The Monitor and the Battle of Hampton Roads

Photo credit: Jim Dollar

On January 30, 1975, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary became America’s first national marine sanctuary. Sixteen miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, its purpose was to protect the USS Monitor, a Civil War era ship that sank in 1862 and was lost until 1973. One of the most notable events in the Monitor’s history, the Battle of Hampton Roads, is a significant part of sanctuary education. 

The Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack, otherwise known as the Battle of Hampton Roads, took place on March 9, 1862 and changed naval warfare forever as it was the first-ever battle between ironclad warships. 

Prior to the battle, the Confederacy had started armoring the captured northern-built Merrimack (renaming it CSS Virginia), and the Union responded by pushing hard to get the Monitor constructed and engaged. The Monitor was a radical vessel for the time designed by Swedish-American John Ericsson and built in just a little over 100 days, thanks to the combined muscle of the Northern iron industry. In addition to being one of the first ironclad vessels in the world, the Monitor was innovative in several other ways. Among them were: the ship’s unusual shape and its use of a rotating turret instead of a stationary one. The rotating turret stood nearly 10 feet tall, was 20 feet in diameter, and housed two muzzle-loading cannons.

The Monitor launched from Greenpoint, Brooklyn in January of 1862 with the destination of Hampton Roads, Virginia due to the threat the Virginia posed to the federal fleet based there. On the evening of March 8, 1862, the Monitor arrived to see the destruction caused by the Virginia on two Union wooden frigates, Cumberland and Congress. The steam frigate USS Minnesota had run aground in Hampton Roads during the battle, and the Monitor was ordered to protect her since the Virginia was sure to return at first light on March 9th.

The Monitor and Virginia fought the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862 with the two sides withdrawing (but both claiming victory). Despite the Virginia being much larger, the Monitor’s innovative rotating turret proved to be advantageous over the Virginia’s traditional broadside guns. They nearly re-engaged a second time later in the war. While there was no clear winner in the battle, the Monitor did prevent further damage to the Union fleet. 

The Virginia was eventually sunk by its crew during the Confederate evacuation of Norfolk, and the Monitor was lost during a gale off of North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras along with 16 crewmembers in December of 1862. Nearly 111 years after sinking, Duke researchers located the Monitor using sidescan sonar and in 1974 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

To learn more about the history of the USS Monitor and Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, click here