1862: The Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack

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The Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack occurred on March 9, 1862,. It was the first battle between ironclad warships. The Northern-built Merrimack, a conventional steam frigate, had been salvaged by the Confederates from the Norfolk navy yard. With her upper hull cut away and armored with iron, this 263-foot improvisation that resembled, according to one contemporary source, “a floating barn roof.” The ship had destroyed a fleet of wooden warships off Newport News, Virginia in the days leading up to the battle. The Union ironclad Monitor arrived the night of Marsh 8. This 172-foot “Yankee Cheese Box on a raft,” with its water-level decks and armored revolving gun turret, represented an entirely new concept of naval design. Thus the stage was set for the dramatic naval battle of March 9, with crowds of Union and Confederate supporters watching from the decks of nearby vessels and the shores on either side. They passed back and forth on opposite courses. Both crews lacked training; firing was ineffective. The Monitor could fire only once in seven or eight minutes but was faster and more maneuverable than her larger Confederate opponent. Both ships suffered some damage and retired. Because of the sheer weight of the ship and lack of maneuverability the previous days success of the Merrimac and the battle itself was only possible because of calm weather that allowed for smooth waters. In fact weather reports indicate the sky was clear and sunny with no wind. Even though the battle was inconclusive - it showed the superiority of the iron clad or metal covered ships and the engineering improved rapidly. Historians said that the battle made all navies that existed in the world at the time obsolete, and brought into existence modern naval warfare.

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