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What is the Ironclads Battle?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Ironclads Battle or Battle of the Ironclads was a military event which occurred during the American Civil War. This battle proved to be the most remarkable naval event of the Civil War, and it was a watershed moment in international naval history, as it involved ships of an entirely new design. After the Battle of the Ironclads, the world's navies took note and began overhauling their ships for more modern military confrontations.

Prior to the Civil War, warships were made from wood. A variety of designs and styles could be seen, including both sailing and steam ships, but wood was still the design material of choice. The North and South began experimenting with armored hulls made from iron, however, creating so-called "ironclads" — ships which would theoretically be extremely challenging to attack because their iron hulls would protect them from enemy fire. Development of ironclads set the stage for the Ironclads Battle.

One of the North's more effective techniques during the Civil War involved blockading of major Southern ports, which made it difficult for the Confederates to obtain supplies. Once such port was Hampton Roads in Virginia, where the Elizabeth and James rivers meet to create a natural harbor near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

On 8 March 1862, the South sent the CSS Virginia, an ironclad ship, into battle at Hampton Roads, with the goal of engaging the Union and breaking the blockade. The Virginia successfully sank the USS Cumberland and forced the USS Congress and USS Minnesota to surrender. Darkness was rapidly approaching, so the Virginia retreated, with the goal of finishing the engagement in the morning. The Union sailors were understandably concerned about the direction the battle was heading, so they were pleased to spot the appearance of the USS Monitor, a Union ironclad ship which steamed in to engage the Virginia, arriving too late to get involved in the combat on the first day.

On the second day of the battle, the two ironclads engaged each other. Neither ship was able to achieve a victory, and the battle essentially ended in a standoff after three hours. The Ironclads Battle demonstrated the new technology in the field, proving that ironclad ships were the wave of the future, and the North hailed the battle as a major victory, although neither side decisively won.

The CSS Virginia, more properly known as the USS Merrimac because it was built on the hull of the Merrimac, did not live out the year. Fearing that the Union would capture the ship, the Confederacy blew it up. The Monitor, which had been plagued with problems from the beginning, finally sank later on in the same year as the Ironclads Battle. The ship was rediscovered in 1973, and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987. Several pieces of the CSS Virginia/USS Merrimac and USS Monitor can be seen on display in various regions of the United States, commemorating the Ironclads Battle and its impact on naval power.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By g00dquestion — On Apr 08, 2011

It's not surprising that the Confederacy was concerned that the Union might be interested in getting their hands on the Merrimac, considering it was the Union's property to begin with. The Merrimac was first built and chartered by the Boston Navy Yard, June 15, 1855 as a wood hull, Screw Frigate ship. It was burned and sunk in dock April 20, 1861 when the Union was evacuating the Navy Yard to preclude capture. It was then refitted and rechartered as the CSS Virginia in Feb. 1862, and later when on to largely dominate the Battle of Hampton Roads

By DNA50 — On Apr 06, 2011

@ Dantheman - You're right -- about four hours into the Monitor and Merrimac battle a cannon ball hit the monitor directly in the pilothouse temporarily blinding it's captain, calling this battle a draw. This gave the Merrimac a chance to withdraw to Norfolk and attempt to refit.

By DantheMan — On Apr 03, 2011

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but I had some sort of vague memory that the battle was actually a draw because of something that had happened to the pilot of one of the boats. Is this true?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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