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Monitor and Merrimack: 1861 -1862

During the winter of 1861-2 newspapers in both Union and Confederate states are full of the race to construct an ironclad. The Confederacy has decided in 1861 that it needs ships of this armoured kind, recently introduced in the navies of France and Britain, to break the blockade of its ports ordered by President Lincoln. The Union, not to be outdone, sets about equipping its navy with similar vessels.

But if the race is exciting, the first encounter in history between two metal warships proves even more dramatic.

The Confederate navy decides to adapt an existing hulk rather than start afresh. They use the remains of a steam-and-sail frigate, the Merrimack, scuttled by Union forces abandoning the Norfolk naval base in Virginia in April 1861.

The Confederates raise her in May and discover that only her upper decks have been severely damaged. The steam engine is in place and can be restored. Deciding that she can become the first Confederate ironclad, they rename her the Virginia (though she remains better known in history as the Merrimack, particularly in relation to her encounter with the Monitor).

The Confederate engineers cut the Virginia down close to the waterline. On top of her wooden hull they place a low but massive superstructure, shaped like a metal tent with its sides projecting two feet below the waterline. The sides of this tent consist of three layers: on the inside are 20 inches of solid pine; then 4 inches of oak; and on top of that 2 inches of iron plate. As in any previous man-of-war, cannon peep through these mighty walls.

To complete the armoury of what seems the ultimate naval fighting machine, the Confederates borrow a detail from ancient Roman warships. From the bows of the Virginia a vicious metal ram projects below the water line.

On her first outing, on 8 March 1862, the Virginia more than fulfils the wildest hopes of her designers. She steams calmly towards two Union sailing ships anchored in the mouth of the James river to enforce the blockade. While their cannon balls bounce harmlessly off her massive carapace, the Virginia blasts one of them with her guns and slides past to ram the other. Both are destroyed. The news is received with jubilation on the Confederate side. Clearly the blockade is smashed. Similar damage to other Union ships is planned for the following day.

But during this same day the Union's answer has been completing her journey from New York. Pulled by a tug, the Monitor arrives on the scene during the night of March 8.

The Monitor, designed from the start as an armoured gunship, is much smaller than the Victoria but looks equally odd. Where the Victoria has a metal tent on a low flat hull, the Monitor has what looks like a cake tin. It is a revolving turret with two 11 inch guns.

On March 9 the shores are lined with people, and every available pleasure boat puts to sea, to watch the Virginia in action again. Those who know of the arrival of the Monitor expect also a mighty clash between the Union's little David and the Confederate Goliath.

The two ironclads tussle all morning, as if in slow motion (they take much time turning and reloading), but the result is stalemate. Their armour is too strong for the guns they are carrying. But their encounter enters naval history as the first clash of ironclads, a foretaste of the days of battleships and dreadnoughts.

The Virginia is destroyed by the Confederates when they abandon Norfolk in May 1862. But the Monitor proves to be the first in a long line of similar small gunships. Her swivelling turret becomes a standard feature of naval warfare.

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