapidly as the turret could swing. Some old salts sneered at Monitor, saying she looked like a cheese box on a raft.

How could this little ship face the mighty Merrimack? But face her she did. For hours in a sea battle off Hampton Roads, Virginia, Monitor and Merrimack blasted away, often with their gun muzzles almost touching. Lieutenant John Worden held command of the Monitor. He had only recently been released from captivity by the rebels.3

Sometimes at point blank range, the two ironclads pounded each other furiously until they finally broke off their action. Both sides claimed victory, understandably. But the day truly belonged to the Union. It was the South that so desperately needed to break the Union blockade. It was the South that needed to sink the federal ships that were strangling her commerce. And it was the South that saw her hopes of diplomatic recognition by Britain and France delayed once again.

Capt. Buchanan reported to his superiors in Richmond the fact that Cumberland fired her guns valiantly and sank with her colors flying. He did not add that on board USS Congress his own brother was serving.

Why at this distance of a century and a half study this naval engagement? The Civil War had one cause, and many causes, but no one put the real cause more eloquently than Mrs. Mary Chesnut. In her famous diary, this intelligent and perceptive Southern lady said the Northerners and Southerners were willing at last to shed each others blood because we hated each other so.

As we see the cultural clashes of today, the hateful words and sometimes violent responses, its perhaps good to re-read Lincolns words from his first Inaugural:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.


1 The Superintendents stately quarters at the Naval Academy is named for this brave officer, Buchanan House.

2 A Short History of the Civil War at Sea, by Spencer C. Tucker

3 John Wordens name is memorialized, too, at the U.S. Naval Academy. Midshipmen muster for weekly parades in season on Worden Field.