Clash of Iron

4 minute read
Jackson Dykman

THE BATTLE The Virginia had destroyed two Union warships and run a third aground the day before the Monitor arrived. The two ironclads pounded each other at close range for hours before drawing away, never to fight again.

U.S.S. Monitor

Built in just 147 days, the Monitor was a total innovation from bow to stern-including a flush toilet below the waterline.

Except for the turret and pilot house, the Monitor lay almost completely under water, presenting a very small target to enemy guns. Just 18 in. of the raft showed above the waterline.

Lieut. John L. Worden, commanding the Monitor, was wounded when a shot hit the pilot house directly in front of his eyes.

The most revolutionary feature of the Monitor’s design was the revolving turret, which could fire on a target regardless of the position of the ship.

While the two ships were roughly matched in speed, the Monitor was more nimble and was not confined to deeper water, as was the Virginia.

An armored raft made of five layers of 1-in.-thick iron over wood extended well out over the hull, protecting the ship from ramming.

C.S.S. Virginia

The Virginia was born when the sunken remains of the U.S.S. Merrimack were raised, reshaped and covered in iron. Some, especially in the North, still call the ship by its original name.

THE FATE OF THE VIRGINIA In the two months after the battle, the two ships moved warily on opposite sides of Hampton Roads. But what the Union Navy couldn’t do at sea, the army did by land. The Confederates were forced to evacuate the Norfolk area, and the Virginia was trapped. The ship rode too deep to go upriver, and the Union blockade sealed any sea escape. The crew blew up the Virginia on May 11, 1862.

SIZE COMPARISON C.S.S. Virginia U.S.S. Monitor

Length 172 ft. 275 ft. Width 41 ft. 38 ft., 6 in. Draft, loaded 10 ft. 6 in. 22 to 23 ft. Speed 8 knots 9 knots Armament Two 11-in. cannons 10 to 12 total cannons

The Turret

Ericsson obtained dozens of patents for features of the turret alone. It weighed more than 120 tons without the cannons, and was held in place by its sheer weight.

The turret was driven by gears below the floor, and could make 2.5 revolutions a minute. A crew of 17 men and two officers worked the guns in the 20-ft.- diameter space.


The Monitor flipped over as it sank, landing upsidedown 240ft. below the surface. The separated turret protruded slightly from under the hull.

Divers cut away the deteriorated raft and clamped an eight-armed “spider” over the turret. The turret was then placed on a support platform, and the whole assembly was raised.


The turret will be on display in a giant tank at the Mariners’Museum in Newport News, Va., for at least the next decade. That’s how long it will take to slowly remove rust and organic matter encrusting the turret and restore the parts.

The tank is filled with a chemical solution that will begin to remove the salts and organic encrustations from the iron. Electrodes that give off a tiny current may be added to help the process.

Sixteen sailors died when the Monitor sank. Scientists found the human remains in the raised turret, along with a pocketknife, a leather boot and a coat button. They hope to find more artifacts when they clean out the tons of silt that remain in the turret.

Note: The Monitor is shown as it probably apppeared in March 1862. Several exterior modifications were added in the months afterward.

Sources: The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Va.; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; U.S. Navy, Naval Historical Center; U.S.S. Monitor: The Ship that Launched a Modern Navy, by Lieut. Edward M. Miller, USN; Navalships Information Group; The Cambrian Foundation

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