The Smithsonian
Slavery & Abolition
Abraham Lincoln
First Blood
Life & Culture
Winslow Homer
Mathew Brady
Site Index





The First Naval Conflict Between Ironclad Vessels

When the Confederate government decided to build an ironclad, it resurrected the sunken USS Merrimack, cut it down to its berth deck, added a sloped roof of pitch-pine and oak twenty-four inches thick, and covered it with four inches of iron plate. The finished product, rechristened the CSS Virginia, reminded some of a huge turtle and others of a steel coffin. Meanwhile, on the federal drawing board, John Ericsson was designing an ironclad vessel with a tabletop deck and a round center turret, which one officer described as “the image of nothing in heaven above, or the earth beneath, or the water under the earth.”

On March 9, 1862, these two vessels clashed in combat at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Although the four-hour engagement ended in a draw, it ushered in a new era in naval warfare. The success of the Merrimack in sinking part of the federal fleet and the arrival of the Monitor, which saved the rest, demonstrated the vast superiority of iron over wood in ship construction.

Charles Parsons (1821–1910) for the Endicott lithography company after a photograph by Mathew Brady
Lithograph with tintstones, 1862
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


Home SI