The Mighty Cheesebox

USS Monitor

The clash of ironclads at Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862 was a minor stalemate in the Civil War, but as far as sailors and engineers were concerned, it was the start of something huge.

CSS Virginia was looking for a fight in Virginian waters on that infamous day. Her Confederate designers had created a monster that could deflect projectiles and sink anything made of sail and wood. The ship was armed to the teeth. A metal citadel on the deck could shrug off gunfire. Virginia‘s guns worked in concert with a bow-mounted ram that was ideal for crushing ships.  The modified raider made short work of two Union vessels and claimed 240 sailors. (An interesting parallel:  the fictitious Abraham Lincoln was attacked by Nemo’s revolutionary Nautilus in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”)

The ironclad came across the frigate Minnesota at Hampton Roads, and would have succeeded in sinking the target, until she ran into the equally peculiar USS Monitor. The metal warships certainly stood out in a crowd. If Virginia looked like an iron chapel, Monitor looked like a cheesebox. There was nothing conventional in the design by Swedish inventor John Ericsson: low freeboard, pilothouse at the bow, and a circular, revolving turret. It was like comparing the Wright flier to an F-22 Raptor. An exchange of gunfire at Hampton Roads failed to sink either warship–proving the importance of armor. Virginia retreated for repairs while Monitor stayed to guard the Minnesota.

The first brawl between ironclads signaled a period of innovative naval construction: enhanced engines, propellers, heavier guns, and armor. Soon every navy in the world tried to replace their traditional ships with beasts of iron. Conflict and bureaucracy would impede some of these developments, but naval history was shifted into overdrive because of the ironclads.


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