March 11, 2012
Oil painting by Thomas Skinner depicts the battle of the ironclads, March 9, 1862, Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum.
Sunday March 9, 1862 was mild like it is now, a fine day for church, except that, out on the water in Hampton Roads, men lay in wait behind thick armor, determined to kill each other. It’s fair to say they were on edge.
Below deck in the Yankee ironclad Monitor, the only light was what seeped through viewing slits in the turret and flickered from lanterns. For most the sense of not being able to see where they were or where the enemy lay was suddenly brought home.
“I experienced a peculiar sensation,” paymaster William Keeler wrote to his wife. “I do not think it was fear, but it was different from anything I ever knew before. We were enclosed in what we supposed to be impenetrable armour – we knew that a powerful foe was about to meet us – ours was an untried experiment and our enemy’s first fire might make it a coffin for us all.”
Dinwiddie Phillips, the surgeon on board the rebel ironclad Virginia, experienced an almost identical dread. ”Our vessel never having been tested before, and her model being new and unheard of, many of those who watched us predicted failure and others suggested that the Virginia was an enormous metallic burial case, and that we were conducting our own funeral.”
These combatants, many of whom had never served on a warship of any kind – those on the Virginian had not even had a sea trial or fired its guns – were about to make history by shooting at each other from behind heavy armor. There were other ironclads in the world but none had been tested in combat.
The first confirmation most of the Monitor’s crew had that a battle had begun was the howl of gunfire as the Minnesota, a wooden Union ship, unleashed a broadside at the Virginia, with no more effect than peas fired from a pea-shooter.
As captain John Worden maneuvered the Monitor alongside the Virginia. gunners crowded in the cave-like space of the turret waited anxiously as it revolved. Then they raised one of the heavy port stoppers, ran out the 11-inch Dahlgren gun and fired.
There was an earsplitting roar and choking odor of smoke as the immense cannon hurled 170 pounds of solid iron at the Virginia. It was 8:20 a.m. The battle had been joined.
Like heavyweight boxers, the two ironclads seemed to stand toe-to-toe, sometimes actually touching each other as they fought desperately amidst a cloud of thick smoke.
In the hot, stifling turret, gunners stripped to the waist, their bodies black with powder and drenched with perspiration. When the ship first received a direct hit, there must have been a sudden intake of breath and a gasp as the crew realized the shot had dented but not penetrated the armor.
Down in the heavy ironclad casemate of the Virginia, conditions were the same. At one point, when the Monitor fired at close range, gunners near the impact were stunned nearly senseless by the concussion. Adding to the hellish conditions, engines below them belched smoke and heat as the ships jockeyed for position.
Maybe this was better than having wooden timbers smashed to pieces, but it was no less frightening. One Monitor gunner “fell over like a dead man” when a shot hit the armor near his head – he was revived by brandy. Another whose knee was in contact with the iron wall was flung through the air when another shot hit home.
The more agile Monitor – not having to square up to fire broadsides – stung the Virginia again and again. Frustrated gunners on the Virginia stopped firing at one point because they felt it was pointless against the heavy iron of their enemy. Both ships tried ramming the other and narrowly missed.
The closest thing to a casualty was the almost-deadly shot of one of the Virginia’s gunners just as Captain Worden was peering through the viewing slit in the forward pilothouse. He staggered back, blinded and bloody and had to be taken to his quarters.
The Monitor withdrew to deal with Worden, then attempted to get back into the battle, but the Virginia’s officers, realizing that the tide was falling and endangering their deep-draft warrior, headed toward the Elizabeth River. Both sides claimed victory, but it was a hard-fought, claustrophobic draw.
The legacy of the battle was the end of the era of wooden ships. The new ones were, in the words of Herman Melville, “welded tombs.” But he saw a small silver lining: “War shall yet be, but warriors/Are now but operatives; War’s made/Less grand than peace.”