Where Did the World’s First Iron Battleships Fight?
The first battle involving “ironclads” was between the Monitor and the Merrimack in March, 1862. The Monitor was built by the Federals in the North during the Civil War. She had a displacement of only 987 tons. Meanwhile, the Confederates in the South also built an ironclad, the C.S.S. Virginia, better known by her former name Merrimack. She had been a wooden frigate, but was burned down to the waterline by enemy action and rebuilt as an ironclad, sheathed in two inches of metal. Her displacement was 4,636 tons.
In 1862 the ships of the North were maintaining a blockade to prevent supplies reaching the South and the opposing vessels met in battle at Hampton Roads off the south-east coast of Virginia. Thousands of people lined the shores to watch the fight as the ships passed on opposite courses, turned and passed again. Both crews lacked training and their shooting was ineffective. The Merrimack had more guns, but was heavy and slow. The Monitor was lightly armed, but much faster.
The battle was indecisive-the Monitor sheared off and the Merrimack returned to the navy yard. On the previous day the Merrimack had achieved spectacular success by ramming and sinking the sailing sloop Cumberland and then destroying the Federal sailing frigate Congress by gunfire. Her prowess convinced the public that the day of the wooden man-of-war was ended.
The Battle of Hampton Roads, often referred to as either the Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack (or Virginia) or the Battle of Ironclads, was the most noted and arguably most important naval battle of the American Civil War from the standpoint of the development of navies.
It was fought over two days, March 8–9, 1862, in Hampton Roads, a roadstead in Virginia where the Elizabeth and Nansemond rivers meet the James River just before it enters Chesapeake Bay adjacent to the city of Norfolk. The battle was a part of the effort of the Confederacy to break the Union blockade, which had cut off Virginia’s largest cities, Norfolk and Richmond, from international trade.
The first ironclad, or armored warship, had been completed in France in 1858. Next year the British Admiralty ordered two ironclads, the Warrior and the Black Prince, completed in October 1861 and September 1862 respectively, they each displaced 9,210 tons, could attain a speed of 14 knots and had a complement of 707 officers and men. These two ships, with the French Gloire and Couronne, were the first battleships, although the name was not then applied to them.