In 1861 the Union implemented the 'Anaconda Plan' - a naval blockade of all Confederate ports. After Virginia joined the Confederacy in April of that year, the Union burned the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk to prevent it from falling into rebel hands. After the burning, the Confederates did manage to get their hands on three of the scuttled ships. One of them was the steam frigate USS Merrimack.

The Confederates raised up the sunken Merrimack and rebuilt her with a sloped casemate outfitted with two 12-lb howitzers, 14 gunports outfitted with guns from the Merrimack, a submerged bow and stern for buoyancy, a 1500-lb cast iron ram, sides armored with 24" of wood covered by 4" of iron plating cast at Tredegar Iron Works and commissioned her the CSS Virginia.

When Union intelligence learned of the Confederates' impenetrable hulking iron destroyer that sat eerily low in the water, they quickly got to work on a state-of-the-art ironclad of their own. Miraculously built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 100 days, the radical design of the USS Monitor used 40 patentable inventions. She was powered by steam only - no masts or sails. The Monitor was constructed of iron with a deck that was only 18" above the waterline and featured a 9-foot high revolving turret that was 22-feet wide and brandished two 11-inch cannons.

Mariners Museum CSS Virginia Exhibit

The Mariners' Museum features a partial replica of the CSS Virginia and fascinating exhibits describing her design and construction. The original CSS Virginia's ships wheel is on also display as an artifact at the museum.

The Monitor performed well in river battles, but the heavy turret made it difficult to navigate her in ocean waters. So, on March 6, 1862, the Monitor set out for Hampton Roads under tow of the Seth Low to assist in enforcing the blockade. In a portent of her eventual fate, the Monitor foundered twice in rough waters on her way to Fort Monroe. On March 8th the Virginia steamed out of Norfolk to Newport News and attacked two US Navy ships in an effort to break the blockade. The Virginia struck the Cumberland with her iron ram and sank it, then gunned down the Congress in what would remain the bloodiest day in US Naval history until the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Yet, the Virginia was forced to return to shore before accepting surrender when her captain was hit by a musket ball.

The following day, the rebel ironclad set out for another attack, but this time she was met by an odd-looking so-called 'Yankee cheesebox' - the newly commissioned USS Monitor. The 'Battle of the Ironclads' lasted for several hours, yet neither ship was able to penetrate the iron cladding of its opponent. The battle ended in a draw with only dents in the adversaries' iron plating and the CSS Virginia retiring.

Visiting the Hampton Roads Battlefield

Your best bet to tour the Battle of Hampton Roads and find out the eventual fate of the USS Monitor is to visit the Mariners' Museum in Newport News. The Mariners' Museum is home to the USS Monitor Center and shares the history of the Battle of the Ironclads through interactive exhibits, a multi-sensory theater that screens an exciting film about the battle, a partial replica of the CSS Virginia, a full-scale replica of the USS Monitor, both of which you can walk on board, relics of the wreck of the USS Monitor, and exhibits detailing 19th century naval technology and the building of these historic vessels.

Visit Civil War Trust for battle details and information about the preservation of this battlefield.

Pictured at the top: The fixed broadside guns of traditional warships required the ship to be maneuvered into position before firing at the enemy. The Monitor changed all that with a rotating gun turret that allowed the ship to remain stationary while the crew spun the gun towards their opponent. You can walk on board a full-scale replica of the USS Monitor at the Mariners' Museum, and the museum features a rotating gun turret exhibit.

Historical Photos

Mariners Museum CSS Virginia Exhibit

USS Monitor Deck and Turret (Library of Congress)

Mariners Museum CSS Virginia Exhibit

CSS Virginia in Dry Dock (Mariners Museum)