In the Civil War the Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack, also called Battle of Hampton Roads, took place on March 9, 1862 at Hampton Roads, Virginia, a harbor at the mouth of the James River. It was notable as history’s first duel between ironclad warships and the beginning of a new era of naval warfare.
The Northern-built Merrimack, a conventional steam frigate, had been salvaged by the Confederates from the Norfolk navy yard and rechristened the Virginia. With her upper hull cut away and armored with iron, this 263-foot vessel resembled, according to one contemporary source, “a floating barn roof.”
Supported by several other Confederate vessels, the Virginia (Merrimack) virtually decimated a Union fleet of wooden warships off Newport News, Virginia, on March 8th. The Union ironclad Monitor arrived the same night. This 172-foot “cheese box on a raft,” with its water-level decks and armored revolving gun turret, represented an entirely new concept of naval design.
Thus the stage was set for the dramatic naval battle of March 9, with crowds of Union and Confederate supporters watching from the decks of nearby vessels and the shores on either side.
Soon after 8:00 am the Virginia (Merrimack) opened fire on the Minnesota, and the Monitor appeared. They passed back and forth on opposite courses.
Both crews lacked training and firing was ineffective. The Monitor could fire only once in seven or eight minutes but was faster and more maneuverable than her larger opponent.
After additional action and reloading, the Monitor’s pilothouse was hit, driving iron splinters into Captain’s eyes. The ship sheered into shallow water, and the Virginia (Merrimack), concluding that the enemy was disabled, turned again to attack the Minnesota. But her officers reported low ammunition, a leak in the bow, and difficulty in keeping up steam. At about 12:30 pm the ship headed for its navy yard and the battle was over.
The Monitor provided gun support on the James River for George B. McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. By December 1862, it was clear the Monitor was no longer needed in Virginia, so she was sent to Beaufort, North Carolina, to join a fleet being assembled for an attack on Charleston, South Carolina.
While the Monitor served well in the sheltered waters of Chesapeake Bay, it was heavy and low-slung making it a poor craft for the open sea. The Monitor was towed around the rough waters of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The Cape is a treacherous time for any ship so the decision seems questionable.
As it was being towed the caulking around the gun turret loosened and water began to leak into the hull. More leaks followed. High seas tossed the craft, causing the ship’s flat bottom to slap the water with each roll opening more seams, and by nightfall on December 30, the Monitor was in dire straits.
The Monitor’s commander, J.P. Bankhead, signaled the towing vessel that he wished to abandon ship. The towing vessel, a wooden side-wheeler, pulled as close as safety allowed and two lifeboats were lowered to retrieve the crew.
Some fell into the sea and died and some remained aboard the ship when it sank. About 50 men were rescued, but some men were terrified to venture onto the deck in such rough seas. The ironclad’s pumps stopped working and it sank before 16 men could be rescued.
The wreck was discovered in 1973 and designated the first national marine sanctuary in 1975.
In August 2002, the rusty iron gun turret of the USS Monitor reemerged from the Atlantic Ocean, concluding a series of large-scale expeditions to the ship’s wreck site. Recovery workers found a pair of skeletons inside, the remains of two of the 16 Union soldiers. The remains found in the turret probably belonged to two crew members trying to abandon the ship before it sank.
To date, none of the other missing crew members have been found. In addition to the two skeletons the tattered remnants of their uniforms were discovered and a rubber comb was found by one of the remains, a ring was on a finger of the other. Also found was a pair of shoes, buttons and a silver spoon.
As part of a project taking ten years, facial reconstructions were done by experts at Louisiana State University, using the skulls of the two full skeletal remains found in the turret, after other scientific detective work failed to identify them. DNA testing, based on samples from their teeth and leg bones, did not find a match with any living descendants of the ship's crew or their families.
The identity of the two dead men is unknown, but one was between 17 and 24 years old, the other likely in his 30s. They were Caucasian, so neither was among the three African-Americans who served on the Monitor's crew.
An examination of medical and Navy records narrowed possibilities to six people. The older man is one of two possible crew members, while there are as many as four possible matches for the younger one.
Genealogist Lisa Stansbury couldn't make a positive match, but she believes the older sailor to be the ship's fireman who tended the coal-fired steam engine. His name was Robert Williams.