Crumpled Iron Tells Tale
Of Monitor-Virginia Battle
By DAVID F. WINKLER
Lying face down in Willard Park at the Washington Navy Yard are two distorted slabs of ballistic plating
with no markings to identify their origins. However,
indentations and two embedded cannonballs give a clue.
Looking through images of the Washington Navy Yard
from the Civil War era in January, new National Museum
of the U.S. Navy director Jim Bruns had an “aha!” moment. There, in front of him, was a photograph of the 8-
inch-thick slab with “No. 61. Sept. 20… 64” labels across
the top of the plate. On the side “From J. Brown & Co.,
Sheffield, England,” marked the source of the plate — one
of Europe’s most advanced ironworks.
Above the dents and holes were Roman-Arabic numeric markings and below was painted either “Steel” or “Cast
Iron” indicating the composition of the cannon shot.
These plates are part of a legacy of pivotal events in
world naval history beginning with the March 8, 1862,
fight between the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia and
Union Navy blockading vessels at Hampton Roads, Va.,
that resulted in the destruction of sloop of war
Cumberland and frigate Congress as well as severe damage
to the steam frigate Minnesota. Union shot failed to penetrate the sloped iron plates that were erected atop the hull
of the scuttled and resurrected ex-USS Merrimack.
Confederate shot and shell, in contrast, proved lethal
against wood. This battle ended an era where wooden
warships reigned supreme on the high seas. The next day,
a new era of naval warfare began following the arrival at
Hampton Roads of the Union ironclad USS Monitor.
Given that navies in Europe were beginning to place
ironclad ships into service, it would only be a matter of
time and circumstances before such a battle would
occur. A civil war breaking out in a country that had
entered the industrial age provided those circumstances. On May 30, 1861, Confederate forces raised
the remains of the steam frigate Merrimack and within
two weeks Lt. John M. Brooke received orders to convert the hulk into an ironclad vessel.
With little secrecy, conversion work began. Understanding the ramifications of such a warship, the Union
Navy sought bids for its own ironclad. One came from a
Swedish-born engineer, John Ericsson, who proposed an
ironclad raft with a revolving turret that hosted two 11-
inch Dahlgren shell guns behind 8 inches of iron plating.
With a promise of a ship in 100 days, Ericsson
earned a contract on Oct. 4, 1861, to build his uncon-
ventional design. He came close to meeting his deadline. Launched on Jan. 20, 1862, and commissioned
Feb. 25 with Lt. John L. Worden in command, USS
Monitor left New York for Norfolk two days later but
had to turn back due to a steering failure.
Leaving again on March 6, this time under tow, the
ironclad warship approached Cape Henry, Va., on March
8 as Virginia fired punishing broadsides and rammed the
Union blockading force at Hampton Roads. The
Confederate warship did not escape unscathed as its commanding officer, Capt. Franklin Buchanan, was wounded
by a Union sharpshooter when he went topside.
March 9, 1862, proved historic as Monitor thwarted
Virginia’s attempt to finish off Minnesota. The vessels
dueled like boxers, maneuvering, probing and firing at
close range to attempt a knockout blow. After four hours,
Monitor withdrew when a shell exploded against its pilot
house and injured Worden. Virginia, now commanded by
Cmdr. Catesby ap Roger Jones, declined to pursue the
attack, as the ship was running low on ammunition
On May 11, 1862, the South destroyed Virginia to keep
it from falling to Union troops. Monitor met a watery
grave off Cape Hatteras as it foundered with a loss of 16
men in a storm while under tow toward South Carolina.
Following the wreck’s discovery in 1973, the underwater site was declared a National Maritime Sanctuary. Acting
on analysis that its iron remains were rapidly deteriorating,
a consortium from the Navy, National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration and the Mariners Museum
salvaged portions of the vessel in 2001 and 2002, including the steam engine, guns and turret. These components
now are being conserved at the Monitor Center at the
Mariners’ Museum at Newport News, Va.
Following the historic Civil War battle, armor penetration has been a topic of interest to all navies. Not
far from the English iron plates lies armor from another nation — Japan. Forged for Yamato-class battleships, the plates feature 16-inch holes from tests conducted after World War II. ;
Source: Dana M. Wegner, “Clash of Iron: Monitor and Virginia,”
U.S. Navy: A Complete History (Naval Historical Foundation,
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical