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Ironclads - The Civil War was the End of the Era of Sail

Updated on March 27, 2013

The Battle of Hampton Roads

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Civil War Ironclads Revolutionized Naval Warfare

Think Civil War ironclads and you will probably think about the famous battle between the Union ship, the USS Monitor and the Confederate navy ship the Merrimack. Actually, the Merrimack was a former Union vessel that had been burnt to the waterline. The Southern navy salvaged the hull and rebuilt the ship as the CSS Virginia.

Also known as the Battle of Hampton Roads, the engagement was a seminal event in American history as well as world history. It was the first naval engagement between two of the newer type of naval vessel, the ironclad. The battle was part of the Confederate effort to weaken the Union blockade of Southern ports, a key part of the Union war effort.

On the first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8, 1862, there was only one ironclad present, the CSS Virginia. The Virginia destroyed two union wooden hulled sailing ships, the USS Congress and the USS Cumberland. The Virginia was attempting to bombard a third Union vessel, the USS Minnesota, which had run aground. The sun had set and the tide was running out, so the captain of the Virginia decided to wait until the next morning to attack the Minnesota.

The next morning, as the Virginia approached the grounded Minnesota, the USS Monitor intervened. The two ships spent the next three hours hurling cannon fire at each other, but neither vessel was able to inflict significant damage on the other. The battle ended indecisively. The Virginia returned to her home port at the Gosport Navy Yard, today known as the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth Virginia. The Monitor remained nearby the USS Minnesota to protect her from further attack.

CSS Manassas

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The First Ironclad of the Civil War

Although the Merrimack, or Virginia, became known to American school children, she was not the first southern ironclad to see battle, only the first to engage another ironclad vessel. The CSS Manassas was the first ironclad to see battle in the Civil War at the Battle of the Head of Passes on the Mississippi River, where she successfully engaged Union wooden sailing ships.

The USS Monitor

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The CSS Virginia

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The Revolution in Naval Warfare

Even before the historic Battle of Hampton Roads, naval planners the world over had begun to design and build armored vessels. As explosive devices became more powerful and sophisticated, it became obvious the an armored defense was necessary. The explosive shells of the Crimean war told navy people that the time of the wooden warship was drawing to a close. Gone were the days when a cannon ball was just that, a ball. The newer projectiles would explode on contact, rendering wooden hulled ships obsolete.

France was the first nation to launch an ironclad, with the world's first ironclad battleship, La Gloire, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_battleship_La_Gloire She was launched in November, 1859, less than two years before the start of the American Civil War. The ship was constructed by attaching huge iron plates to her wooden planking. La Gloire, as was common in that day, was powered by both steam and sail.

The term ironclad was abandoned by the end of the nineteenth century because all new military vessels were constructed with iron plating, and the term served no useful purpose as a distinguishing word.

As the Union was completing the construction of the USS Monitor, the Union had already completed the building of seven other ironclads known as City Class gunboats, similar in appearance to the CSS Virginia with their long sloping bulkheads, designed to deflect cannon shells. The Monitor, on the other hand, was a very different design with its waterline hugging hull and rotating gun turret.

The Civil War ironclads, on both sides of the conflict, spelled a new day in the annals of naval warfare.

Copyright © 2013 by Russell F. Moran

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      They were revolutionary for sure. I would have hated serving on one of those....they sat a bit low in the water. :) Good peak an an important battle, Russ.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      An interesting and informative hub on Ironclads - The Civil War was the End of the Era of Sail, informing us on such historical events.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Bill. Not my coup of tea either.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks DDE

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