Battle of Hampton Roads: Map, Significance & Summary

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
The Battle of Hampton Roads was an inconclusive naval fight that took place on March 9, 1862, off the coast of Virginia, between the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor. Learn about this battle and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Introduction

For a war that took place primarily on land, the American Civil War did have its fair share of naval battles. Of all the fights that took place on the water, by far, the most famous and perhaps most important was the Battle of Hampton Roads.

At the start of the American Civil War, part of the Union strategy for subduing the Confederacy was to stage a vast blockade of all Southern ports. This was one feature of General Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan, which called for strangling the South like an Anaconda would do to its prey. In late April 1861, orders for the blockade went into effect.

The Ironclads

The Civil War was occurring at a time of great technological development, especially in the tools of war. Rifled muskets and cannons meant that projectiles could be shot further, faster, and more accurately than ever before. These innovations were not for land armies alone. On the water, new technology led to the creation of ironclad warships, precursors to the battleships of the 20th century. These ships featured iron-plated sides and ran on steam power, differentiating them from traditional naval ships of that period.

Both Union and Confederate forces had these ironclad ships in early 1862. The first Confederate ironclad was officially known as the CSS Virginia, but was also commonly referred to as the Merrimack, because it had been rebuilt out of the captured USS Merrimack ship. The premier Union ironclad in early 1862 was the USS Monitor. Whereas a significant portion of the Virginia was above water, the Monitor featured one lone turret with most of the rest of the ship flat and close to the water's surface. The Monitor was completed around the same time as the Virginia.

USS Monitor
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Battle of Hampton Roads

Once these ships were unleashed into the waters to begin fighting, they forever changed naval warfare. The CSS Virginia struck first blood. On March 8, 1862, near Newport News, Virginia, the CSS Virginia attacked the USS Cumberland. The Virginia, in addition to its artillery pieces, featured a ram that weighed 1,500 lbs. Using this ram, the Virginia plowed into the Cumberland, ripping open the ship's hull and dooming it to the bottom of the sea. Following the destruction of the Cumberland, the Virginia set its sights on the USS Congress. Rather than face this new warship, the Congress ran aground. The Virginia was still able to set fire to the Congress through its artillery, though, forcing the ship's surrender in the end. The Virginia's commander, Franklin Buchanan, was wounded during combat that day and, thus, Lt. Catesby ap Roger Jones took command of the ship.

With the Virginia wreaking havoc among the Union fleet, the USS Monitor was sent after it. On March 9, the two ironclads would square off in a historic fight. On that day, as the Virginia was preparing to attack the USS Minnesota, the Monitor made its move and the Battle of Hampton Roads was fought off the Atlantic coast near Hampton Roads, Virginia.

A dramatized depiction of the Battle of Hampton Roads
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