The CSS Virginia had formerly been the USS Merrimack, but when the Federals had been forced to abandon Gosport Shipyard (the modern-day Norfolk Naval Shipyard) in 1861, they had scuttled the steam frigate. However, it had only burned to the waterline, preserving the hull and engines. The Confederates refloated the hull and built a superstructure on top with sloping wooden sides covered in iron. They planned to use the newly christened Virginia to break the Union blockade.
Nearly simultaneously, the Union was building its own ironclad vessel, but from scratch. The iron steamer, named the USS Monitor, was nearly completely submerged in the water, except for its deck and revolving gun turret.
On the Virginia’s maiden voyage, it decided to attack the Federal ships in Hampton Roads, the Virginian waterway where three rivers converged before entering Chesapeake Bay. On March 8, the Virginia (along with the gunboats sailing with it) steamed into Hampton Roads and launched its attack, decimating some of the Union ships while sustaining only superficial damage itself, as its iron armor caused shots to more or less bounce off it.
Before it could take on the other Union ships, the tide forced the Virginia to retire for the night, and when it returned the following morning, it found that the USS Monitor had arrived in the night to protect the remaining Union ships. The Monitor and the Virginia dueled for about four hours, during which neither ship sustained serious damage, each protected by their iron plates.
Finally, the Monitor pulled away to assess the vessel’s damage, leading the Virginia to believe the other ship was leaving the battle. After the Virginia likewise departed, the Monitor returned only to find the Virginia gone. This confusion caused both sides to declare victory, though historians typically agree the battle was a draw.
Though the Battle of Hampton Roads prevented the Virginia from achieving its objective, the real significance of the battle was its demonstration that wooden ships stood no chance against ironclads, almost instantly outdating navies around the globe.
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