A Revolution In Naval Warfare

History so often vitally depends upon which side wins a battle. A key victory at the right moment can alter all that follows. Of course, some glorious victories, such as that of Henry V’s English longbowmen over the flower of French Chivalry at Aigincourt, or John Churchill’s “famous victory” at Blenheim apparently accomplish nothing more, in the long run, than ending the lives of countless soldiers. But, oddly enough, sometimes a great contest can culminate without a clear winner at all, yet radically alter the course of history all the same.

On 9 March 1862, what is arguably the single most important naval battle of the American Civil War ended in a draw at Hampton Roads, Virginia. The Confederate ironclad warship CSS Virginia and the Union ironclad USS Monitor had engaged one another for more than 3 hours without result. CSS Virginia is better known as Merrimac, confusingly, because Virginia had been built on the reclaimed hull of a Union ship. Thus, this battle is generally referred to as the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac.

The two ironclads used steam power alone. Previous steam-powered warships retained traditional sails, as did the very first ironclad, France’s La Gloire of 1859, but the radical designs of Virginia and Monitor precluded such a scheme. Both vessels were heavily armed with powerful guns. Virginia was fitted with traditional broadside ranks, but Monitor had a remarkable, revolutionary revolving turret. Both were heavily armored with iron plates that rendered the most powerful shots harmless. With neither ship able to inflict meaningful damage upon the other in the course of their contest, both withdrew to regroup and repair after the grueling fight.

Both sides claimed victory at the time, but the action has long been considered a draw. The meeting of the two untested, state-of-the-art warships was the truly crucial aspect of the engagement, and the result was undeniably a tie. It is certainly true that on the morning of March 8 the Confederates inflicted great damage to the Union blockade fleet which was bottling up the state of Virginia’s trade. CSS Virginia sank two traditional wooden Union warships and forced a third to run aground. Virginia was initially able to attack at will and with impunity, so the Union losses were about 261 killed to 7 Confederates. This would ordinarily count as a significant tactical victory for Virginia, except that she failed utterly in her mission to lift the Union blockade. The timely arrival of USS Monitor prevented Virginia from inflicting any more damage upon the Union blockade fleet and turned the battle into a contest between the ironclads.

Though the epic clash of the ironclads was inconclusive from a tactical and strategic point of view, it was nevertheless a dramatic turning point in the history of naval warfare. Until 9 March 1862, ironclad warships were an untried experiment, and most tradition-minded naval brass around the world viewed them as novelties. Though France and England had built a small number of ironclads between 1859 and 1862, both navies relied upon and were still bulding traditional wooden-hulled ships. But the news of the battle at Hampton Roads changed everything immediately and irrevocably.

The United States Navy commenced commissioning an entire fleet based upon the design of USS Monitor. The Confederacy could not match the Union’s industrial might, and never again seriously challenged the Union navy. Within days of news of the battle reaching England and France, both country’s navies put an immediate halt to all construction of wooden ships. Other major navies followed suit. Russia ordered the construction of ten “monitors” and newly formed Kingdom of Italy a like number. By year’s end of 1862, ironclads had been added to every major fleet in the Western world, or were under construction. By 1866, in the largest fleet action the world had witnessed in almost 40 years, the Italians and Austrians fought at the battle of Lissa where 7 Austrian ironclads decisively defeated 12 Italian ironclads. The age of sail had effectively ended for naval warfare.

The new iron and steel navies which ran on coal-burning steam engines changed the very nature of global geo-politics. In the age of sail, ships needed little more than periodic replenishment of food and water for the crew, even on extended voyages. And these needs could be met at most any port of call, or even in wilderness. But steam ships required coal, and lots of it. A coal burning ship was limited by her supply line. Suddenly, small and otherwise uninteresting islands became potential strategic resources as coal depots. A scramble for island empires began, and by the end of the century, the majority of oceanic islands across the globe had been claimed by one of the Western powers. Even islands that had previously been independent nations were caught up in this race for coaling stations. In a very real way, the independence of the Kingdom of Hawaii was doomed on 9 March 1862.

The inconclusive battle between CSS Virginia and USS Monitor seemed to have accomplished nothing very meaningful at the time, yet everything that followed was changed by the very fact that it was fought. That no clear victor emerged was, ultimately, unimportant. Wooden ships and sails had been a mainstay of navies for more than 2,500 years; quite literally overnight, they were rendered obsolete. It is perhaps fitting, that the United States Navy christened its first ironclad “Monitor,” which is Latin for “One Who Warns.”

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

There was never a good war, or a bad peace. — Franklin

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