USS Monitor was an ironclad warship of the United States Navy, seeing action in the Battle of Hampton Roads against the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia in history's first engagement between such vessels.
The prime contract for construction of Monitor was awarded to her designer John Ericsson on 4 October 1861. Construction of her hull was subcontracted to the Continental Iron Works at Green Point, Long Island; fabrication of her engines was delegated to Delamater & Co., New York City; and the building of her turret, composed of eight layers of 1-inch iron plates, was assigned to Novelty Iron Works, also of New York City. The unusual warship — the first ironclad in the U.S. Navy — was launched 30 January 1862; and commissioned 25 February, Lieutenant John L. Worden in command.
The ironclad departed New York Navy Yard 27 February 1862, but a steering failure caused her to return to port. On 6 March, she again departed the New York Navy Yard, though this time she was under tow by Seth Low, and headed for the Virginia Capes.
Battle of Hampton Roads
As Monitor approached Cape Henry on the afternoon of 8 March, CSS Virginia, the former U.S. steam frigate Merrimack — now rebuilt as an ironclad ram — steamed out of the Elizabeth River into Hampton Roads and attacked the wooden hulled Union warships blockading Norfolk. Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, the Confederate commander, singled out sailing sloop Cumberland as his first victim.
She opened the engagement when less than a mile distant from Cumberland and the firing became general from blockaders and shore batteries; but most shots from the Union guns glanced harmlessly off the Confederate ironclad's slanted sides. Virginia rammed Cumberland below the waterline and she sank rapidly. Buchanan later reported the Union sailors remained “gallantly fighting her guns as long as they were above water.” Buchanan next turned Virginia's attention on the frigate Congress, which had run hard aground while attempting to close, and the frigate was set ablaze with hot shot and incendiary shell. She also damaged Minnesota before retiring to Sewell's Point for the night.
Monitor's crew could hear the roar of cannon as they rounded Cape Henry into Chesapeake Bay and headed toward the scene of battle. But all was quiet when she hove to alongside Roanoke. Captain Marston directed Worden to assist battered Minnesota, hard aground off Newport News.
At dawn, Virginia again emerged and headed toward Minnesota to administer the coup de grace. Monitor steamed out of Minnesota's shadow to intercept the Confederate ironclad ram. A Confederate officer on CSS Patrick Henry, one of Virginia's paddle wheel consorts, described the Union challenger as “an immense shingle floating on the water with a gigantic cheese box rising from its center; no sails, no wheels, no smokestack, no guns.” But the unusual federal vessel soon won the respect of friend and foe alike, fighting the Confederate ironclad to a standstill in an exhausting four-hour duel. With both warships damaged and running low on shot, Virginia retired to Sewell’s point after failing to break the Federal blockade.
James River operations
In the weeks that followed, Monitor remained alert in Hampton Roads ready to renew the engagement should Virginia venture forth. The southern ram did make a brief appearance off Sewell's Point on 11 April, but neither side forced a second engagement between the two vessels. Early in May, while General George B. McClellan pushed through Yorktown and up the peninsula toward Richmond, the South withdrew from Norfolk and the southern bank of the James River, retiring toward the Confederate capital. Virginia, with too deep a draft to reach Richmond, was set afire 11 May and blew up soon thereafter.
Monitor, reinforced by ironclads Galena and Naugatuck, steamed up the James to gather information for McClellan and to strengthen the Union Army's left flank. On 15 May, however, when they reached Drury's Bluff some eight miles below the southern capital, their progress was stopped by obstructions across the channel. Confederate riflemen fired on the Union ships from both shores and heavy naval guns mounted high on the cliff shelled them from an angle which minimized the effectiveness of their armor. Although Monitor moved up to protect the heavily damaged Galena, her crew was unable to elevate her guns to hit the shore batteries, and so the ironclads retreated downstream.
Although checked in their thrust toward Richmond, the Union ships continued to provide McClellan with gunfire support. After his defeat by General Robert E. Lee in the Seven days campaign, their guns helped save the Army of the Potomac from annihilation.
At midsummer, Monitor helped cover the Union Army as it retired from the peninsula to shift operations back to northern Virginia. Thereafter, she performed blockade duty in Hampton Roads until ordered on Christmas Eve to proceed to North Carolina for operations against Wilmington. Towed by the side-wheeler Rhode Island, she departed the Virginia Capes 29 December for Beaufort, but the historic warship foundered in a storm off Cape Hatteras shortly after midnight 31 December. Four officers and 12 men went down with her.
Discovery of the wreck
The wreckage of the ironclad was discovered in 1973 by a team of scientists from Duke University, the State of North Carolina, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As part of a series of marine sanctuary laws passed by the U.S. Congress, the site of the wreck was designated a National Marine Sanctuary on 30 January 1975 and placed under the protection of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Owing to deterioration of the wreck from storm and other damage, some artifacts, such as the propeller shaft and hull plates, were later recovered for historic preservation. Starting in March 2001, a five month long expedition involving NOAA, the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two (MDSU TWO) and The Mariners’ Museum, raised the ironclads innovative steam engine and other parts recovered at the site. The following year, in July and August 2002, the gun turret was raised from the site. These artifacts were transferred to the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Va., for historic preservation.
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