Monitor and Merrimack

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Monitor and Merrimack,

two American warships that fought the first engagement between ironclad ships. When, at the beginning of the Civil War, the Union forces abandoned the Norfolk Navy Yard at Portsmouth, Va., they scuttled the powerful steam frigate Merrimack. She was subsequently raised by the Confederates, converted into an ironclad, and renamed the Virginia. On Mar. 8, 1862, the Virginia, commanded by Capt. Franklin BuchananBuchanan, Franklin
, 1800–1874, American naval officer, b. Baltimore. Appointed a midshipman in 1815, Buchanan rose to be a commander in 1841. He was chief adviser to Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft in planning the U.S.
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, sallied forth into Hampton Roads against the wooden ships of the Union blockading squadron. She rammed and sank the Cumberland, destroyed the Congress after running her aground, and scattered the remaining ships, all the while sustaining practically no damage to herself.

The next day, however, the Virginia, now under command of Lt. Catesby Jones, was challenged by the strange-looking Union ironclad Monitor (see monitormonitor,
type of turreted warship (no longer used) carrying heavy guns, having little draft, and lying low in the water. Monitors were so called from the first of the class, the Monitor, built for the Union navy in the U.S. Civil War by John Ericsson. Launched in Jan.
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), built by John EricssonEricsson, John
, 1803–89, Swedish-American inventor and marine engineer, b. Värmlands co., Sweden. He moved to London in 1826, and entered the railroad locomotive Novelty in a contest in 1829, only to be defeated by George Stephenson's Rocket.
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 and commanded by Lt. John L. WordenWorden, John Lorimer
, 1818–97, American naval officer, b. Westchester co., N.Y. Appointed midshipman in 1834, he saw varied service before the Civil War. Worden was captured (Apr., 1861) by the Confederates and held prisoner for seven months.
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. The Monitor had just reached Hampton Roads after a precarious voyage from New York City. The ships engaged in a four-hour close-range duel, which resulted in a draw. This combat between two ironclad warships marked a revolution in naval warfare.

In April the Virginia, under Capt. Josiah Tattnall, again challenged the Monitor, but the Union ship declined combat. When General McClellan's advance in the Peninsular campaign forced the Confederates to abandon Norfolk, Tattnall, unable to lighten the Virginia sufficiently for passage up the James River, destroyed her (May, 1862). The Monitor foundered and sank in heavy seas off Cape Hatteras in Dec., 1862.

In 1973 scientists discovered the intact wreck of the Monitor, and the site was subsequently protected by the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. The steam engine and turret of the Monitor were recovered in 2002 for display with other artifacts at the Mariner's Museum, Newport News, Va.


See R. M. McCordock, The Yankee Cheese Box (1938); H. A. Trexler, The Confederate Ironclad "Virginia" (1938); R. W. Daly, How the Merrimac Won (1957); W. C. White and R. White, Tin Can on a Shingle (1957); W. C. Davis, Duel between the First Ironclads (1981); J. T. deKay, Monitor (1997); D. A. Mindell, Iron Coffin: War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor (upd. ed., 2012).

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